Aliza Risenberg and Adva Ishan play with 2 year old Mohammed Sawalhe from Nablus as his mother, Samar, (left) and an aunt (in back) look on.On the second floor of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital’s center of pediatric oncology, a cacophony of beeps and computerized melodies spills out into the corridor from the recreation room. Inside, Jewish high school volunteers sit
alongside young Arab cancer patients playing computer games, enraptured by an interactive Elmo cartoon on the screen.
The volunteers come from a public service project called “Sunflower”, whose mission is to help make the hospital a friendlier place for children who are receiving cancer treatment or recovering from an operation.
This includes the handful of young Palestinian patients at the hospital who have journeyed from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan, crossing battle lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict to receive treatment at the internationally renowned cancer center.
The Sunflower program – sponsored by Israeli internet service provider Netvision and the ORT network of technical high school was originally conceived to boost the spirits of young cancer patients and help children avoid falling behind in school. But the project has evolved into a shining example of the coexistence. Here, the high school volunteers leave politics aside and they join with Palestinian children to fight a common enemy – cancer.
Ichilov doctors and nurses said they’re not interested in nationality of the patients that show up at the hospital reception, or their financial situation. The only factor that matters is whether or not doctors believe
they can save the patient.
“Research demonstrates that children who are happy in their hearts have a better chance of recovery,” said Nili Saban, who oversees the high school volunteers at Ichilov. “We come here to make them laugh.”
Although Sunflower wasn’t intended as a coexistence program, the Palestinian and Israeli children who play games together on the ward represent the only interaction between most of the youth from both sides of the conflict. Saban said communication is often biggest obstacle between Arab children and Sunflower volunteers.
“Sometimes they speak a little English. Sometimes they use their hands,” said Saban. “Most of the time, playing with the computers is an international language.”
The program, which has been running for five years, sends two students to the hospital three times a week. The volunteers, whose ages range from 16 to 18, bring computer games with them to the hospital and come ready to assist with homework.
Two years ago, 16-year old Aliza Risenberg found herself hospitalized in the children’s ward of Ichilov after undergoing operation. The experience made her want to return to the hospital to help other patients.
“I know what it’s like to be lying in a hospital,” Risenberg said. “It’s not the most fun thing in the world.”
Although the volunteers are often warned by their parents to stay off the busses when traveling to the hospital due to the possibility of Palestinian suicide bombers, once they arrive at the children’s ward the Israeli high school students try to block out the conflict swirling around them. Their main goal is to help the patients, be they Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian.
Both Risenberg and her classmate Adva Ishan admit it’s the first time they’ve talked to Palestinians, and that they are grilled by classmate about what “they” are like.
“They are just children who are ill and you just want to help make them better. They are the future of their people,” Aliza said. “I just hope that their being here will affect them, and they will choose a different way. Not terror, but peace.”