The kids had travelled to Dubai in need of medical aid, specifically prosthetic limbs. They were going to be housed in foster homes during their four-week stay.
Thus the foster families were present to greet Yasmin Mustafa Al Najjar, Mohammad Fawaz Saeed Sawafteh and Ahmad Yousef Daraghmeh with warm smiles and welcoming embraces.
"We connected to Najjar immediately," says Lena Al Borno, one foster parent, recounting the first meeting. As they drove, she says, "We were chatting away." Their conversational tone segued from incipient diffidence to unrestrained jollity. Her daughter Yasmine shares Najjar's first name and age. "Both Yasmine and my son Kamal, 6, loved her."
Najjar with her fun-loving, risible disposition made friends easily. Over the next three weeks, the girls became fast friends. They would stay up late, talking and eating candy. Najjar and Kamal grew fond of each other too and together they would come up with novel games.
Lena treated Najjar as she would her own daughter and as such didn't accede to any unreasonable demands. "If we went shopping and if she [Najjar] wanted three DVDs, I would allow only one. The same rule applied to their bed timings," says Lena, a year-old member of the PCRF.
Najjar was right at home in the Al Borno residence and with their Labrador Biscuit. When Lena asked her about her day she would reply with the words "great" or "awesome". Even on the days of medical fittings.
The Al Borno family did all they could to make Najjar's visit special. A family trip to her first-ever movie was a start. Lena says, "She had never been to one and we wanted to be part of that experience. We did the routine - McDonald's and then to the theatre to watch Old Dogs [a family comedy]. She was laughing her head off." Najjar also loved the trampoline. "The kids love jumping on it [in their garden]," says she.
Now that Najjar has returned to the West Bank, her absence is felt both in spirit and in physical reminders. A stow-away bed for instance is now a plaintive piece of furniture. Lena says, "Yasmine refuses to put her [Najjar's] bed away. The kids miss her terribly. We were very emotional when she left. We telephoned her parents and we will continue to stay in touch."
Lena admits that initially she prepared herself to host a child with special needs, but says she was "shocked" by Najjar's mobility. "She was able to do everything. She was content - whether she got a limb or not! Almost like she didn't need one."
The Al Bornos believe that charity shouldn't be about monetary contribution. Lena says, "Giving money is the weakest link. It isn't rewarding enough. Spending time with her [Najjar] proved to be a rewarding experience in more ways than one. It was a reality check of sorts too. My children live a sheltered life and aren't exposed to children with special needs or involved in the community. They now know first-hand. I would like to see more families volunteering."
One could assume that Najjar, especially after her stay in Dubai, harbours dreams of leaving Palestine for a better life. "Oh no," says Lena. "When she spoke of her future she said she wanted to go back and become a doctor."
Like the Al Bornos there were two other families who offered their homes. "They promptly responded when we said three children were looking for host families," says Wehbe.
And so Alessandra Antonelli and her 10-year-old boys Amin and Shadi also drove from the airport towards their home in The Springs with Daraghmeh in the back seat. From the moment he sat in the car, the guided tour began. "We pointed out landmarks along the way and suddenly we realised he had fallen asleep! Ahmad had travelled a long way and clearly was tired. After we reached, he changed and went straight to bed," says Antonelli whose husband Mazen Al Sa'ad was out of town on the day they picked Daraghmeh. "Before his arrival, the boys were busy making plans… trips to the museum, restaurants, parks and other exciting places."
Antonelli and Al Sa'ad are all too familiar with the reality of life in Palestine. They lived there for five years before relocating first to Jordan and then to Dubai. "Even though my boys were young [when they lived in Palestine], they know the situation. We go back every summer. We know how difficult it is to get appropriate medical aid," says Antonelli, a media professional who has always wanted to help children in Palestine.
Her husband and she got in touch with PCRF and offered to help Daraghmeh. For the first few days he was homesick; he didn't dissemble his feelings. According to Antonelli he is the kind of boy who would "if he were sad, show it, and if he were happy, jump and hop in glee".
And the one place he was happiest was the seaside. "Even the chilly temperature didn't deter him. He would try to swim along with Amin and Shadi. Anyone could see his joy. I was astonished to see his courage."
Back at the house, Daraghmeh would splash around in the resident pool and was at his happiest again. Another delightful time Antonelli remembers is when he opened his Christmas gifts. "He was very curious about Christmas and Santa Claus. He helped me put up the Christmas tree. When he saw his gifts, he couldn't wait to open them. Early on Christmas morning he unwrapped a helicopter, bag and book and colouring pencils. He eyes twinkled. He told me that his birthday was in November and he didn't receive a gift."
The third family, the Abuljebains - Nader and Dina Abuljebain with their sons Khairy and Osama, wanted to help a Palestinian child too. Dina was a board member for the Los Angeles Chapter of PCRF in the US where she lived for 10 years. She was familiar with their activities and used to host children during the day due to her work schedule. In Dubai, she has flexible timings as an organisational development consultant and was able to dedicate more time, especially as her sons are older. She had plenty of time for Sawafteh, starting from the airport.
"I got used to having him around. He calls me Khalto Dina [auntie Dina in Arabic]. He loves fruit and would ask, ‘Khalto Dina I want bananas'. I miss him. He has called a few times since he left," she says.
Sawafteh picked up new skills at the Abuljebain household. Osama taught him to play the guitar and piano. "My sons were like his elder brothers," says Dina. "They would come back from work and take him out for ice cream. They would talk and play on the computer and surf the internet. Mohammad loves computers. During the day, I would ask him to Google his favourite subjects, especially animals," she says.
At his foster home, Sawafteh played with the Japanese dog and two cats. "We also took him to the movies, restaurants and to the aquaria. I remember taking him to eat his first burger too. He is like my son. Even though I would offer to help him at home, he would refuse. Yet he was comfortable, sitting around us. He is an extremely sharp and well-mannered boy."
The experience of opening their doors to Sawafteh was special. Dina says she will continue to volunteer even if children come with parents. "I couldn't have helped Mohammad had it not been for my house help Siryani and the PCRF volunteers."
The people behind PCRF deserve the approbation and plaudits. Every step - from the time social workers in Palestine selected the children to arranging for medical aid and liaising with host families for their stay - is the result of assiduous effort and commitment.
The PCRF networks with doctors and hospitals has till date brought 41 children to Dubai.
And three among many numbers are Najjar, Sawafteh and Daraghmeh who are back in Palestine. Najjar will be able to balance on her cycle; Sawafteh will be able to wear his unused right shoe; and Daraghmeh will be able to look good in photos again. These were their simple wishes - all fulfilled.
When they first came, their measurements for prosthetics were taken at the Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Charitable Establishment and three weeks later their fittings were done. And during this waiting period, their world was vivified by the presence of their foster families and the volunteers who arranged for their medical and social activities.
"Volunteers take the kids out, visit them, help in parks, take them for BBQs and drop and pick them to medical appointments. People think it is easy. It isn't," says Wehbe, an active member who works closely with Iman Odeh Yabroudi, the logistics coordinator who liaised with the host families.
"When we began bringing children, we had to support their stay. So fundraisers were organised to pay for hotels," says Wehbe.
Unfortunately hotels weren't ideal - too insular a location for children. "We wanted host families. The first time we had a host family was when Haitham, an 18-year-old boy, came for a prosthetic arm last year. So this time around we had more experience and knew what the children would need," says Wehbe.
The team at PCRF is proud of their efforts. "We didn't always have non-monetary support," she says.
And though Najjar, Sawafteh and Daraghmeh have resumed ordinary life in Palestine, their stories are the apotheoses of extraordinary courage.
For more info log on to www.pcrf.net
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