Thursday, August 2, 2007

"If you were in my place, you would do the same thing."

Interview with Emergency Program Director: Dr. Mohamad Iskafi
[written permission granted to use name]
Today I had the great pleasure of getting to do a follow up with the extremely busy director of the Emergency Program at PMRS, Dr. Iskafi.
[Photo Credit: PMRS]
Background of Dr. Iskafi

Dr. Iskafi was trained in Russia as a General Practitioner. In 1988 he joined PMRS, first as a volunteer and then as staff. When asked why he joined PMRS, he replied: ''I wanted to help my people... I prefer to work in this field instead of at a hospital because I had previously worried so much about how to help my people.''

Q: Can you tell me about the working conditions of you and your team?

A: There is a real risk to our lives because of violations, sudden attacks-we don't know what will happen from moment to moment. Our lives are at risk. Also, there is the daily suffering in the teams from crossing checkpoints on a daily basis. First of all, it's a moral suffering because according to international laws, we should not have to wait at checkpoints, but sometimes they makes us wait 15, 30 minutes, sometimes an hour.
[Photo Credit: PMRS]
Also, when we pass through and others have to wait, this is not good, because everyone should pass through and be free in our country. And the checkpoints mean that we are not free.

[Line of 56 cars waiting at West Bank checkpoint]

This is a kind of continued suffering and continual stress that will certainly lead to psycho-social problems. This makes us hate the occupation and the soldiers more and more, and this is not good for Israelis or for us. I know for the Israelis the problem is deep; it is a problem of state and security, but for us it's freedom, our state, free access to services, work, daily life, fun, everything.

Of course, the other thing I should mention is that we at Medical Relief, when we see the people who are suffering, we see they are in need of help, emotional support, so many things. When we leave them and finish our work, we start our evenings, we think of them. We think of their future life, of the poverty, illnesses, complications that could arise for them. This is also another kind of stress when you go home and think about your people. If you go there, you help them, but if you don't go, no one will help.

Also, you think about the projects; most of them are for a short period; 6 months to a year; no project is over a year. When we stop, who is there? This is a moral stress for us, especially when people call us to ask where we are. We explain, of course, that it's not that we don't want to see them, that it's a financial issue. Some people understand that and others don't understand.
[Che at one of PMRS clinics]
[However], people [in the community] know that we are there for them at any time; there is no limit to our working hours. Most people here volunteer here as well as work-for example the time they put in on Fridays [the only official day off in the week] and in the afternoons is volunteer work; it helps to support and strengthen our programs.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the conditions faced by your ambulance drivers?
[Photo Credit: PMRS]
A: For example, two days ago, a PMRS driver was beaten seriously by Israeli soldiers in Jenin. This happens often. I have a list of the dangers faced by the drivers.

Q: As a supervisor, what do you do to help the drivers?

A: We do debriefing, we talk a lot. When we can, we go for trips. It all depends on everyone's time and our resources. We do what we can; we don't just leave them alone.
[Photo Credit: PMRS]
Q: Have you ever been personally targeted by Israelis for your work?

A: I have been arrested twice. The last time was during the last Israeli invasion in 2003. I have also been used by Israelis as a human shield.

The first time that I was arrested was in Ramallah City. I was the first one who entered the [presidential] compound to help the injured people and to help President Arafat. That was why they arrested me. I decided to take two seriously injured guys to the hospital in the PMRS ambulance. They were severely bleeding and in shock. We were arrested for the night and put under severely cold water for eight hours. Can you imagine? Two guys with shock and bleeding having to endure that?

Another time, they thoughts that PMRS had a relationship to two guys from England who had come to Ramallah and then done suicide attacks. I had to stay 1 day in the prison; they realized we had no relationship with these guys.

They took me also during the invasion as a human shield for four hours when there were checking buildings in Ramallah. They had decided to search the PMRS and neighboring building in Ramallah. They asked me, "Who is the leader here, who is responsible?", and I said, "I am." They took me then to use as a human shied as they checked our building and the one next to us. It was not easy, because imagine, if there was an actual exchange of fire, I would be killed because I was the one in front.

Q: With all of this going on, Dr. Iskafi, what keeps you in it? What keeps you going?

A: That is a strange question. If you were in my place, you would do the same thing. You would keep working. This is a matter of doing something; helping your people. It's a matter of feeling that you are responsible and you have to do something. You are not a Palestinian soldier, but you are a doctor, a health provider, and you should do something to help. And, there are the successes to think of, and the satisfaction of the beneficiaries gives you more and more energy to continue.
[Soccer practice in front of the wall]

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