In the West Bank, where many children are raised in poverty and medical care cannot be taken for granted, the Caritas Baby Hospital is helping alleviate suffering.
Set up by a Swiss priest in 1952 to care for sick babies in Bethlehem, the hospital has widened its provision to include social work in the Bethlehem-Hebron area. A chunk of the hospital’s funding comes from Swiss churches’ Christmas donations.
With unemployment high and 50 per cent of households living on the equivalent of SFr450 ($435) a month or less, many Palestinians struggle to raise their families.
“The need is palpable,” says head doctor Hiyam Marzouqa. “The pressure on families, and women in particular, is increasing; they have to try to get by on nothing...”
“I do home visits to know the family better and to give them more time to talk,” says social worker Lina Rahel, who as a mother herself understands this pressure.
One of three social workers with the hospital, she makes house visits twice a week to families in the Hebron area, following up on patients released from hospital or those with chronic illnesses, like asthma. swissinfo.ch accompanied her on a chilly day in December.
Inside the stone-built house on the outskirts of Hebron it felt colder than outside. A two-ring electric heater struggled to take the edge off the chill in the living room where plaster was peeling from the damp walls. Incongruously one complete wall was covered in a poster of tulip fields.
Sitting on his mother’s lap, Mohammed was crying ceaselessly and twisting his head from side to side. The youngest of seven children, he has diabetes and delayed development.
“The mother is very concerned and she wants to do the best for her baby. He’s two-and-a-half years old. He doesn’t sit and he doesn’t walk,” says Rahel.
No work, no money
The little boy has been in and out of hospital around 20 times in his short life. His 37-year-old mother hates to impose on the hospital and has not sought treatment for Mohammed this time, although he has been vomiting for several days.
The cold weather and lack of money for transport also influenced his mother’s decision to keep Mohammed at home. Her husband, who does not have a regular job, has not been working for the past few days.
“Going from Hebron to Bethlehem is becoming difficult now, especially here where they live,” says Rahel, alluding to the Israeli security barrier, which cuts many Palestinian towns off from one another. “It’s very far from the city centre. They have to take more than one means of transport to reach Bethlehem, so it costs.”
Mohammed’s mother makes ends meet by sewing shoes for a Hebron shoe manufacturer. Her hands are calloused by the effort of pulling the needle through the thick leather. Working with a female relative, she can manage just five pairs of shoes a day, earning 1.5 shekels (SFr0.41) a pair for shoes that will sell in the shops for ten times that amount.
At the end of the visit, Rahel explains what will happen now. “We need to sit together, the doctor, me and the mother to discuss what we can do for this baby. It’s not a matter of diabetes, he has other problems. We have to do further investigations.”
Near the town of Dura we paid a visit to the Jabary family, who were mourning the death of 18-year-old Bashir one month before.
Bashir had a terminal genetic illness, which also affected three siblings who died in infancy. Two younger brothers also have the disease, that affects growth, and are unlikely to live to adulthood.
The boys’ mother, who is just 41, is frequently close to tears as she talks about the son to whom she was so close and who was also greatly loved by the hospital staff. Her two sons, Bashar (15) and Basan (8) – who look half their age – sit quietly beside her. They have accepted that Bashir’s fate will be theirs too.
“The kids miss him because he was their eldest brother. Whenever we ask where is Bashir, they say, ‘he went to God’,” says Rahel.
“The most painful thing for the mother is when she thinks she has to lose another two. She’s always asking God to give her the strength and the health to take care of them until the last moment of their lives.”
The next day, the boys’ mother turns up at the outpatients clinic in Bethlehem. Her elder son is sick again. For Bashar there may be no cure, but the care provided by the hospital staff at least provides some comfort for his mother.
Morven McLean in the West Bank, swissinfo.ch
1952: the Caritas Baby Hospital was founded by Father Ernst Schnydrig, along with Palestinian doctor Antoine Dabdoub and the Swiss, Hedwig Vetter.
1963: the German Caritas association and Caritas Switzerland set up Children’s Relief Bethlehem to run the Caritas Baby Hospital.
1970: a nursing school was opened. In 1999 it was recognised as a college.
2008: Construction work begins on a new outpatients clinic and extended mothers’ accommodation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits.
2009: Pope Benedict XVI visits in May, describing the hospital as "a beacon of hope that love can prevail over hatred and peace over violence".
Key facts – West Bank
Population: 2.4 million (Switzerland: 7.6 million)
Size in square kilometres: 5,600 (Switzerland: 39,000km)
GDP per head of population: $2,900 (Switzerland: $40,900)
Birth rate per thousand: 25.9 (Switzerland: 9.6)
Fertility rate per woman: 3.3 (Switzerland: 1.4)
Child mortality per 1,000 live births: 16.5 (Switzerland: 4.23)
Life expectancy: 74 years (Switzerland: 81)
Hospital beds per 1,000 people in Palestinian
Territory: 130 (Switzerland: 567)
Doctors per 1,000 people in Palestinian Territory: 97 (Switzerland: 389)