LYNN NEARY, HOST:
The ongoing conflict in Gaza has damaged hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, leaving major gaps in health care. Children with cancer in particular struggle to get the proper treatment they need. They often have to travel to Israel or much further. One American nonprofit called the Palestine Children's Relief Fund wants to change that. They're building a new large pediatric cancer center in Gaza. Joining us to speak more about this project is Steve Sosebee. He's the CEO and co-founder of the fund. And he joins us now from our NPR studio in New York. Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Sosebee.
STEVE SOSEBEE: Thank you for having me.
NEARY: So give us a sense of just how big a problem this is for children there and for their parents.
SOSEBEE: Well, children in Gaza face food issues, face educational issues, face health care issues on a much larger scale than just cancer. And our organization addresses those issues. We found significant gap in the services that are available in pediatric oncology and hematology. Our organization wants to address those because children who are suffering from cancer have virtually no care at all in the Gaza Strip. And as you can imagine, the lack of even the most basic chemotherapy, pain management, palliative care and so on being unavailable in Gaza is just a huge burden on the health care system, on the families and most importantly on the patients.
NEARY: So those treatment options really are not even available at all, you're saying.
SOSEBEE: Virtually nonexistent.
NEARY: What do children and their parents do? Where do they go for treatment?
SOSEBEE: Most of the kids are referred outside, if they're able to get outside. There is no free access in and out of the Gaza Strip. You must have a permit from the Israeli army to leave the Gaza Strip. Now, Israel does issue permits for humanitarian cases to leave and - to go to Israeli hospitals for specialized oncological care. It's an extremely long and bureaucratic process, and it's also a very challenging one for the patients and for their families because now a new order just came down that children cannot travel with anyone under the age of 55. So it's a big burden for the families. You can imagine that means the grandmother has to go.
NEARY: Yeah, presumably the parents are younger than 55.
SOSEBEE: Yeah, almost in every case.
NEARY: Tell us about the building of this center, and that has to be a big challenge, too. How difficult is it given the political situation in the region just to get equipment in there to build it?
SOSEBEE: It is. Well, let me first just give you a little bit of background. We built the first and only public pediatric cancer department in the West Bank in Bethlehem about two years ago. The problem is that those children in Gaza are unable to get out on a regular basis. Therefore, we need to build services for them in the Gaza Strip. About half of the population of Gaza are children, so it's a very poor and impoverished land. So the challenges that we face are extreme. The political challenges are that getting equipment in is under the regulation and control of the Israeli military. The government in Gaza is run by Hamas, which the U.S. government deems as a terrorist organization, so there's no kind of contact with them. And getting things like cement in, getting drugs in is very challenging and extremely difficult.
NEARY: How far along are you now?
SOSEBEE: We just finished the initial stages of the design being finalized, choosing a contractor and we'll start building before the end of this month.
NEARY: When do you expect it will be up and running?
SOSEBEE: We hope in the best case scenario that it will be done within one year. But unfortunately, the circumstances now on the ground throughout the occupied territories is extremely volatile. And we do hope that the situation in Gaza will not deteriorate. All we can do is try to provide services based on the needs of the people and not prevent the realities of working on the ground there to stop us from doing what our role and responsibility is as a humanitarian organization, which is to look beyond politics, look beyond the religion and look strictly at the needs of the children there and trying to serve those needs to the best of our ability.
NEARY: Mr. Sosebee, thanks so much for being with us.
SOSEBEE: It's my pleasure.
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