At an Israeli Children's Camp, Burn Survivors Find Relief

Camp Sababa lets young Arab and Jewish burn victims have fun and share their experiences without anybody staring.

Gil Eliyahu

Mira Juelis is 7 years old. Her big smile and cheeky disposition almost make you forget the scarring on her head, neck and arms, or that she’s missing a few fingers on one hand.

But you did notice; it’s not often you see a child so severely scarred. Mira was one of 36 injured when a truck crashed into a bus carrying Palestinian children in February 2012. She suffered burns on 70 percent of her body. The recuperation process is long and painful, and the trauma and scarring often lead to isolation.

For six years, Camp Sababa, an Israeli initiative with U.S. support, has given young burn survivors the chance to overcome that isolation. This year, 40 kids between 7 and 17 took part in the program the week before Passover at the Jordan River Village in northern Israel, the site of the camp for the past three years.

Many of Israel’s burn victims are children; half of Israel’s burn victims are under 4, according to Dr. Josef Haik, head of the burn unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. This is higher than in the United States, where, according to the American Burn Association, children under 5 made up around 20 percent of burn victims between 2003 and 2012.

Haik adds that many of Israel’s burn victims come from Arab and religious Jewish families. Among religious Jews, children often have accidents with lit Sabbath candles and pots left cooking on the stove, says Haik. Among Arabs, kitchen accidents are also common, as are car accidents and burns at bonfires and barbecues.

Health professionals note that Arabs and religious Jewish families tend to be poorer and have more children, which adds to the number of home accidents.

Dr. Yehuda Ullmann, director of plastic reconstructive surgery at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, says the hospital regularly has two or three child inpatients with burns on at least 10 percent of their bodies. This percentage is often far higher; most cases are avoidable household accidents.

Everything you need but soccer

This year at Camp Sababa it certainly looks like everyone is having a great time. On the fourth morning of the program, the kids are busy in their clay workshop with world-renowned animator Rony Oren, who heads the animation program at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, at a cinema special-effects workshop, everybody wants to be the next volunteer for makeup artist Hadara Jaget-Wilentzik's fake cuts, scars and bruises. Loud camp songs and laughter punctuate breaks between activities at the state-of-the-art facility.

Mira Juelis, left. 'They give you everything you want,' she says about the camp. Photo by Gil Eliyahu

“The rehabilitation of burn victims deals so much with the physical, and not so much with the social or emotional aspects of aftercare,” says Yuliana Eshel, chief occupational therapist at Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel. “Camp Sababa gives burn survivors a safe framework where they can come out of hiding and show their physical scars,” adds Eshel, a codirector of the camp.

Mira talks to Haaretz sitting on the electric buggy she uses to get around because her relatively fresh injuries make it hard for her to walk. She says she likes everything at the camp, and “they give you everything you want,” but she wishes there was soccer, too.

“Most of these kids are always with their parents,” says Yasmin Majadla, Mira’s counselor and a Schneider social worker volunteering for the second time. “Away from their families they always feel different and strange. Finally here they’re with people who don’t stare at them.” For many, it’s one of the first places where people who aren’t their relatives hug them and treat them like normal kids.

The annual retreat is organized by volunteers Eshel and Nili Arbel, Schneider’s chief physical therapist, who got the idea for the camp from a program founded by Dr. Marcia Levinson of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. At Levinson’s invitation, Eshel and Arbel accompanied two burn victims, one Arab and one Jewish, to the U.S. camp a decade ago — a practice that Schneider continues to this day.

At the U.S. camp, they met Sam Davis, an attorney who founded Burn Advocates Network, a nonprofit group that supports burn survivors. He offered to fund a similar camp in Israel. Davis, who talks about how burn survivors are “separated by scars” from society and are in turn “scarred by separation,” was shocked that Israeli kids had no such camp of their own. Now the project’s main funder, he attends every year.

Other donors include Schneider’s Our Children Foundation, one of whose founders, Iris Langer, was burned on nearly 70 percent of her body at age 6 when her clothes were set alight by Hanukkah candles. “A lot of what the camp does is about empowerment,” she says.

Aderet Ben David, 11, agrees. “You encourage yourself when everyone is together,” she says, adding that she enjoys socializing at the camp and the campers’ high morale.

Nineteen-year-old Eldar Lerner, another Sababa veteran, says he’s living proof of how the camp empowers participants. The hesder yeshiva student from Ariel in the West Bank was 4 when he was scalded by boiling water on the eve of the Sabbath. Lerner has scarring all over his torso, both the back and front. The rehabilitation process was long and painful, he says, and growing up with scars was tough.

“People are disgusted when they see your scars,” Lerner says, adding that the camp experience shows that the burns shouldn’t stop you. “It helps you become more open in the rest of your life. It feels like the camp is a piece of a puzzle.”

Fun, not therapy

Each camper is paired with a counselor, and the kids spend the five days just having a good time and being treated like normal children. There is no psychological or physical therapy, though the volunteers on hand include psychologists, social workers and physiotherapists. The week ends with a party — usually a pretty emotional affair, Arbel says.

This year, Lerner is participating fully as a counselor and has been paired with a 13-year-old first-timer. “I just try to make sure he has fun,” he says. “You don’t need to prepare the new kids for seeing something tough, or to explain anything to them. They know the treatments and they’ve been through it themselves.”

For the kids, the camp is an opportunity to talk about their everyday routine without pitying looks or the need to talk about “their problem.”

“It’s amazing to hear them have these talks,” says Shiri Ben-Ami, a physiotherapist at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, a camp volunteer for four years. “They compare their experiences with various treatments and ask each other, ‘When did you take off your compression bandage? Or ‘What cream do you use?’”

The camp itself is a pretty even mix of Jews and Arabs, and every activity is carried out in Hebrew with full Arabic translation. There is no peace agenda; the coexistence takes place by default based on the campers’ shared experiences.

Davis, Eshel and Arbel have high ambitions for the program. Last year they hosted two doctors from India, who in December organized their own version in Mumbai. In Israel, meanwhile, Eshel and Arbel hope the camp will receive enough funding for the long term — and they’re looking for volunteers to inherit the job of organizing the project.

Part of the problem is that the scarring from burns isn’t a popular issue. “It’s hard to draw interest in the topic,” Eshel says. “This isn’t cancer, it doesn’t make headlines, and it’s a societal thing here. In Israel we hide everything that hurts beauty.”

Nili Arbel and Sam Davis
Gil Eliyahu