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Twilight zone / An organic bond

16 September 2011 | Haaretz

This is a bad story with a happy ending. It’s also a story that makes one happy, but still leaves a bit of a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

It’s the story of a Palestinian baby girl who was born during a period of unrelenting siege and curfew in her village and became ill, so that her parents had to carry her through the hills to a hospital. It’s the story of a Palestinian infant who needed a kidney transplant but for whom no suitable donor was found in the family; finally, a courageous South African woman decided to donate one of her kidneys to the little girl. It’s the story of how the donor got to Israel, after a complicated legal effort involving government authorities and after donations were collected to finance the operation. It’s the story of a successful transplant and the girl’s full and joyful recovery. But it is also a story that has something bad about it: At present, Israel is preventing the donor from visiting the girl whose life she saved.

Lina Taamallah

It was Lina Taamallah’s bad luck to be born on the day Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, in the late winter of 2002. The delivery was in Rafadiyeh Hospital in Nablus. It was a rainy day, tanks and soldiers were everywhere, and most of the villages and towns were under curfew.

“It was a miracle that we made it to the hospital at all,” recalls her father, Fareed, 37, who holds a master’s degree in journalism and international relations from Birzeit University and works for the Palestinian Authority’s elections commission. His wife, Amina, a housewife, gave birth to Lina by C-section.

A few months later, Lina fell ill. For a week it was impossible to get her out of the house and to a doctor because of the curfew in their village, Qira, near Salfit. Lina, who developed a high fever and had severe diarrhea, was treated according to telephone instructions by a pediatrician, using medicines in her parents’ home.

In an article Fareed Taamallah published in The Los Angeles Times in May 2006, he described how his wife once had to carry Lina five kilometers through the hills of the West Bank to reach a doctor. In the wrenching article, Taamallah drew a connection between Lina’s ordeal at that time and the kidney failure that afflicted her a few months later.

When she was a year old, Lina contracted anemia. At first she was thought to be suffering from thalassemia, a blood disorder, but her parents had undergone genetic testing before the birth so that was ruled out. A few months later, Lina (who has three healthy siblings ) was diagnosed with renal failure. The family endured 16 hard months, in which she underwent dialysis every four hours, 24 hours a day, via a special machine suitable for infants.

Her physical development was arrested and her parents’ life became unendurable. Distraught, they turned their home into a kind of miniature hospital and they themselves became a medical team: It was essential to ensure that Lina did not come down with any infection. “I can’t bring myself to remember that period,” Fareed says now. “It was a nightmare.”

It was urgent to find a kidney donor for Lina, to save her life and then upgrade its quality. Her parents were willing to donate a kidney but were quickly found to be incompatible. Desperate, they looked for another solution. They examined the possibility of obtaining a kidney from Egypt or Pakistan, but discovered there are serious ethical problems about the way kidneys are harvested in those countries. Fareed says he did not know what to do.

Around this time, he met Anna Weekes (whose father is Jewish ), who later went by the name Majavu, from Cape Town; she was born in 1973. They met at a summer camp of Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists in the West Bank. Anna stayed with the family after the camp disbanded and became a good friend. She knew Lina almost from the day of the girl’s birth. After a time, Anna was put on the Israeli authorities’ blacklist and deported due to her pro-Palestinian activity in the West Bank; she was in Britain at the time Lina fell ill. Fareed informed her about the development by e-mail, and she replied immediately that she would donate a kidney.

“I didn’t believe it. I thought she only wanted to express solidarity and friendship, and that the offer was meant just to make me happy,” Fareed says. He thanked Anna politely and added that at that point, he and his wife were then undergoing tests to see if they could be donors. Two months later, Fareed wrote to Anna that both they were incompatible, and Anna repeated her offer and emphasized that she was perfectly serious.

Anna then suggested that the transplant be done in Britain, however, under British law, organs must be donated by a member of the family. She decided to come to Israel for a compatibility check, and entered using a different passport which she carried legally. She underwent the examination in a private hospital in Nablus, in the meantime taking part in demonstrations against the separation fence in Bil’in and Budrus – and was again deported. She was found to be compatible.

“Now we had a compatible donor but one who could not enter the country,” Fareed recalls, going on to describe the family’s ordeal to save his daughter’s life: They considered having the operation done in South Africa, Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan, but discovered that in all these countries the donor had to be from the family. They found that the most suitable place for the transplant was Israel, where organs can be donated by people who are not family members after a professional committee considers the motives for the donation.

A few devoted friends of Fareed’s – Israeli peace activists who had heard about Lina’s illness – rallied to the cause. “We now faced two battles,” Fareed explains, “the battle to get Anna into the country and the battle to raise $40,000 to pay for the transplant.” They had to choose between Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva and Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. With the help of local friends, they chose the latter, which offered to do the operation at a discount. After lobbying, the Palestinian Authority agreed to cover half the cost of the transplant, the Peres Center for Peace also contributed and the rest was obtained through private donations. All that remained was to bring in Anna.

Attorney Gabi Lasky, who specializes in human rights cases, conducted negotiations with the Interior Ministry for Anna to be allowed to enter the country because of the special humanitarian situation. The authorities finally relented – on condition that Anna go directly from the airport to the hospital, have the kidney harvested and then return directly to the airport. Fareed himself was (and still is ) barred from entering Israel, and Lina’s mother took her for the preliminary tests at the hospital alone.

In September 2005, Lina entered Hadassah. Anna arrived from South Africa – after she was interrogated for several hours at the airport – and the operation was performed on October 2, 2005. Lina was three years old at the time. Her father also finally received a permit to be with her at the hospital. On the day of the operation, Anna’s fiance, Mandisi Majavu, arrived to be with her at the hospital.

The transplant was successfully performed by Prof. Ahmed Eid, head of the department of surgery at Hadassah in Ein Karem. Anna was discharged after a week and taken to Qira for recovery. She stayed there for about a month and flew home to South Africa on the day Lina was discharged. “We only had a few hours when the two of them were together,” Fareed relates.

On the last night of Anna’s stay in the village, the family held an improvised wedding reception for her and her fiance, who would be married a few weeks later in South Africa. The photos of the party in the family album reflect tremendous joy: Anna in a colorful and traditional embroidered Palestinian dress; Mandisi in a kaffiyeh and galabiya, both pure white, rolling amber beads with his fingers.

A short while later at the airport, Anna was again interrogated for a few hours before being allowed to leave. The security people told her she would never be allowed into Israel again. She did not sign any document, she said this week. Since then, she and Mandisi have become the parents of a daughter in South Africa. Her name: Bil’in Nkwenkwezi.

Lina recovered fully. We met her this week in the family’s second home, in an affluent suburb of El Bireh, next to Ramallah. She is a charming girl, full of life. One cannot see any outward signs of what she went through. She is in the fourth grade in the American School of Palestine, which is near her home.

Every few months she goes to Hadassah for a checkup, and because her father cannot enter Israel, an Israeli volunteer takes her from the checkpoint to the hospital. It’s usually Shraga Gorny, a 76-year-old Jerusalemite. Gorny, an electronics engineer, worked for 41 years at the Hebrew University and for the past 10, did medical research at Hadassah. Gorny regularly volunteers to drive Palestinian children for medical treatment at the hospital, which is how he met Lina and her family and got to know them well. (He is one of a group of Israelis – among them Herzliya-based peace activist Dorothy Naor – involved in such efforts.)

A few weeks ago, Gorny wrote me: “The girl who was like a matchstick before the transplant now looks beautiful and blooming.”

According to Fareed, Lina is not yet able to appreciate what Anna did for her. For her part, Anna told me this week, on the phone from Cape Town: “It was nothing. The body does not need two kidneys. I did not do anything special. I don’t think it was a noble act, as you said. I know the family and I have known Lina since she was born. I know the ordeals the family endured when they had to go through the hills by foot to get her to the hospital during the period of the curfew. It was only logical for me to donate a kidney for her. That was my duty. I just worry that Lina’s kidney will function and that no problems will arise in another few years.”

Anna is now a journalist in South Africa and raising Bil’in. Meanwhile, in a few weeks, the family will celebrate the sixth anniversary of the transplant. They celebrate Lina’s rebirth every year and their dream is for Anna to join them. Lina has never met Anna since the operation, but Anna is still banned from entering Israel.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority sent the following response to Haaretz: “An examination of the details shows that there is no request by Mrs. Weekes to enter Israel. The interrogation she underwent when she left the country was not carried out by a representative of the authority, so, accordingly, in the absence of a reason of which we are not aware, there is nothing to prevent her from visiting Israel. “It should be clarified that if she wishes to enter the territories of the Palestinian Authority,” the spokeswoman continues, “she must arrange this with the coordinator of government activities in the territories. It is also desirable to check the question of why she was delayed [at the airport] with the relevant authorities.”

The Shin Bet security service provided this response to Haaretz: “Usually, the person authorized to either permit or deny the entry of Mrs. Weekes into Israel would be the interior minister, or someone associated with him. At this time, it is not his intention to recommend, to any authorized figure, to object to her entry unless negative up-to-date security-related information about her is received which would change his position.”