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Road to Recovery, Road to Peace

Handshaking at the barrier
Amatzia Dayan from Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, who for many years was a volunteer driver

Once or twice a week, Amatzia Dayan from Kibbutz Ein Hashofet drives in the early morning hours through the security border crossing near Magen Shaul to pick up Palestinian children and their families from Jenin and ferry them to Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The ill kids may be suffering from cancer, leukemia or another life-threatening illness, but these two brothers, aged 14 and 15, waiting in the pre-dawn light with their father, Norman, have thalassemia, a genetic mutation affecting the production of hemoglobin that is common among Palestinians.

"Two out of six of my children have thalassemia, as well as one of my cousins and an uncle. I would guess that about 300 children in the Jenin area suffer from it." Norman explains: "Since there are no dialysis machines in Jenin, we have to travel to Rambam Hospital several times a month, and the only way to do this is with the help of Israeli drivers."

Palestinians with serious health conditions must obtain special permits to receive treatment in Israel, however they are not allowed to drive their own vehicles past the checkpoints. A taxi, which would cost at least $100 isn't a viable option for most. Instead, over 500 drivers from all over Israel volunteer through the organization, Road to Recovery, meet Palestinians at the check points and drive them to the hospitals in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. Being a passenger in an automobile with Israeli license plates and an Israeli driver helps minimize the transit time through the check-post. What could take several hours might be reduced to ten or fifteen minutes.

A preponderance of children assisted through Road to Recovery suffer from the blood disease thalassemia, particularly clustered in Mediterranean communities – Turkey, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, Cyprus and Crete, and Arabs of Palestinian descent. Husni Bashir, who heads the Thalassemia Unit at Jenin Hospital, explained that, "Some 3.5 to 4 percent of the Palestinian population are carriers of the thalassemia gene. If the total Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza is 4 million, there are some 100,000 thalassemia carriers."

Similar to sickle-cell anemia, thalassemia is prevalent in humid climates where malaria was once endemic. The thalassemia trait confers a degree of protection against malaria, thus a selective survival advantage that perpetuates the genetic mutation. Thalassemia causes the formation of abnormal hemoglobin molecules, which is normally composed of four protein chains, two α and two β globin chains. In thalassemia, patients have defects in either the α or β globin chain, hence there are two variants of the disease. The beta form prevails along the Mediterranean and this geographical association is responsible for its name: Thallass being the Greek word for sea; neama meaning blood.

If both parents -- more likely in isolated or island populations -- carry a hemoglobinopathy trait there is a 25% risk that a child will be affected. From either the disease itself or the frequent blood transfusions, excessive deposits of iron accumulate in the body, which damage the heart, liver, and endocrine system. An overtaxed spleen can become enlarged necessitating its removal. Anemia can cause a child's growth to slow and delayed puberty. Thalassemia can cause the bone marrow to expand, which can result in abnormal and brittle bone structure, especially in the face and skull.

Without regular blood transfusions at least every three months and adequate iron chelation therapy to remove excess iron, most patients with beta-thalassemia would prematurely die. Neither of those two treatments are available in Gaza and the West Bank, hence help is required from Israeli drivers organized through Road for Recovery.

Road to Recovery was started by Yuval Rot, member of Kibbutz Magan Michael. In 1994, Yuval's brother Udi was kidnapped and killed in Gaza by Hamas, and he decided to do something positive with his grief.

Roth joined the group called Parents Circle - Families Forum, Israelis and Palestinians with loved ones killed in wars and terrorism, and befriended many Palestinians, many whom shared with him the common need of transportation access to Israeli health-care facilities.

"Then one day, a man in the forum from Jenin called and told me his brother might have a brain tumor. He had an appointment at Rambam but no way to go," Roth explained. "He asked if I could drive him, and I agreed."

When other Palestinians asked for assistance, an eventually overwhelmed Yuval recruited friends to help drive children. Within several years Road to Recovery came together as an "act of reconciliation instead of revenge." Since 2006, Roth and his team of some 500 volunteers, many of them pensioners like Amatzia Dayan, have been giving Palestinians a lifeline.

"I used to drive all the way into the West Bank to pick up or drop off the children," Amatzia explained, "but was urged by friends that Jenin was too dangerous. Now I only meet them at the border crossing." To date, Road to Recovery has assisted over 450 Palestinian families, making more than 2500 hospital trips.

There is increased hope for thalassemia sufferers. After Cyprus implemented a screening policy in the 1970s -- which included pre-natal screening and abortions, the number of children born with thalassemia has been reduced from 1 out of every 158 births to almost zero. The Ministry of Health of the Palestinian Authority now requires couples to be married to take the blood test.

And in the 1980's, Italian Guido Lucarelli developed a cure with a Bone Marrow Transplant from a compatible donor. In low-risk patients, the thalassemia-free survival rate is 87%; the mortality risk is 3%. The best results are in young patients.

"Both my sons are among the lucky ones," explains Norman. "Another brother donated bone- marrow and my two sons had transplants in Rome, where they had to live for a year, paid for by the Italian government. Some 40-50 children have undergone the treatment, but it's very expensive and the waiting list is long."

Meanwhile, Road to Recovery continues to help these young patients. Another volunteer, Israeli-born Rachel who now lives in Los Angeles said she wanted to participate in a humanitarian peace cause, and through a friend heard about Road to Recovery. "After speaking with Yuval and his attempt to promote trust from the ground up on a personal level, I knew it would suit me well," Rachel explains. "I now help fundraising in the United States and when I'm visiting Israel participate in driving children." Currently Rachel is working on establishing Road to Recovery on the crowd-funding site Global Giving, which will allow donations to receive tax-deduction status.

Road to Recovery believes that peace among Israelis and Palestinians can only come about through engagement and personal involvement, placing humanity before politics. The deep-seated barriers of distrust existing between Palestinians and Israelis only serve to perpetuate the conflict, and the volunteers seek to break down these obstacles, one drive at a time. 



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Wednesday, 17 July 2024

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