Everyone in the room is choked up with tears. An attractive young woman dressed in black enters. Her steps faltering, her face pale, she is palpably tense, overwhelmed. It’s midday. Sitting on the hospital bed is a little girl, with a misshapen face and body. A wisp of a girl, burned, scorched, scarred and charred. Her head is bandaged, as are her thin legs. Her whole little body is covered with sores, the fingers of her left hand have been amputated.
The sight is unbearable. This little girl is the daughter of the woman in black, Jiziya Sheikh Said, who has just entered, almost in a daze.
For almost two months, since the disaster that struck her home, Nada Sheikh Said, 4-and-a-half years-old, has been in the children’s ward of Assaf Harofeh Hospital in Tzrifin, near Ramle. On March 26, fire swept through the family home in the Sheikh al-Eid neighborhood of the downtrodden city of Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border.
As a result of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, the power supply to the neighborhood is almost nonexistent, and the family used candles for illumination. That night someone forgot to put out a candle.
The mattresses on which the children were sleeping caught fire and the house was quickly engulfed in flames. Nada’s two little sisters, aged two years and one year, perished. Her brother was saved and another sister was injured. Nada herself incurred serious injuries, with burns covering a third of her body.
The two sisters were rushed to the hospital in Rafah and the next morning were transferred to Assaf Harofeh. The sister was discharged a few weeks ago, leaving Nada alone in intensive care, in serious condition and partially sedated.
The little girl has suffered weeks of pain and agony with only her mother’s nemesis – her father’s first wife – by her side. At one point an aunt from Rafah arrived, but Nada had not seen her mother or father since the disaster. When she was awake she cried out for her mother. Once she asked for a knife so she could kill herself; another time she awoke in terror and whispered that her bed was full of snakes.
The first wife told the family there was no point in coming, because Nada was dying, Nada was blind. As a result of the complex, convoluted relationships within the family – this is not the place to elaborate – compounded by the trauma wrought by the fire and its aftermath, Nada endured her torment without her parents.
The devoted volunteers of Salametcom (Be Healthy) now entered the picture. The NGO was founded two years ago by attorney Ibrahim Yaqub and Rima Abu-Katish, both from the town of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem, following a column published here in January 2012, about Mohammed al-Fara. This boy from Khan Yunis, whose arms and legs were amputated, had at that time spent more than two years at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, with only his grandfather at his side.
Within two days, Yaqub and Abu-Katish raised about 5,000 shekels ($1,300 at that time) for the boy and his grandfather.
The two then founded the NGO (www.slametkom.org/english), which now has hundreds of volunteers doing the little that is within their means to assist residents of the occupied territories hospitalized in Israel, cut off from home and family. Their activities include organizing outings in Israel and making kousa mahshi (stuffed zucchini) for a sick child who dreams of Mom’s food.
Together with Arab volunteers from Lod and other communities, the Salametcom volunteers have devotedly showered love and affection on Nada, seen to her needs and those of the two women who were with her, and maintained an almost 24-hour-a-day vigil by the girl’s bedside. The NGO also arranged for all the permits that ultimately made it possible for Jiziya to visit her daughter.
We entered Nada’s room on Monday, while her mother was still making the long, arduous journey from Rafah. As soon as Jiziya called to say she had successfully crossed the Erez checkpoint into Israel, Abu-Katish told Nada that her mother was on the way.
There were tears in the eyes of the young, energetic speech therapist, wearing a traditional head covering, who devotes most of her time to doing volunteer work to help Palestinian patients and their families. Nada sat on the bed, a piteous sight, her doll by her side, staring into space.
“Soon Nada will see Mommy,” Abu-Katish whispered to her. “I am glad,” the little girl said in a barely audible whisper. She then spoke to her mother on the phone. She seemed not to believe that the miracle was about to happen: that Mommy would soon be there, after all the suffering she had endured in her absence.
Also at the bedside was Iman Abu-Aliash, a Rafah-born volunteer from Lod, a widow with six children who has no Israeli ID card. She sent her sister, who lives in Rafah, to inquire about the condition of the bereaved, traumatized family.
Abu-Katish: “When we heard about Nada and came here, about three weeks ago, the girl was shouting for her mother all the time. We asked what the problem was, why her mother wasn’t with her. Then we learned about the family situation, which prevented the mother from coming. We set in motion the process to get her here. Jiziya was convinced her daughter couldn’t speak or see, but we told her the girl needed her here.”
Abu-Katish, who once worked at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, undertook the task of persuading Jiziya’s family, who until then would not let her make the trip to visit her daughter.
A photograph of Nada was sent to the family by cellular phone, so that her mother could begin to come to terms with the heartbreaking sight of her daughter. But the family only let her see it for a split second, fearing it would be too much for her. She had already lost two daughters in the fire. About three weeks ago, she was allowed to talk to her daughter for the first time.
This past Sunday, Nada was told her mother might be coming the next day. The child didn’t sleep a wink that night. When asked what she would like her mother to bring from Rafah, she said hairpins, even though her head is bandaged and her hair was burned off.
A physician from the ward spoke to Jiziya before she entered her daughter’s room, to prepare her for the reunion. The Arab volunteers have only praise for the way the medical staff at Assaf Harofeh has treated Nada. Indeed, the doctors and nurses were visibly moved at the prospect of Jiziya’s visit.
The taxi that brought Jiziya from the Erez checkpoint arrived. The woman carrying a handbag and bags of baklava, snacks and sweets from Rafah entered the hospital corridor. After a short talk with the doctor she made her way to the room. A medical clown who had been trying to make Nada laugh quickly left.
Jiziya entered, her face expressionless, not betraying her shock. Silence fell in the room. At first Jiziya did not touch her daughter. The two only looked at each other in mute mutual astonishment. Jiziya tried to get Nada to eat Bamba, the popular snack food. The doctor then asked everyone to leave, so that mother and daughter could get accustomed to each other again in private.
After a time, the door opened and the volunteers and nurses who had been waiting outside entered. Jiziya got up and shook hands with the medical personnel, as though offering thanks, but not uttering a word. After a few moments of oppressive silence, a faint smile crossed Jiziya’s lips.
Through her scorched face, Nada responded with a weak smile, too.
Nada sat on the bed, a piteous sight, her doll by her side, staring into space. "Soon Nada will see Mommy," Abu-Katish whispered to her. "I am glad," the little girl said in a barely audible whisper.