Nurturing Hope at Birzeit

Why are you here? As Americans, everyone from street vendors and taxi drivers to physicians and architects ask us this question. So, this was the question we were greeted with by the deans of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Berzeit University. I was ready with my standard answer: that we’re medical students and interested in global health disparities. . However, this group seemed more interested and seeking a more complete answer. I was somewhat surprised with how passionate I felt about my own response. In addition to the health aspects of our journey, I continue to be dedicated to deepening my understanding of  the separation between  government policies and the opinions expressed by their citizens. This group of community leaders epitomizes this ideologic split with intense focus on the lives of the people of the West Bank. Dr. Abdullatif Husseini, Dr. Rita Giacaman, and Samia Halileh; the director and unit heads of the Institute, respectively, met with us to discuss their role in the Palestinian community. This role casts a wide net including academic research, community projects, and government advising.

Dr. Giacaman has spearheaded multiple research projects which have headlined in the renowned British Lancet journal outlining the spectrum of health issues in the occupied territories, which are unique with the region’s unique situation. Problems are observed from the subjective effects of stress of everyday life in an occupied territory to the shortage of physicians caused by emigration of much of the educated population from a war-torn region. They have not only applied statistics and gathered data, but are leaders in public health research methods.

Working directly with the community, the Institute implements general public education campaigns, but also works in keeping qualified health professionals in the West Bank. They explained the lack of quality jobs as an effect of lack of good-paying jobs. The West Bank has very few private jobs available and other employing sectors are within NGO’s, the Ministry of Health, or in education. None of these options offer lucrative options for highly educated and qualified individuals. Additionally, the West Bank has very few specialty hospitals or clinics and none in certain specialties. In a consumption economy, education is a means for livelihood. But the Palestinian society must work to improve professional conditions in some sectors.

From a top-down perspective, the Institute stresses that they work with policy makers in advising on the effects of proposed legislation. One intriguing aspect of the Palestinian situation is the availability of high-ranking officials; the leaders of the university can meet directly with government officials and give personal input (for example, Harb’s uncle, who also works at Birzeit University, went to college with the prime minister and had a meeting with another minister while we were visiting the public health building). Dr. Husseini reiterated working with the officials by discussing issues privately to come to consensus as opposed to publicly attacking politicians when they disagree.

After a pleasant conversation with the Community and Public Health administrators, I am very hopeful for the public health situation in Palestine. These people have dedicated their lives to the Palestinian cause and have nurtured relationships and skills necessary for implementation of ideas when the time is right. They have their fingers on the pulse of the West Bank. The small nature of the Palestinian community is extremely advantageous compared to a larger place like the United States. The US  must try to accommodate every type of culture, landscape, and unique region. It is possible for decision makers here to see every major city and personally evaluate conditions. As mentioned, public officials can be reached in person. And the population is more homogenous than places like the U.S.

I would like to publicly thank these leaders for their inspirational patience, dedication, intelligence, and candor. A small consequence of the promise they bring to the Palestinian people is the hope they confirm in me that some people of the world just might be on the right track after all.


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