Rich henna cups Alaa Abu Zeid’s eleven-year old bicep and glitter dots her forehead. She is the star of the second floor of St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem where children who have been transferred from Gaza are receiving surgery after sustaining injuries from Israeli air strikes. Her recovery room is where the ten other children who were medically evacuated are allotted henna and glitter tattoos to splash onto the scant bits of their mottled skin that is free of burns.
Alaa was injured in Rafah when an F-16 dropped explosives on her house killing her seven months pregnant mother, brother and eight other members of her family. During Alaa’s first week in the hospital, all of the staff and the other patients hid the fact of her family’s tragedy. They waited a week until she made it through surgery on her leg, which had the flesh torn off of it during the bombing. In the operation a portion of her left leg was moved to her right. Once she was stable, a social worker told her that most of her family was dead.
When Alaa is left alone she cries, so she is never left alone.
After her operation Alaa was on oxygen support and complained of the smell of the clean air. “She said I like the smell of gas and benzene,” said Tarek Bakri, 28, an engineer by profession and a volunteer who visits with Alaa daily over the past three weeks. “The children are excited when they smell the fuel that runs the generator,” he said.
Tarek is perhaps the most dedicated of the many volunteers who visit Alaa and the other children. He started an online campaign for supporters around the world to send Alaa messages. Thousands of well wishes poured in, and Tarek was by her bedside to read them one-by-one.
Spending time in St. Joseph Hospital is the first occasion Tarek has had to get to know Palestinians from Gaza. So far 3,106 children have been injured during Operation Protective Edge and an estimated 1,500 have been orphaned, according to the United Nations.
Tarek is from East Jerusalem and it is forbidden for him to travel to the besieged Mediterranean strip. Likewise, unless catastrophe strikes and they are fortunate enough to receive a medical transfer, the children of Gaza cannot leave. For children like Alaa, this has been her third war.
But Alaa is not alone in losing a parent during the air strike that sent her to the hospital in Jerusalem. Her roommate Eman Siam, 19, from Khan Younis, also lost her mother who was killed during an air strike. Although Eman had traveled to Jerusalem with her aunt, she was not in contact with her family in Gaza for days. They thought she had lost her arms and legs in the bombing, but four days ago a camera crew from Palestine TV filmed her exclaiming that she survived with all of her limbs. The footage was aired in Gaza and when her father who hadn’t seen her in over a week saw that his daughter was intact—albeit bandaged and with metal supports off of her left collar bone and her face scarred—he telephoned her with glee.
At that point Eman thought her mother was being treated in Egypt. However, Eman’s mother died in a Cairo hospital. “Three days ago Eman’s mother passed away, but we’re not telling her like Alaa. It’s the same scenario,” Tarek said.
Yet Eman is not without family in Jerusalem. Aside from her aunt who traveled with her from Gaza, all of the patients at St. Joseph were granted a relative accompaniment, two doors down Eman’s cousin Mohammed Siam, 14, is badly wounded.
The first day I visited the hospital Mohammed cried for hours. His right leg is gone from the air strike, an arm broken, shrapnel is still lodged inside of his torso, but most noticeably he is rail thin. His grandfather who crossed from Gaza with him said he was always slender, but Mohammed hasn’t been eating. And when he does, he vomits. He can’t sit up, because his back is in crushing pain. In the afternoons Mohammed is wheeled down the hospital corridor and he is able to spot Eman tucked away with Alaa.
Between Mohammed, and Eman and Alaa’s room is where St. Joseph’s youngest patients, Hanan Abu Eidah, 2, and Ahmad Abu Taha, 10 months, are recovering from surgery. They are recuperating in the baby’s room.
All of St. Jospeh’s Gaza patients arrived via coordination from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). When Hanan and Ahmad reached the hospital they couldn’t speak, or move. Yet days later Hanan was talking.
“Usually my baby is more social than this but she is ashamed of her body,” said Ilham Shaqoura Abu Eidah, 30, Hanan’s mother and another one of St. Joseph’s patients. Ilham’s youngest daughter died in the air strike on their Jabaliya house in northern Gaza that wounded both Hanan and her. Hanan doesn’t know and she kneads her mother’s arm. “Hanan looks like how I looked when I was a baby,” said Ilham in English, explaining her sister is an English teacher at an UNRWA school in Gaza, and herself, she has three degrees.
One bed over from Ilham and Hanan is Ahmad who smiled and cooed, grabbing at anyone who held him with his left hand as his right is broken. Ahmad also wears bandages over his head. His skull, nose and roof of his mouth were fractured and each day the boy who isn’t old enough to walk has his bandages changed. He also lost his left eye during the bombing that injured him. He was breastfeeding from his mother at the time of impact.
With 25 patients total–youth and adults–from Gaza and each with an accompanying relative, St. Joseph’s is a Jerusalem hospital full of laughter and tears from Gaza. Although each patient has lost family members in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, in Jerusalem they can sleep free from the threat of air strikes. “We don’t have a place for them except one small room with six beds,” said Sister Mona Toteh, 32 who is responsible for the surgical ward at St. Joseph. And so at night the relatives of the patients sleep on thin mattresses in the care rooms or in the hospital’s white corridors.
“Alaa said she wanted her family to move to Jerusalem,” said Tarek, musing over both the joy and pain that lives inside each patient. Yet Alaa and the others are not able to see Tarek’s home in Jerusalem, or anywhere else beyond their ward. Their permits to receive medical care in Jerusalem only allow them passage to St. Joseph Hospital. They can’t step off the medical complex’s grounds. It is Tarek’s dream to take Alaa to the zoo in Jerusalem. Given Israeli restrictions, it might as well be an animal park on the moon.