Aidex: the Global Humanitarian and Development Aid Event

PrintOn 13 – 14 November the biggest annual global Humanitarian and Development Aid event of Europe took place in Brussels and the European Sting, as the European media that follows closely the most important events at the Old Continent, was official media sponsor. During those two days at Brussels Expo exhibitors from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection of the European Commission (ECHO) presented to visitors the latest information and technologies for humanitarian and development aid.

At the end of the first day of AIDEX, the organiser announced the winner of the prestigious “Huanitarian Hero of the Year” award. The winner was the Palestinian paediatrician, Dr Jumana Odeh, a woman that has devoted her life to provide aid to children with special needs worldwide. Mrs Odeh is the Director of the Palestinian Happy Child Center (PHCC), an NGO that provides for the well-being of children with intellectual disabilities.  Dr. Odeh has provided comprehensive services to approximately 38,000 children and families in Palestine over the past 20 years. She recently persuaded the Palestinian Ministry of Health to launch a country-wide program for the early detection of childhood disorders, including autism. The other nominees of the award were Mr Scott Beale, head and founder of Atlas Corps, Floris de Vos, Managing Director of Foundation ‘Holland Water Goes Africa’  and Tania Palmer, Co-Founder and Director of the Green Gecko Project.

Jumana Odeh

The European Sting had the pleasure to discuss with Dr Odeh right after the announcement of her win of the Humanitarian Hero of the Year award in an exclusive interview that follows here. From now on the Sting’s questions will be signaled as S and Mrs Odeh’s answers as J.O.

S: What does it mean to you as a professional and as a person the fact that you won the Humanitarian Hero Award at Aidex?

J.O.: Winning this award means that Palestine has won. For a Palestinian woman, a refugee, a mother and a doctor, to become the “Humanitarian Hero of the Year”, symbolically means a lot. To work under very difficult circumstances, under military occupation, and to serve the most underserved children and succeed in getting such recognition by itself is a real victory for each and every Palestinian, Arab and believers in humanitarian justice worldwide.

It’s also a great achievement for the children of the world, since it will highlight the needs of this underserved group.

It should be the start for more efforts in supporting the rights of people with special needs worldwide. It encourages me to continue with the direction I chose and to take advantage of this success by securing the work of these children and their families by persevering and producing high-quality work with them.

S: What inspired you to become a paediatrician in the first place?

J.O.: As a child we lived near a refugee camp and when it rained in winter, the camp flood. One night I insisted to go with my father to help. It was cold and I will never forget what I saw, or heard.  It was appalling to see and hear children screaming for help. I still feel the pain and the suffering of those children. Since then, I started volunteering at a very young age, and I was always ready to help.

I was the first to respond to any cry for help, at home, at school or in the street. I was courageous; I didn’t fear blood or danger. My parents encouraged me and gave me the love and the values. They helped me by choosing good books to read and to learn, and supported me when I decided to become a doctor. I then chose to be a child doctor.

S: We notice that you founded the Palestinian Happy Child Center right after the end of the first Intifada. Our readers would like to know how was it to move forward with an initiative like this at that point? Could you briefly describe the political and economic situation and the challenges you had to overcome back then in order to open your Child Center?

J.O.: It was and continues to be an enormous challenge to live, work and to survive under military occupation. Even more challenging to keep up with your spirit and psychological well – being!  The needs were great and the burden became obvious.

Although we registered first in Jerusalem and were able to reach Gaza and move around the West Bank and Jerusalem at the time, later it became more and more difficult to move around and to reach the most needed. We always had alternative plans and were ready for the worse. We were creative in finding solutions and always there was a space for happy moments and satisfaction.

Poverty, restriction on movement, check points and lack of resources are challenges we face all the time. However my ambition has no borders and I do not believe in “the impossible”. There is always a way!

S: Caring for children with Special needs is a very challenging profession even in the most developed European country. Unfortunately, even today, many European member states are not organized well enough to provide for people and children with Special needs, especially to the extent of integrating those people in employment, education and society in general. Could you describe to our readers how different the situation for children with special needs is in Ramallah?

J.O.: The presence of the Israeli Occupation is the greatest challenge facing the health sector. To work under occupation and with limited resources is a great achievement in itself.

“Disability” is still considered a taboo in our society and it is difficult to change the attitudes about disability. It’s also challenging to encourage people to accept and care for children with special needs.

PHCC was established to meet the needs of those children. It is a community-based non-governmental organization operated by a group of dedicated professionals and volunteers. The mission of the PHCC is “to promote the welfare and wellbeing of Palestinian children”. PHCC’s multidisciplinary and holistic approach to child health, education and child development strives to shape the lives of Palestinian children and adolescents through the promotion and protection of child rights, by raising parental and community awareness and by mobilizing the community to ensure that children develop to their fullest potential.

S: Do you think that for professionals that make a career in providing for people and particularly children with special needs the feeling that they contribute to the society by making the lives of children better can always overcome the pain that empathy in their cases can cause? Can all people do this job or you think it is a rare gift that some people have to receive human pain, clear it and give back selfless help?

J.O.: To do the kind of work we do, you have to love it and be passionate about it. One has to be innovative and persistent in pursuing a strategic vision to aid the most vulnerable, and most importantly, to have unparalleled personal commitment to those most in need and most vulnerable. To feel their pain and suffering and still be able to continue giving, needs lots of strength and courage.

Over the years one will develop a strategy for coping with the pain and get the strength to continue. I think it’s a gift and deep belief in humanity. It’s also rewarding to help and serve children with special needs. I’ve chosen this path and can’t see myself doing anything else.

My work has been based on a quote from the Palestinian poet Tawfeeq Zayad who said; “I would give half of my life to someone who makes a crying child smile.”

S: If someone reads your CV, she will immediately notice that you are a person that has devoted her life to help people and particularly children. If someone would guarantee to you that 20 years ago, when you started your career, you could work in a big multinational pharmaceutical, become a top executive and consequently become 20 times more wealthy than what you are today, would you think about compromising your humanitarian aspirations? What does it mean to you knowing that you have spent your life doing good to people?

J.O.: It has been 30 years and I feel rich and satisfied with what I’ve achieved so far and dream of doing more and of helping more people who need my help and services.

My profession is my hobby; therefore I love what I’m doing. I enjoy every minute I spend with my patients and their parents. I’ve learnt from these parents what I did not learn in medical school.

Frankly I have had lots of opportunities to work abroad and in the private sector, but that was never my desire. My main concern was my people and my country, since they need me, but also I’m ready and happy to serve the children of the world when I can. I’m currently involved with Harvard in a research on autism to continue supporting the children worldwide.

I never ever regretted what I’ve done. I’m a woman with a mission and clear vision.

S: We can imagine that for a person that devotes her life to help other people, there can be some days that she feels exhausted and drained both psychologically and physically. What drives you and gives you the power to continue?

J.O.: I’m an optimist. I always see the world from a “happy angle”, no matter what. Yet, I feel the pain of others and suffer because of their suffering. At the same time it’s rewarding to see the happiness in the eyes of others, especially children.

Over the years I developed coping strategies and resilience. I love music and reading, they help me cross checkpoints and overcome challenges and psychological stressors. If you ask me how many hours have you spent at check points, I tell you how many books I’ve read at check points.

Other coping tools include designing Palestinian traditional embroidery and dancing traditional “Dabkeh”.

I trained myself to switch off and think of positive things when under pressure. I also always have a back-up plan for all what I do.

The unconditional love and support, understanding and believing in my mission that I get from my family, especially my husband, has a great effect.

S: Is the European Union a good role model for countries like Palestine when it comes to child health care and particularly integration in society of children with special needs? Has the EU assisted or praised your humanitarian work in any way during your long career?

J.O.: Personally, I really appreciate the role of any supporter to my country and my cause, including the EU. EU is helping the Palestinian Government in many aspects: water and sanitation, socio-economic and humanitarian projects.

Although, I sincerely understand the urgency and emergency needs, I wish one day we implement developmental, grassroots and sustainable projects with local partners in cooperation with the EU and learn from each other rather than impose or give.

It’s about time to rely on the “richness”, human resources, and values of the Palestinian people. I dislike playing the role of a victim; we are freedom fighters and deserve to live free on our land.

As Palestinian I feel and believe that it is the right of us Palestinians to be supported by the international community with dignity and on equal footing, since it is the responsibility of the international community to help Palestinians until we have our independent state.

S: Since the European Sting is a political newspaper, it is inevitable to ask a political question here: Not many years have passed since the second Intifada. What are the relations currently of Palestine with Israel and the International Community? How is the country advancing forward? Do you find that the EU has supported adequately Palestine historically but also currently?

J.O.: As a doctor and a person with a humanitarian mission, who strongly believes in humanity, peace, justice, and the right of each and every individual to live freely on her/his land, I believe that “occupation” is inhuman and is a reflection of injustice.   I believe that a sustainable and just peace can only be achieved  by ending the occupation and bulding a free independent Palestine with dignity and souvereingty. I strongly believe that this day will come for the sake of the new generation of both nations.

It’s the duty and obligation of the international community, including the EU, to put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people and help in building a better future for generations to come.

With all my respect to the support given to my country, I beleive that whatever support given to the Palestinian people from the international community is the right of the Palestinian people.

S: Before we thank you for your priceless attention and time we would like to close this exclusive stimulating interview by asking you how you imagine yourself in five years time from now? Will the world be a better place with equal opportunities to children and people with special needs and, if not, how are you planning to change that through your inspiring work and passion for humanism?

J.O.: As an optimistic and with the hard work of our team and the network with the government sector and other NGOs in the country, I might imagine a better world in five years’ time, but may be not to the extent of equal opportunities to children with special needs. If I look five years back, our work with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as an example has flourished dramatically since that time. The understanding of parents and professionals, the referrals and the recognition of the problem is becoming much better. Worldwide there is more interest and work done for a better future of people with special needs.

I wish that one day, governments, political leaders, decision makers and the international community, will stop wars and destruction and will think of building and developing.

I know this sounds idealistic but I will never stop dreaming of a better future – and working to achieve such a goal.

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Comments

  1. We are all in the same Noah boat…she has expressed humanity in its highest level. she will be always be remembered as a role model of giving

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