I don’t know from where to start; how to speak the unspeakable?
It is important for me to share my thoughts about the loss of my beautiful daughter, Aiia, but English is not my first language and I struggle to express my thoughts. To the people of Australia, who embraced me and kept me close to your hearts, without you I am not sure I could have kept my sanity when nothing made sense. I was thousands of kilometres away from my family who were grieving, like me, but at least in our town, in northern Israel, there were friends and relatives by their side who kept them strong. As for me, you kept me strong and for that I am eternally grateful. I am also grateful to Aiia’s wonderful friends at La Trobe University. I saw their pain, even if many times they tried to hide it from me. But why? You loved her like I did. It was right for you to show your sorrow.
Now I must speak the unspeakable because I owe it to Aiia.
My beautiful daughter had many plans in her life, many dreams like young people everywhere. One of her dreams was to see peace between Israel and Palestine in her lifetime. Although that is no longer possible for Aiia, I can honour her dream in a different way.
One of my duties in returning to Australia is to be present at the launch of the Aiia Maasarwe Memorial Medical Fellowship program. This is very formal, so let me describe it in a simple way. I call it Aiia’s Dream. From now on, every two years, a deserving Palestinian doctor will be given an opportunity to study under an Israeli doctor whose skills are among the best in the world, in an Israeli hospital, which are among the best in the world.
I know Aiia would have approved. She would have thanked Project Rozana for its support. She would have said, “Wow! That is such an amazing honour. I always wanted to bring people together, to connect different parts of the world and connect different cultures.”
Well, my beautiful Aiia, your dreams will mean something. That is one of the reasons I have come to Australia with your sister, Noor. We will celebrate when our sister, Dr Khadra Hasan Ali Salami, will accept the gift you have given her. She will be the first Palestinian to honour you as a fellow, and following her will be other talented Palestinian doctors who want to see their society benefit in the same way that we do.
I would tell Aiia that Dr Salami has the same beautiful spirit she does. Khadra Salami could have travelled to Europe, the Emirates or the United States and made a good life there. She would be rich in material things and her skills would be put to good use in wonderful hospitals that lead the world in treatment and research. Instead, she will remain with her family in the West Bank and continue to work at the excellent Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, and become one of only six or seven specialists in all of Palestine treating children with cancer.
She will work with a world-famous professor at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, and when her fellowship is over, she will stay close to Hadassah, which has supported Palestinians for more than 100 years. Together they will build the Palestinian health system.
Aiia was a young woman when she died, but she will always be my child. I asked my family to pray for me, that I can be strong during my few days in Australia. I don’t want my emotions – which I know will follow me every day – to confuse the message that I need to share with the people here.
Israel is my home; Palestine is in my heart. Both are important to me; they are part of who I am, I will never abandon them. Because of that I would like to share my dream with you.
When I woke up from the nightmare and was asked if I would agree to allow a fellowship to be named for Aiia, I set out to learn about Project Rozana. Its people include Christians, Muslims and Jews, who are there because of the children – everything else is unimportant. It started in Australia in 2013 and in six years has invested in programs that support Palestinian children in Israeli hospitals and train Palestinian doctors, nurses and therapists in those same hospitals. Once their training is finished, they are expected to return to hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza and continue to build health in Palestine.
Most people I speak to don’t believe this is the case. They say to me, “But Israelis and Palestinians don’t talk to each other! How is this possible? And Gaza, since when have Palestinians from Gaza studied in Israel?” The answer is: Always.
There is another program, run by the organisation, that transports Palestinian children and a relative from their homes to the checkpoints and from there to hospitals in Israel at no cost. Without this, many children would remain sick or even die, because their families cannot afford the high cost of taxis.
There are more than 100 Palestinian volunteers who drive patients from their homes in the West Bank and Gaza to the checkpoints. And there are some 2000 Jewish Israeli volunteers who drive patients from the checkpoints to the hospitals and return them after treatment. These aren’t politicians, but they are more powerful because through their actions they show it’s possible for people to change. By driving, by talking, people get to know one another and walls are broken down. Aiia believed that to be true, and now we can see it.
In my research, I also learnt about two people who understand trauma and how it affects children – Dr Shafiq Masalha and Professor Esti Galili-Weisstub, who created the Binational School of Psychotherapy in Israel – a cause supported by Project Rozana and World Vision Australia.
The program trains Palestinian therapists from Gaza and the West Bank and therapists from Israel, including Arab Israelis, to deal with issues such as the post-traumatic stress disorder that affects children because of domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, war and terrorism.
You don’t know about these programs unless you look for them. You simply believe what you are told, like the people who say, “But Saeed, Israelis and Palestinians don’t talk to each other!”
If my little child Aiia can believe, then so can we. If the way to change the hearts and minds of people is through health, then that’s what we should invest in. Perhaps now you can understand why my family believes that the greatest gift Aiia gave us, and hopefully you, is to believe that peace is possible. It will come, step by step, in our lifetime – if we give it space to breathe.
I want to thank again my friends in Australia. You are forever part of our family. You have shared our pain, now perhaps you can share our hope – that Aiia’s death, so far from her home, can have meaning beyond the tragedy.
To each of you I say it in English, Arabic and Hebrew: peace be upon you, as-salamu alaykum, shalom aleichem.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Aiia’s dream". Subscribe here.