Yasmeen Al Najjar lay in bed, a million kaleidoscopic thoughts keeping sleep at bay. She didn’t mind though, her ideas weren’t that of your average 17-year-old, they were about tangible opportunities to change the world.
Yasmeen had grown up surrounded by encroaching Israeli colonies in her small Palestinian village on the outskirts of Nablus. Crushed by a military truck at the tender age of three and subsequently forced to amputate her right leg at the knee, she had now been given the chance to change the course of her life and those of others like her.
“Who needs sleep?” she thought when her mind was full of so many inspiring possibilities, but sleep she must, she told herself, because those who want to prove the sky’s the limit need to be as fresh and healthy as possible.
And Yasmeen is almost literally attempting to reach the sky – along with injured compatriot 16-year-old Mutussam Abu Karsh, she will be endeavouring to reach the summit of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, despite the fact that they both wear prosthetic limbs having separately fallen victims to Arab-Israeli conflict.
Together the pair plans to make the ascent alongside a team of volunteers led by Suzanne Al Houby, the first Arab and Palestinian woman to summit Everest, to raise awareness of the innocent victims of conflict while also raising money for an organisation that has saved thousands of children’s quality of life, including their own, The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF).
“I am attempting this because I want to raise funds for the PCRF,” Yasmeen says. “They helped me, now it’s my turn to help them.” Reflecting her determination and courage Mutussam adds, “I want to be the first to carry the flag of my homeland [to the summit] to help other Palestinian children and I want to show that we can do anything despite our injuries.”
Their nine-day Climb of Hope, the brainchild of Suzanne, was inspired by the spiralling violence during the days of the Arab Spring; a time that the veteran alpinist says has left many children facing an uncertain future, especially those in need of critical treatment.
“This climb comes at a time when there is little hope,” says 42-year-old UAE expat Suzanne. “When you step outside Dubai and see the millions of youths living in either economic or political turmoil, it’s really depressing. These two children, via this climb are representing the Arab world; they are helping to mend broken spirits.”
This ability to mend is further strengthened by the reasons for their afflictions. Yasmeen was three and playing in the garden of her grandfather’s home when a military truck crashed into the fence, says Suzanne. “One leg went under the truck. She was in agony until she got to the nearest hospital because she had to get through all the checkpoints. By the time she got there it was too late and they had to amputate.”
Explaining the situation that has brought Mutussam to where he is today she says, “He lost his leg and several fingers on his left hand after an [Israeli] shell exploded outside his house in Gaza when he was nine. He was sent to the US for treatment through the PCRF.”
The organisation paid for the young boy’s medical needs. He is now an avid swimmer and member of the Friendship Club for Physical Disabilities and is being sent to Dubai to be fitted for his prosthetic leg from the knee down.
Saving lost lives
“Throughout my mountaineering journey, I have encountered some incredible climbers who were climbing, not only against the hardship of mountains, but also against physical challenges,” says Suzanne, adding, “The children I’ll be climbing Kilimanjaro with have taken it upon themselves to make the impossible possible, and inspire people all over the world.”
And making the impossible possible is something both teenagers have already managed. In Gaza and the West Bank there is no access to state-of-the-art gyms or mountaineering training facilities, let alone the correct equipment with which to train amputees for the gruelling climb.
Nonetheless, with the help of Suzanne’s expertise and the PCRF’s on-the-ground staff, both Yasmeen and Mutussam have undergone an intense training programme of climbing, prosthesis check-ups, safety instructions and survival techniques to ensure their journey from the base to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is a successful one.
And both teenagers have the will to make this a success despite the hurdles ahead to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, for they both have the PCRF to thank for where they are today, having received professional diagnoses, treatment and prosthetic limbs all fully funded by the organisation.
An organisation they wish not only to thank, but to help achieve its $1-million funding target for 2014 so that it may continue providing crucial care for every child in the Middle East in need of specialised surgery not available to them locally.
“We hope that this climb will see many important accomplishments,” says Steve Sosebee, CEO of PCRF, “not the least of which is to raise the awareness and support for our humanitarian medical relief work for sick and injured kids in the Middle East. We have many children with medical conditions coming from conflict areas like Syria, Iraq or Gaza who need medical care that their families cannot afford, and which we are obliged to help provide. We also hope that by having two teenagers with amputations climb, that it will be a signal of hope and courage for thousands of other disabled youths in the Middle East, and for the many more all over the world.”
Words from a CEO whose impressive voluntary paediatric medical missions in the Middle East are the only grandiose feature of this organisation, which is headquartered in a small office in Ramallah in the central West Bank, where American Sosebee has lived for the past 25 years successfully organising life-changing and often life-saving, procedures for the innocent victims of war, poverty and occupation. Since its inception in 1991 over 1,000 children in desperate need of costly medical care have been identified and sent for treatment.
“Steve lives in Ramallah and treats Palestinian kids,” says Suzanne, “but that doesn’t mean he only looks after Palestinian kids. They treat all children suffering in conflict areas, regardless of their colour, religion or nationality.”
It perhaps also explains why Suzanne has highlighted the work of the organisation and raised funds for their projects on two separate occasions. In 2004 she climbed the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to raise money for women’s projects in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine and then in 2012 headed up a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the first free paediatric cancer unit in the West Bank, The Huda Al Masri Paediatric Cancer Department.
“It was a real struggle before to help those children,” says the climber. “We were one of the major contributors to that centre. Its fully up and running now and we’re really proud of that.”
That will to help others has continued to play large role in Suzanne’s life, inspiring her to think of other climbs she could carry out to raise funds and awareness for those less fortunate than herself.
The crusading climbers
Aware of all the children falling victim to regional conflict over the course of 2012, especially those who were losing limbs as a consequence, Suzanne believes a climb with amputee youths would successfully draw attention to their plight.
“I knew this kind of a climb, with children in this age group who were also amputees, would be incredibly difficult but very inspiring,” she says. “Especially that they would be carrying a message of hope at a time when there is so little hope in so many parts of the region.”
In early 2013, Suzanne decided to make the intention a reality and, in Dubai, began to put the wheels in motion to select the right youngsters for the challenge. Contacting myriad aid organisations she was again moved by the PCRF’s dedication and commitment and together, they began to select the future participants for The Climb of Hope.
“Their social workers really helped me find the right kids,” she says. “The criteria was that they were in the right age bracket; needed to have an injury and had to have been treated by the PCRF; still had to be in school because there are so many drop-outs; and frankly it was important that they be psychologically strong and stable because this is no easy feat.”
Whittling down the candidates to three children who met the criteria, Suzanne and the PCRF team selected Mutussam, Yasmeen and a young Syrian refugee recently injured in his country’s conflict. Sadly, however, it was decided that the third participant would not attempt the climb due to concerns that the trauma of amputation was still too raw for such a venture.
“One minute he was a normal teenager growing up with a school and a home, the next he was in a tent in a refugee camp,” she explains. “It all happened in two years for him and was a lot to deal with. We have provided him with psychological counselling, funding and a treadmill [on which to train and regain strength] so we are still supporting him and hopefully one day he’ll attempt a climb.”
For the other two youths, as the old adage goes, time has proved it is a healer and both have been able to make the necessary adjustments in their lives. As Suzanne explains, having recently travelled to Gaza to meet Yasmeen face to face, the spirited 17-year-old does not see her amputation as any form of hindrance to her future.
“Yasmeen is a star,” she says. “She has such positivity and such commitment. You just feel so humbled by how much some people have lost and the conditions in which they’re living, but how much light they have to spread over the rest of us.”
Suzanne was visiting Gaza after being issued a 30-day permit for an official visit to be honoured by President Mahmoud Abbas for her mountaineering achievements. The first thing she did following the ceremony was to take the long drive to Yasmeen’s village, Boreen, where she spent two hours with her.
“It was such an incredible moment,” she says, relaying the excitement with which Yasmeen absorbed the information that the president knew about the climb. “She said: ‘I want to prove to the world that nothing is impossible,’” Suzanne recounts. “I want to prove that being without a leg is not a disability. I don’t see myself as disabled’.”
Sadly, due to the on-going conflict in Gaza and with its borders shut, at the time of writing, Suzanne has been unable to meet Mutussam face to face. “He has not even met Yasmeen,” she adds. “He is in Gaza and needs a special permit to leave and she cannot enter. The nightmare we are dealing with now is how to get him out because Gaza is under siege and closed again. We’re trying to get special permission for him; but even if we have to call presidents we will find a way!
“You can see him in a clip on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/PCRF-Palestine-Childrens-Relief-Fund/114319561948157). You see him in what looks like a warehouse where his basic trainer is telling him to work out with the most basic equipment and do more push-ups and he’s strong and committed and still smiling.”
Training under such inadequate conditions has been a challenge and will of course push the children’s reserves to their very limits. Neither Yasmeen nor Mutussam have had access to the kind of air-quality-control gyms in which many Dubai expats train before their mountain climbs, instead the pair has been guided by on-the-ground PCRF mentors. They also follow guidelines sent to them personally by Suzanne, undertake long walks in their local vicinities and work out on treadmills that the PCRF has provided in their homes.
“The training was very good and the trainers have given me everything needed to strengthen my muscles,” says Mutussam. “The problem is Gaza is flat, so I have not had hills to climb, but I go up steps.” While Yasmeen says, “At first I found the training very difficult, but now it’s easy.”
Such basic training only serves to further highlight the pair’s commitment. “This is what makes these two kids even more incredible,” Suzanne says. “Even with a scarcity of resources they are willing to try this. Their commitment is incredible. In Gaza because of the situation it is dangerous for Mutussam to train outside and often there are curfews so we bought them both treadmills so they could always train safely in their homes.”
And safety both while training and on the climb has been a number-one priority for the crew involved, with no detail spared, “No matter what, no summit is worth risking anyone’s safety,” says Suzanne. “We have support staff with us, they must wear a helmet even though that is not a prerequisite for the Kilimanjaro climb, we have doctors on the expedition, the first-aid kit, and evacuation plans. So we have everything set so we are not taking any risks.”
A trip for change
“I feel proud to be one of those who will be climbing the mountain to help other sick and injured kids like me,” says Mutussam, while Yasmeen adds, “I am very proud because it not only gives me hope but it also gives hope to other Arab kids.”
“Its one of the biggest things to happen to them yet,” Suzanne says. “But I really hope that it is the smallest thing in their future because I want them to go on, be amazing and do great things.”
She adds, “They are aware that when they return they will act as ambassadors, we’re preparing them for that. They know they will be giving talks and telling people about the climb, inspiring others with their story. They are really excited and understand the task and want to deliver. When I spoke to Yasmeen she was so happy.”
The kind of acknowledgment the teens are receiving is the kind that Yasmeen, Mutussam, Suzanne, the PCRF and all its supporters want for all children across the Middle East, children who have been unfairly caught up in conflicts and whose lives have been intolerably impaired as a consequence of adult violence.
These are the children for whom Yasmeen and Mutussam will carry the message that disabilities can be overcome. “Before treatment these children see themselves as hopeless, they feel they have no future,” says Suzanne. “After receiving treatment they have hope again, a future.
“This is such a worthwhile cause because these people [those at the PCRF] are really changing lives; they are giving these children the chance to live and the chance to have a genuine quality of life”.
Yasmeen from the West Bank, Mutussam from Gaza, friends who under today’s circumstances would never have the chance to meet, hope to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro holding their flag together, calling for unity and calling for peace and showing the world that a broken spirit can be healed.