Australian physio-therapist, Katrina Byrne, undertook a volunteer placement in the Gaza strip through Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA in April 2011. Katrina was placed at the El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital. Soon after starting her placement, Katrina sent us this blog reflecting on her time in Gaza.
Waiting, watching and warm caffeinated beverages – that’s Palestine in a nutshell. Whether waiting at check-points, for buses to fill up and begin their journey, or for a procession of singing Chinese Christians to pass, patience is a much needed skill here in Palestine. Luckily, whenever you stand still for more than a minute, the hospitality of Palestinians demands a cup of tea or coffee. The aroma of tea with fresh mint draws many a tourist into a souvenir shop! And watching? There is so much to see here and a lot which is shocking in its difference to the Australian situation. Soldiers with huge uzis stand in the street with their fingers on the trigger – just their training so I’m told!
The West Bank of the Palestinian Territories is a beautiful place, full of olive trees sweeping down steep mountain-sides and the large dusty plains of the Jordan Valley. It’s such a shame that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) continues to occupy large swathes of it, preventing traditional Palestinian farming and nomadic Bedouin tribes. After a frustrating wait of almost a week in the West Bank my permit to enter Gaza was finally approved and I headed down to the Gaza Strip from Jerusalem.
The crossing itself is a needlessly time-consuming process, taking far longer than simple security checks would necessitate. A maze of doors, remotely operated by faceless security forces, leads finally out into a covered walkway more than a kilometre long.
Crossing the border at Erez Terminal and heading down the “long walk” into Gaza, felt like leaving the stability of the developed western world, and entering the uncertainty and poverty of the global south. Roads in desperate need of repair, homes still damaged by previous Israeli incursions and donkeys pulling carts in the street. None of the gorgeous rocky mountains of the rest of Palestine are visible – here they are all heavily built upon in the quest to house ever more people in this crowded strip of land.
Measuring 50km by 9km, the Gaza Strip is home to almost 1.8 million people and some people have lived their entire lives within these confines. There is not a single spot in the 360 square kilometres not touched by human habitation. Except, that is, for the 1-2km “buffer zone” imposed by the IDF for “security”. Much like the security wall in the West Bank, this buffer zone takes in even more prime agricultural land and diminishes the ability of Palestinian people to feed themselves and participate in agricultural trade.
Despite my lack of Arabic skills I’ve been meeting lots of Gazans, and refugees (some from ’48 and others from ’67) here in Gaza. People have been so welcoming and colleagues have generously hosted me for dinner in their houses. Mohammed’s family lives in Jabalia camp, and came to Gaza from Ashquelon in 1948. He has lived almost his entire life within Gaza, leaving only once to complete a couple of months training in Greece.
All of the physiotherapists here at the El Wafa Hospital were trained at universities in Gaza. Study permits are notoriously difficult to obtain, not to mention the expense of living abroad and the social isolation caused by restricted movements in and out of the Strip. This has been a major impediment to the progression of the physiotherapy profession. Without regular updates and professional conferences, it is difficult for professors and therapists alike to stay abreast of new developments in the field. I admire their persistence in seeking and continuing their education under such difficult circumstances.
El Wafa Hospital is very well equipped considering the difficulty in transporting equipment over the border into Gaza – they even have a gait re-training machine from Germany. The hydrotherapy facilities are housed in the new six-storey building and are far beyond anything I had expected. The 15m by 3m heated pool is perfect for conducting therapy and the therapists here are keen to learn. In addition, there is a small circular whirlpool (3m diameter) and metal immersion baths for limb isolation.
The pool is not currently utilised for hydrotherapy, just for public swimming sessions. During my stay I hope to introduce the therapists here to the basic theories and principles of hydrotherapy and work with them to develop guidelines for practise here at El Wafa. We will have a series of workshops supported by extensive practical sessions in the pool. Rather than focusing on treating patients while I’m here, we will concentrate on skills exchange. This is also important as I’m not a registered practitioner here in Gaza!
What the health professionals of Gaza need more than new equipment is access to skills updates and post-graduate study. The teaching base needs a real boost of experienced personnel, and until Gazans are able to travel freely in and out of their territories the NGO sector remains the main avenue for these improvements. If APHEDA can continue the Medical Exchange Programs it will provide a much needed boost for the patients of El Wafa, with flow-on effects to the rest of Gaza. The staff of the physiotherapy department here are already planning their own workshops and skill-shares with colleagues at other hospitals.
Unlike Australian facilities, El Wafa’s are sex-segregated. This has the positive effect of encouraging a lot of professional development for female doctors, therapists and nurses. It also means that practical sessions will have to be run twice a day: once for the female therapists and once for the male. Luckily the wonderful Ahiida has helped us by donating some ‘Burqinis’, which will allow me to work with the male therapists in the water.
Conveniently I’ll be staying at the hospital, which means I won’t need to get up too early in the morning despite the work day starting at 8am. I’m slowly adjusting my digestive clock, as breakfast here isn’t until 10.30am! This is followed by a big lunch at 2pm (the end of the work day) and a light supper sometime in the evening (anywhere from 7pm til 10pm!). And despite eating felafel every day, I’m still loving it.
Last night, my first in Gaza, I was woken at midnight by a huge explosion that rattled my window. In a panic I grabbed my jacket (which being paranoid contained my passport, some cash and mobile phone), and raced upstairs to the nurses station. I was ready for mass evacuation, wheeling patients to somewhere safe and getting everyone away from windows, but I was greeted with a group of 8 smiling nurses drinking tea! They thought my hysteria hilarious, and calmed me with their assurances of normality. A second explosion 15 minutes later made me jump, but again I was assured it was perfectly safe.
As I returned to bed at 12.30am my mind was racing, my heart rate still elevated and my ears strained to hear even the slightest hint of an IDF invasion. For hours I drifted in and out of sleep, frequently being woken by the sound of drones in the sky. It’s strange to think that this could become normal, that one can become accustomed to sleeping through explosions and fighter jets.
It seems as though the conflict is only going to escalate, as neither side seems able to stop their rockets first. One thing is for sure – the IDF attacks are far more accurate and deadly than those from rogue Palestinian militants. At least seven Palestinians have been killed thus far, and I fear more will perish before the end of the week.
For now I am hoping that someone with the ability to make peace can stop this immediate spate of violence, and work towards ending the siege of Gaza and liberating Palestine from occupation.
Australian physio-therapist, Katrina Byrne, undertook a volunteer placement in the Gaza strip through Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA in April 2011. Katrina was placed at the El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital. Soon after starting her placement, Katrina sent us this blog reflecting her thoughts, feelings and experiences as a volunteer in Gaza.
Views expressed on this website are those of the blog author(s) and may not necessarily be those of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA.