With a few others, I finally managed to get out of Gaza to participate at the third Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance (LPHA) Conference in Beirut. My participation in two previous scientific events of the LPHA, at Birzeit University in the West Bank, had only been possible through videoconference. Commuting from the “besieged” Gaza Strip to the “bantustanized” West Bank was only a beautiful daydream in a nightmarish daily reality at the time.
After passing through the “Arab Spring” country, Egypt, I arrived in the “Switzerland of the East”. I made a quick telephone call from the opulent hotel where I was staying, in the glittering shopping district of Hamra, to my classmate at medical school, Dr. Mustapha Miaari. I hadn’t seen him for more than 20 years, so I couldn’t wait to see him. When we finally met again, I could not turn down his invitation to come to his house in Shatila Refugee camp which is located inside the Lebanese capital. A world apart from glitzy Beirut, we got into the main street of Shatila by car but then we had to continue on foot in the narrow alleys. The misery of the camp was shocking. The place is even poorer and more overcrowded than the worst refugee camp in Gaza! The people of the camp, the wretched of the earth – borrowing Frantz Fanon’s phrase, who were dispossessed of their homeland 65 years ago, do not have citizenship, only UN identity cards, and are banned from 72 occupations, including medical practice, in Lebanon.
At the conference, I was able to meet Rita Giacaman, professor and founder of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University, with whom I have been in touch for more than 10 years, albeit only through emails, phone calls and videoconference meetings. In her welcome remarks, Rita coined the term PPES – Post Prison Excitement Syndrome, pointing to the irony of our inability as Palestinians to meet inside Palestine, and our excitement when we bump into each other abroad, feeling somewhat relieved after getting out of the country!
The 2 day-conference which took place at the oldest American University in the Middle East was amazing, not because researchers from Gaza and the West Bank were able to meet each other, but because of the smorgasbord of topics and researchers brought to the table. Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, who was diligently recording everything said during the oral scientific presentations in his notebook (he used his iPad for sending tweets, I reckon), discussed the relation between science and social justice. He observed that research could play an active role in promoting justice, citizenship and accountability, and could generate knowledge to defend universal principles of human rights. From his iPad, Horton also posted the following tweet: “There’s general frustration that public health seen through the lens of social determinants is wrong. What matters? Political determinants.”
After the conference, I did not immediately return back home. I am taking a short break from Gaza and my job, and enjoying Europe, where I am following courses in Health Policy and Mixed Research Methods. But confronted with the news of recent Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, my heart is still home, caring for the lives of my beloved ones and worrying about the risk of PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder) for my 5 year-old daughter.