Reaching the un-reached

“Our aim is to reach 1.2 million children with this campaign.  Every child counts and this is why we came today to reach the un-reached children” said Dr. Iyad. (Nasser Ishtayeh)

On a sunny Thursday morning, we headed towards Mneizel to immunize children against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) as part of the national immunization campaign. The drive from Jerusalem to Mneizel, a Bedouin area south of Hebron took more than expected. The drive that should normally take two hours, took almost four hours. It was not for the drive, but for the delayed access as a result of the Israeli manned checkpoint few kilometers before reaching Mneizel.

In a UN car and a UN flag, we drove from Jerusalem to Hebron to pick up Dr. Iyad and nurse Hanan from the Ministry of Health directorate, as well as the Reuters news agency crew.

As we drove in two cars, heading towards Menizel, we reached an Israeli manned checkpoint. As part of the security procedures, both cars were stopped. Unfortunately for the news crew, Dr. Iyad and Hanan were driving with them.

Dr. Iyad and Hanan presented their green Palestinian identity cards to a young Israeli soldier who decided to carry out a security check. The same young soldier walked towards our UN car and asked for our IDs as well. To our dismay, the UN car was allowed to pass, while the news agency car was not. With calmness yet disappointment, I told the soldier: “We are one team, we cannot leave those people behind”. The young soldier whose name I got to know later, was Yoval said: “I am sorry, but I need to get clearance from my superiors for them to pass”. One and a half hours later and only after numerous negotiations with Yoval, the news agency car was allowed to pass.

The long drive through hilly paved road with grape vines on each side of the road, ended with a much worse drive. We drove through a bumpy unpaved dirt road that it felt as if we were riding a roller coaster in Disneyland. Finally, we reached an old tiny two-storey building, that had a big sign which read ‘Mneizel Basic School’. Peaking out of the car window, we saw almost hundred children cueing under the sun in a small shabby playground waiting for us to start the immunization campaign.

As Dr. Iyad and Hanan were getting ready to immunize the kids against the three infectious diseases, measles, mumps and rubella, we listened to the kids singing. The kids were boys and girls of different ages.

The kids were instructed to enter a small room in groups of four, to be immunized. Baraa’, meaning innocence, an 8-year old girl with big blue eyes, was scared to enter the room. As she rolled up her sleeve, Hanan, the nurse started rubbing the alcohol on Baraa’s arm, and injected her with the vaccine. As she got out of the room, Baraa’ told her friends: “I was scared that it would be painful, but I really did not feel the pain”.

Baraa’ is in second grade and her favourite subject area is Arabic. “I like Arabic the most because when I grow older I want to become an Arabic teacher”. Baraa’ being the second child in her family, has four brothers. Her father is unemployed and her mother is a housewife. During the summer of 2004, the family originally came from Jenin (north of West Bank) to visit family members in Menizel. Since then, they could not get back to Jenin because of restricted access and mobility.

Baraa’ and her best friend Soujoud, after being immunized against MMR, were playing hopscotch in the small playground waiting for their friends to be immunized. One child after the other was entering the room to be immunized. All children came out happy as they also received an educational leaflet on protection from the three infectious diseases, measles, mumps and rubella. It took Dr. Iyad and Hanan approximately two hours to immunize all one hundred children. “Our aim is to reach 1.2 million children with this MMR campaign. Every child counts and this is why we came today to reach the un-reached children” said Dr. Iyad.

Menizel is a Palestinian Bedouin area in Southern Hebron, housing more than 350 people, out of which more than 150 are children below the age of 18. It is one of those remote areas where Palestinians’ access is either denied or restricted. The Bedouin area has one school, Mneizel Basic school, serving 96 children from first through ninth grade. The school has only five small rooms, with each room serving two grades at a time. “We were not granted a license to expand the school, but we have a major responsibility to teach our children. The only solution was to have two grades sitting in the same classroom” said Jafar, an Arabic language teacher.

Jafar has been teaching in the school for the past 12 years. He is a dedicated Arabic language teacher who lives in a nearby village, 12 kilometers from Menizel. Due to restricted access, Jafar walks through the valleys and hills in order to reach school to avoid the Israeli manned checkpoints. A trip to school that should not take more than 12 minutes by car, takes him more than two hours. With pride in his eyes, Jafar said “I am determined to continue to teach these children, because if I don’t do so, who will?”.

The 3-4 week long immunization campaign is being led by the Ministry of Health in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of the Palestinian Authority, UNICEF, and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Financial support is also being provided by the Government of Japan.

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