Yesterday I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and drove an hour to a crossing between Israel and Palestine. I called a Palestinian man named Nayim and let him know I had arrived there a little early and that I would wait. It was 7 a.m. and the crossing was teeming with Palestinian men waiting for rides to their places of work in Israel. I stayed on the Israeli side, parked in a dirt lot. Vans and trucks came and went picking up groups of men. While the men waited they chatted and swiped their cell phones. A few were smoking, though not many. Ramadan. After about 15 minutes, a tall man with a broad smile approached my car. I opened the window.
"Are you Susie?" he asked in accented Hebrew.
"Yes, I'm Susie. Nice to meet you." I replied.
He walked around to the other side where he and a female companion entered my car.
"May I sit in the front?"
"Of course! Whatever is comfortable for you."
He introduced himself as Raafat. The woman sitting in back was his mom. She wore traditional clothing. He wore jeans and a tee-shirt. His short sleeves did not quite cover the port taped to his right bicep. His mom smiled and spoke a few pleasantries in Arabic. I smiled back and wished her a Ramadan kareem. Everyone buckled and we started our drive to Hadassah Ein Karem, an Israeli hospital outside of Jerusalem. A one hour drive from Eyal Crossing, near the city of Kalkiliya on the Palestinian side, Kfar Saba on the Israeli side. Raafat and his family live in Kalkiliya, a few minutes walk from the border. This was to be his second treatment at Hadassah Hospital. Raafat has Lymphoma.
Last time it took him and his mom four hours to get to his appointment and 500 shekels ($125) in cab fair. One way. His treatment protocol is two days of treatment every twenty days, but it's outpatient. He doesn't stay at the hospital. Last week a friend of his mentioned an organization called Road to Recovery that provides rides to Palestinian patients who are being treated in Israeli hospitals. Raafat made a phone call to Nayim, the coordinator on the Palestinian side, and now here he was in my car.
About a year ago I had read an article about Road to Recovery in Tablet Magazine It was started by a man named Yuval Roth whose brother had been kidnapped by Hamas in 1993 hitchhiking home from reserve duty. During his grieving process Yuval joined a bereavement group of Israelis and Palestinians who had each lost family members because of the conflict and there he befriended a man named Mohammad who had also lost a brother. The story goes that Mohammad once asked Yuval if he could drive another brother to the hospital, just as a favor between friends. That ride turned into more rides. Word spread and Yuval received many calls from families who desperately needed rides, mostly for their children, to receive treatments at Israeli hospitals. Now Yuval and his team coordinate 600 volunteer Israeli drivers who provide 10,000 rides a year to sick Palestinians. Mostly children. Many Palestinian patients receive permission to receive treatment in Israel, paid for by the Palestinian Authority, but they cannot make the trip in their own cars, if they even have cars. So they rely on taxis which are often prohibitively expensive. Driving on Israeli roads in an Israeli car with an Israeli driver cuts out all the checkpoints and the waiting and the transfers and the hassle. It's a direct route. A much needed short-cut.
I believe it's possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live amicably as neighbors. Who knows when our politicians will be able to sign a peace agreement. I'm not holding my breath. But when we have the opportunity to connect as individuals, it's not difficult. There is a lot of common ground. Unfortunately opportunities are scarce because we live segregated lives. As citizens we also need a more direct route to interact and engage. I have wanted for some time to show my support of a lasting, peaceable solution but I'm not much of an activist. The public, sign-holding kind, anyway. So the idea of helping people directly with just a few hours of my time and maybe having a chance to talk and connect as human beings and not nationals from either side of a wall, appealed to me immensely. The road to peace, reconciliation and recovery, just like the road to Hadassah Hospital, need not be so convoluted and fraught with checkpoints.
A few weeks ago I finally sent Yuval an email asking if he needed more drivers. He put me on the list and that was that. On Sunday this week, his rides coordinator for the central region called and asked if I could get to Kfar Saba on Monday morning. There was a 40 year old man who needed a ride to Hadassah. I said yes. The next day I was driving Raafat and his mom to chemotherapy.
We chatted the whole drive. His Hebrew is very good. Before the cancer he worked in flooring installation. He'd been working in Israel since he was 16 when he obtained a work permit. His father had worked in a factory in Israel for many years also. He had three kids, 15, 12 and 10. He told me his doctor said he wouldn't be able to have any more kids after the treatment but he said that he and his wife made that decision 10 years ago, even before the cancer. We agreed that three kids is plenty.
His wife is a hairdresser. She has a salon and he's thinking of importing cosmetics to help grow her business. He can't work in flooring anymore. He hasn't worked in more than a year, he said. But his brother is helping with his bills. His whole family is pitching in. He was open with me about his cancer. How he hadn't been feeling well and his doctor had given him medication but nothing was working. Finally he had a blood test and went to see a specialist in Ramallah. It was Lymphoma. And had he been diagnosed earlier, his treatment would have been easier and shorter. This is apparently his second round of treatment, something new, so he's hoping for the best. He said that he once spent a week at Rambam Hospital and a group of musicians came and played for the patients in Oncology. He showed me a clip on his phone. He had recorded it to show his family and friends back home. He couldn't believe that volunteers actually come to the hospital just to cheer up patients. We agreed that there are a lot of good people in the world.
We arrived after exactly an hour and found our way to Oncology. I dropped off Raafat and his mom and wished them well and good luck and until next time. I'm Raafat's driver now. Every twenty days, two mornings back to back. I'm also one more person praying for his recovery.
Please take a minute and click on this link to the online fundraiser for Road to Recovery. Yuval and his volunteer staff are raising money to cover the cost of gas/petrol for drivers like me. With the cost of gas covered, Yuval can recruit even more drivers. If you live in Israel and you have a reliable car, you can sign up to be a driver too.