I had the opportunity to interview with Dr. Jumana Odeh, who founded the Palestinian Happy Child Center, which provides treatment and care to children with trauma, neurological disorders, as well as learning and developmental disabilities. Disabilities and neurological disorders are taboo in Palestine, which makes it very hard for parents to find care. Dr. Odeh has been working since 1994 to break down the cultural stigmas, and help provide children with early screenings, diagnoses, specialized care, therapy, and support for parents and caregivers. Dr. Odeh was recognized with the World of Children Health Award in 2008, and will be honored again at the 2017 World of Children Hero Awards on April 19th for her continued great impact in serving children with disabilities.
Joanna: When and how did you start the Palestinian Happy Child Center?
Dr. Odeh: Living under military occupation in a society denied from its basic needs; shelter, water, freedom of movement, proper health and education systems, is extremely challenging. I lived most of my life under occupation, therefore, when I graduated from medical school I felt the urgent need to start an initiative to help my people, especially, the most vulnerable, children with disabilities.
Also I’ve learned during my first years of practicing medicine that disability is a taboo in my society and most doctors will not “break the bad news” and inform parents about their children’s disability. I felt the pain of those parents, especially mothers and their children. I found that this is my calling and I wanted to serve those who are most in need.
Q: You’ve said “The approach of PHCC is simple: involve the community so that they come to love and accept this group of children.” What are some ways that you involve the community?
Dr. Odeh: No one would love a child more that his/her parents, therefore if parents are told frankly, why their children are different, what their real needs are, and how they can be helped, then parents will act accordingly.
Each and every child has potential, and health professionals must help parents support their children to fulfill their potential. PHCC’s culturally sensitive multi-disciplinary approach involves parents, grandparents, siblings, school teachers and other care givers in caring for the child with disability.
We network with other civil society organizations to understand and care for children with disability within the community and to provide comprehensive services to children. We also do lots of advocacy work with officials, ministries and community leaders in order to sensitize them to the needs and the rights of those children to live in dignity.
Q: You’ve been doing this for 23 years now! That’s amazing. At this point, do you feel complete fulfillment with your impact, or frustrations of not being able to do more?
Dr. Odeh: My dreams have no limitations, and I never stopped dreaming. The sky is my limit, therefore, I never feel complete fulfillment. I always feel that I can do more and I should do more. Also, I don’t believe in the “impossible”, and I love challenges. Therefore, nothing will stop me from continuing to give and never feel frustrated.
My heart is full of love and hope and I’ve never lost this hope, no matter what. The political situation in my country is so complex and frustrating, therefore, long ago I decided to leave politics to the politicians to fail or succeed! Meanwhile I do my duty towards my people and help Palestinian children thrive and live happily, and not let anyone diminish their spirit.
Q: How do you raise money for supporting mental illness and disorders, something so culturally taboo to Palestine? I imagine that’d be extremely hard.
Dr. Odeh: Yes, indeed, it’s extremely difficult to raise money for an NGO working in the field of health, education, child development and serving children with mental and developmental conditions, as the PHCC do. In fact it’s not because of cultural reasons; it’s hard to fundraise, since most of our funding come from UN and the international community.
I believe that it is the duty of the international community to help the Palestinian people living under occupation, till at least, they are able to build their independent state with sovereignty. But unfortunately, the work of PHCC is not a priority for many international NGOs. Locally, it’s difficult to fundraise since the majority of people are poor and unemployment rate are high.
The Palestinian state is unable to take care of its people, therefore it will continue to be the duty of Palestinian NGOs and civil society to fulfill the gaps and serve the population.
Yet, there are beautiful local initiatives that helped PHCC, such as fathers volunteering to paint the PHCC’s main office, help in daily maintenance and maintaining the PHCC website. Also there were hundreds of cases when a “less needy mother” helped a “more needy mother,” or a father helping another father with transportation. Small help but with a great effect.
Q: It’s been said that the most vulnerable members of native Palestinian society are children with disabilities. Does this extend to adults with disabilities also?
Dr. Odeh: Yes, it does. We believe in prevention, early detection and early intervention, since it is easier to work with children when they are so young. Early intervention will prevent them from getting worse with time, when they become adults.
Q: Has the government(s) helped you or the Happy Child Centers in any way?
Dr. Odeh: Although our government has limited resources, yet, they are cooperative and we complement each other’s work. They are open to our suggestions and thoughts. We conducted an effective screening program with the Ministry of Health, for early detection of developmental disorders including autism, and we wish to be able and continue with this very important and challenging project.
Q: If you had no limitations, what would you do with the Palestinian Happy Child Centers?
Dr. Odeh: I wish there is a “Happy Child Center” in each part of the world, where needed. Especially that the PHCC model is applicable for low and middle income countries. Nationally, I would love to see the PHCC as a center of excellence and a model for children with disability. I hope that one day the PHCC can also serve as a training center for professionals working with children with disabilities.
Q: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from these children with neurological disorders and disabilities?
Dr. Odeh: They taught me that nothing is impossible. They surprise us with their abilities to learn, improve and dream. They are truly resilient.
When parents ask, how long would it take for their child to improve, my answer is usually, I really don’t know. But from my experience, children are capable of making it happen and improve quicker than we thought! They gave my life a meaning. Their happiness is mine, their success is mine.
Q: How can people learn more, get involved, or help in any way?
Dr. Odeh: We are in the process of upgrading our website in order to reach more people, who are interested in the work of PHCC. The World of Children Hero Awards event is a very important, platform for the PHCC to be seen and heard.
A Palestinian family from the diaspora has donated a piece of land for the PHCC, in order to build a Head Quarter in Ramallah. We are in the process of advocating and raising money for this building. We hope to reach as many as possible people who are interested to donate to such a noble cause, and we are sure there are many.
Joanna: Thanks so much to Dr Jumana Odeh for interviewing, the work she does is Amazing. You can find more info and links below.
About World Of Children
World of Children is led by Founders Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz, retired senior executives from Procter & Gamble and Victoria’s Secret respectively. Since they founded the organization in 1998, with the goal of setting the gold standard in child advocacy award programs, World of Children has granted more than $9 million in cash grants and program support to more than 100 Honorees who are the driving force behind programs that have served tens of millions of children worldwide.
For more information, please visit www.worldofchildren.org or http://www.worldofchildren.org/events/2017-hero-awards/
Palestinian Happy Child Center: Facebook