ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Health Care in the Jordan Valley

The rural population of the West Bank and Gaza benefits from a unique health care program.

It was on the road to Jericho that the Good Samaritan came across the man who was beaten by robbers. A descent of some 3,000 feet from Jerusalem, the road to Jericho is narrow and full of dangerous curves.

The contrast is striking as one makes the descent: one sees a patchwork of barren wilderness juxtaposed with flourishing agricultural plots. There is little prosperity, however, for the tens of thousands of Palestinians living there.

Dangerous, maybe, but today there are still good samaritans to look after the needy. The samaritans of today are young women and men who are returning to their own villages to care for those who are isolated and lack basic health care services.

The Jordan Valley was neglected during the Jordanian and Israeli occupations of the West Bank. The area suffered from a lack of social service infrastructure, especially in education and health care. Those institutions that did exist were poorly equipped.

Children of the Palestinian farm laborers who live in the makeshift towns in the valley walk several miles to the nearest government school. There is no high school available and, until recently, there were no health care services.

In 1985, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) established a health care center in the village of ‘Ayn A-Dyuk for more than 25,000 inhabitants living in different parts of the Jordan Valley, including: the town of Jericho, the villages of ‘Ayn A-Dyuk and A-Nu’yma and the ‘Agahat Jahr refugee camp.

Founded in 1979 by Palestinian physicians to address the health care needs of the rural population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, UPMRC is the largest non-governmental organization serving the Palestinians. All of these health care professionals, each of whom was trained abroad, are members of UPMRC and must volunteer their services. Some, in fact, leave their private practice to live in the Jordan Valley and run small clinics for these poor farm workers and their families. Currently, there are some 800 professional health care workers in 32 clinics.

The health care providers carry out both primary and preventive health care functions. They undertake community research, conduct home visits and perform simple medical procedures. Many of these health care professionals currently work in their native villages, thus overcoming cultural barriers and forging links with their communities.

Since its inception, UPMRC has placed a high value on the training of health care professionals. The union’s school for community health workers is the only one of its kind in the Occupied Territories. More than 110 young women have graduated from the one-year course and returned to their own villages to work.

In collaboration with other local and international organizations, UPMRC has conducted short and extended training courses for other health care professionals. The three-month course in community-based rehabilitation has trained more than 30 field workers to help integrate the physically and mentally disabled into their communities. In just a few years, this program has transformed the way many Palestinian communities view the disabled.

Other shorter and more specialized training sessions have also been held. Seminars on diabetes have been offered for doctors to learn more about the various complications of the disease. In collaboration with both Christian and Muslim religious leaders, parents of children with vision and hearing disabilities have been counseled about the consequences of close inter-family marriages.

Perhaps the most visible function of UPMRC is its 32 clinics scattered throughout the poorest areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These areas have no potable water or sewage disposal systems. They include villages in the Jordan Valley like ‘Ayn A-Dyuk and A-Nu’yma.

In the village of AI-’Oja, where the union established a clinic in 1985, health care services include dental care, prenatal care and immunization for about 3,000 people living in the area.

In a recent visit to a family in Jiflik, a hamlet north of Jericho, we learned of the day-to-day hardships families must endure in the area. Our visit coincided with the great Islamic fast, Ramadan. Our hosts offered us a cool drink; they took nothing since the fast prohibits the consumption of any food or drink until after sunset. The entire family worked the land. A small community school is some miles away but most children do not attend. And almost no one can go to secondary school – there is no public transportation to the high school, which lies more than 20 miles away.

The family lives in a barracks of sorts, which originally served as a warehouse for grain storage. There is no ventilation in the corrugated steel shell, nor running water, electricity nor sanitation services. The summer heat is oppressive and the winter, cold and wet. These conditions, which are not atypical, have had a direct impact on the health of the community. In addition, overcrowded living conditions, and just plain poverty, are key contributors to health problems.

Without the UPMRC clinic in Jiflik there would be little hope for health care and there certainly would be no educational services for preventive care.

The clinic is a two-room building on the edge of the barracks that form this small village. One room is used for examination and treatment of patients, the other for records and supplies. The clinic – which is staffed by a doctor who lives nearby and has volunteered for a year and a woman from the village who assists him – is without proper ventilation, heating and running water. Unlike most of the dwellings in the village, however, the clinic has windows; it is the center of the village, a point of pride.

Because of the long days that most of the villagers spend working on the land, most see the doctor in the early evenings and on Fridays, the usual day off. The doctor and his assistant spend their days visiting expectant mothers, the elderly and the infirm in their homes.

The doctor often goes to the fields to talk with the workers. He is especially concerned about the effects of the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals on the health of his community and instructs the workers about the dangers.

These are the people who provide hope for the Palestinian community as they advance developmental initiatives through democratically organized grass roots organizations. Among these, UPMRC has established itself as an effective service provider and advocate for the disenfranchised. (The World Health Organization, or WHO, has modeled some of its own projects on UPMRC programs.)

Our Jerusalem office has been supporting UPMRC and its primary health clinics and training programs for 10 years. In the absence of health care provisions during two occupations, and in the midst of a fragmented health care policy by the Palestinian Authority, UPMRC continues to be a vital force for the community. Hopefully, through increased coordination with the Palestine Authority, private voluntary agencies like UPMRC may bring significant change to the lives of many Palestinians.

Brother Donald Mansir is Vice President of the Pontifical Mission.

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