"The Children Give My Life Meaning"

The Palestinian doctor Jumana Odeh has been named winner of the "World of Children Health Award 2008" in recognition of her efforts to improve the lives of disabled children. Muhanad Hamed spoke to her about the award and her work

Dr. Jumana Odeh (photo: Muhanad Hamed)
Jumana Odeh - a woman who works for children both in Palestine and around the world instead of seeking to maximise her own personal gain

​​ Why do you think this award was given to you?

Jumana Odeh: The first thing that occurs to me when trying to answer your question is the reason given by the jury: "a woman who works for children both in Palestine and around the world instead of seeking to maximise her own personal gain." I became a pædiatric doctor because this profession is first and foremost about people with all their troubles and afflictions. And I am so grateful to the children; they give meaning to my life.

Of course, the unusually difficult circumstances in which both they and we are forced to live as a result of the occupation played a role in my decision to work with disabled children in particular, who are generally considered to be "different" and are, for that reason, marginalised. We want the children in our care to be able to grow up happy and healthy despite the cultural, social and political adversities they face in their environment.

Why was this award created in the first place? What is it all about?

Odeh: The intention is to reward outstanding personalities that help improve the lives of children in their own countries or elsewhere. The award was endowed by Harry Leibowitz, who came to America as a child refugee and had to go to work at the age of 12 in order to help support his family. He later became a wealthy man in California.

photo: Muhanad Hamed
Children in the Palestinian Happy Child Center: "We want the children in our care to be able to grow up happy and healthy despite the adversities they face in their environment," says Jumana Odeh

​​Eleven years ago, when he was suffering from cancer, he saw television reports about the suffering experienced by children around the world. This gave him the idea of endowing an award for people who improve the lives of children. I was nominated for this award  which became known five years later as the "Children's Nobel Prize"  last year by Leibowitz's foundation, "World of Children".

You are the first Arab female doctor to receive this award. What does it mean to you and what does it mean to the women in Palestine and the Arab world as a whole?

Odeh: When I was told that I would receive the award, I knew at once that this award was not only an honour for me personally, but for all women. I am also very happy to have brought this award to my country, to Palestine. It allows us to show the world that women in Palestine are actively involved in building a humane society and are working for the good of these children  and are actually making a difference too! I hope that I will be able to do even more for the children in our care in the future; after all, they deserve much more.

You are head of the "Palestinian Happy Child Center" (PHCC). What gave you the idea of setting up a centre like this and what are the objectives of your work?

Child care at the Palestinian Happy Child Center (photo: Muhanad Hamed)
Thanks to the support of the Palestinian Happy Children Center, 44 disabled children are now able to attend regular schools; parents and teachers were given special training by the centre

​​Odeh: I set up the centre in Jerusalem in 1994 in order to be able to focus on the special needs of disabled children. We stand up for their rights, offer them appropriate medical care, and promote their education and their social integration and rehabilitation.
We also conduct tests that allow us to identify disabilities at an early stage in order to be able to take preventative measures and to offer the families of disabled children both psychological assistance and family therapy.

All the services at the centre are free of charge. It is the very first establishment of its kind in Palestine, and the fact that we are getting so much attention as a result of this award can only benefit us. After all, we worked for 14 years without being paid any attention by anyone in the media.

Disabilities are a social taboo in Arab countries. How do you deal with this fact?

Odeh: We have had to face up to this huge challenge right from the word go for the very reason that disabilities in our Arab societies are viewed with the greatest mistrust and can be seen as something entirely negative.

Logo of the Palestinian Happy Child Center (photo: Muhanad Hamed)
The centre offers a wide range of services for disabled children: medical care, educational support, rehabilitation, psychological assistance and family therapy

​​Children with physical, mental, or psychological disabilities are often treated with pity or as second-class citizens, even and most particularly by their parents, many of whom consider the disability as a kind of "divine punishment". In these cases, the parents start looking for the reason for this punishment.

This is where our work comes in. We offer families logical explanations that make it easier for them to deal with the situation and to overcome this prejudice. This is certainly the biggest challenge we face. However, we are already noticing a general shift in the way society views disabilities and most particularly these children and their families.

In the light of the widespread notion that disabilities are some kind of "divine punishment", as you put it, how would you describe the situation for disabled children in Palestine.

Odeh: Absolutely appalling. These children are deprived of most of their rights. The attitude of society is particularly bad, as is the lack of public establishments that respond to the needs of these children and the lack of facilities for the disabled in day-to-day life. Everything  from markets and shops to leisure facilities, playgrounds, and health facilities  are designed exclusively with people who do not have disabilities in mind. Nothing is designed in such a way as to allow disabled children to move about freely and without barriers.

Moreover, there are not enough establishments or centres that focus exclusively on the disabled, although they account for 2.3 per cent of the Palestinian population  and that's a pretty high proportion. Schools don't focus on their needs either. Nevertheless, we did post a success last year: thanks to our support, 44 children with minor to medium disabilities were able to attend regular schools. Moreover, we provided their parents, teachers, and the entire school environment with appropriate training. However, much remains to be done. We have a long way to go yet.

What kind of discrimination do these children face in Palestinian society?

Odeh: This question can only be answered in the context of the overall political situation in Palestinian society. The cordons and checkpoints set up by the Israeli military, which are part of our everyday reality, restrict our freedom of movement and restrict access to care or rehabilitation facilities.

Moreover, children do, of course, face discrimination at home, at school, and more generally speaking in society as a whole. Discrimination is, for example, particularly evident in state-run schools. This angers me all the more because politicians are always going on about the integration of disabled children into schools. In practice, however, this policy is almost never implemented.

As a matter of fact, only very few disabled children attend state-run schools. If at all, they attend private schools. However, these schools are so expensive that most families cannot afford to send their children to them.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the teachers do not take these children adequately into account or involve them, and that the curricula do not cater for them in any way. I don't want anyone to pity these children; I would not want people to commiserate with them all the time. No, I want their rights and dignity to be respected and I want their feelings to get the respect they deserve.

Do you launch programmes or initiatives in conjunction with European organisations?

Odeh: Yes, we run projects together with European establishments and welcome any financial assistance that helps us in our work, even though we sometimes have the feeling that the support from Europe is given in a very condescending manner. It's a pity, because co-operations such as this should be based on mutual understanding and viewed as an opportunity to exchange expertise and, as such, should benefit all parties.

As a result of the award, we are now members of the "World of Children", which means that we can now extend the educational work we started in Palestine to Dubai, Qatar and Morocco.

Interview conducted by Muhanad Hamed

© Qantara.de 2009


Star Mountain Rehabilitation Centre in Palestine
Tough Times for the Disabled
The Star Mountain Rehabilitation Centre near Ramallah is a centre for physically and mentally disabled children and young people. Key components of its rehabilitation work include raising awareness and fighting prejudice. By Sumaya Farhat-Naser

Interview with Barbara Ibrahim
A Wave of Charity among Egypt's Youth
Toys for orphans, tutoring for mentally disabled: voluntary dedication to the weaker is booming among young Egyptians. In this interview with Mona Sarkis, Barbara Ibrahim explains what is behind this

Psychotherapy in Kabul
Counseling for Traumatized Afghans
After 20 years of war, many Afghans are desperately in need of psychotherapy. A new approach aims to address the needs of a deeply traumatized nation, as Martin Gerner reports

Information on Jumana Odeh on 'World of Children'