Today was a momentous day for Hiam in New Haven. She is finally finished with all medical check-ups and procedures and is scheduled to go back to Gaza soon. She will be able to celebrate her 8th birthday next month with her 14 siblings and many friends. She is laughing and wants to look at herself in the mirror a lot. She even was joking that she can see through her new prosthetic eye. It has been an arduous journey filled with triumphs and tragedies and most of all with new experiences for a smart and very curious little girl as well as all who came to know her. Hiam weathered it all and she has grown significantly from the frightened little girl I first met almost three weeks ago. Maturing well beyond her age and adapting better than any of us have expected. I would like to share with you this experience of Hiam. What I describe, while uncomfortable, was not physically painful to Hiam. However, you can skip this next paragraph of describing her experience and go to the third paragraph.
Our appointments were split between an ocularist in Wallingford (there are only a couple of hundred such guys that specialize in making prosthetic eyes in the US) and ophthalmologists at Yale. Hiam had already had surgery in Gaza to remove the eye, an operation that entails placing an implant and tying the muscles around this implant. The ophthalmologists checked her vision in the other eye and checked the implant which, while receding, appeared to be adequate. They offered that maybe in two to three years, a new surgery would be needed to fix the implant. The ocularist initial exam gave us the bad news that a conformer should have been placed in the eye to keep the empty socket from collapsing. This was not done and thus, we were delayed one week for adding this conformer and allowing the empty space to take shape. This was not a painful procedure but a bit uncomfortable and Hiam seemed to handle it very well. The next Friday (March 2), we returned to do the mold for the eye (custom-shaped to the socket). This time and for the last time in a procedure, both Hiam and her mother cried. The ocularist had to make the prosthetic in crude form and a much longer appointment was needed on Monday to do the fitting, the shaping of the outer size and the coloring. Monday if you recall was the first day of the Eid Al-Adha, an important Islamic holiday. I could not help but think of Muslim children celebrating throughout the world while Hiam (and all Palestinian children) have to endure pain and suffering. Removing and inserting the prosthetic many times that day was a bit unnerving to Hiam. The size of the artificial pupil was not quite right and it was adjusted slowly by removing some of the clear plastic in the front. But this made the shape look flat. Only Hiam seemed satisfied with the final “product.” I guess she just wanted it over with and she saw it as a significant improvement over the patch. The ocularist volunteered to try again and make a new eye and we were to return Thursday (today) for another long appointment beginning at noon. In the morning, we stopped by the Yale eye center for a final check before we headed out to the ocularist. Hiam was finally ready for the afternoon. This time, things went smoothly and the new prosthetic eye is in place and we were out the door by 3:30 PM. Both Hiam and her mother were thrilled. At a friend’s house we called Gaza and they spoke at length with their family. It is difficult now to distinguish if the tears were of joy or of sadness.
Lest you think we spent all our time in clinics, rest assured that Hiam and her mother were kept busy in other ways. The community of both Arabic speaking and non-Arabic speaking people rallied to this like no other cause in the community. Adults provided hospitality, friendship, support, tours (even to New York), lots of gifts and even money. Children offered their usual unconditional love, playfulness, and even occasionally (miraculously?) some of their toys. This made Hiam feel at home even while being homesick. Almost every day or two, they met some new family or visited a new place. Middle Eastern restaurants refused to take money for the food when they ate outside. Who helped: Syrian American, Lebanese Americans, Palestinian Americans, non-Arab Americans, people of all religions and persuasions, students and busy families with lots of kids, total strangers who send in cards or a few gifts. But the family was most grateful for the real gift to Hiam: a new image of self-confidence and a big, tremendous smile today. Invariably, all involved indicated we are grateful to this family for enriching our own lives here in America. In short, for us in Connecticut, Hiam was a breath of fresh air who touched the lives of so many and made us far better than we were three weeks ago. None of us find it easy to say good-bye to the brave little girl who came across the ocean to get a new eye. So we will say to her Sunday “Ila Alliqaa'” (till we meet again) and we WILL meet again. Hiam now has a second home. Next time, we hope she comes in far happier circumstances.
Let me give you my own reflections now including lessons I learned. I reflected that the bullet that hit Hiam was likely made in this country (as are most Israeli ammunition) and it was paid for by our tax dollars. Yale issued a press release and the media interviewed Hiam and her mother as well as the doctors. I also reflected that even after specifically and repeatedly being asked about the circumstances of Hiam’s injury (according to the mother on a quit street while walking with her mother to a friend’s house), we were dismayed that some editors insisted on using words such as “caught in the crossfire.” According to one reporter, someone “higher-up” wanted it this way (you wonder who). But some reporters were brave to simply make no value judgment and let the story speak for itself. It is also worth reflecting that Hiam is very lucky to be one of those selected by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund to come to the US. The ironies of this journey are not going to be forgotten. But hundreds of Palestinian children are with various needs, medical or otherwise will go without. The most recent brutality is a process of “Ghettoization”: Israeli forces as we speak continue to dig trenches to completely encircle Palestinian towns and villages. This blockage and siege prevents hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from traveling to work, schools, universities, shops, or houses of worship. It is intended as collective punishment to break the will of the Palestinians who have already suffered too much. With Sharon in power, one wonders if he will outdo Barak’s record of the past five months (420 Palestinians killed, 17,000 injured). So who will be the next Hiam and what is she/he doing now in Gaza or the West Bank. Will they be killed, injured or starved. Maybe this brutality is calculated to make Hiam’s family and all other refugees forget about going back to their villages from which they were expelled in 1948. Maybe we will see more widespread ethnic cleansing by this government that for the first time includes a cabinet minister who openly advocates expelling Palestinians. These are not questions that Hiam and her mother are now worried about but we in America should be. If the politics doesn’t concern you, why not at least help one Palestinian family in need.* The rewards can be immeasurable. Today, our largest award is a big grin on a little girl’s face and on the faces of all who met her. Thank you Hiam.
(Dr. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is Chair of the Media Committee, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition)