A father’s loss in Gaza, a major win for Canada

Friday, September 18, 2009 – Globe and Mail

TORONT and O — At his comfortable Toronto home, the star recruit of Canada’s most ambitious graduate public-health program is the perfect host: He pours tea and arranges chairs; his eldest children bring out plate after plate of food, and his youngest daughter entertains guests with living-room acrobatics.

Izzeldin Abuelaish, who made headlines around the world as a peacenik and vocal advocate of Israeli-Palestinian détente, starts teaching today at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. It’s a hopeful new beginning nine months after a blast ripped his world asunder on the other side of the globe.

The Israeli shell that hit Dr. Abuelaish’s apartment and killed three of his daughters was one of innumerable human tragedies in the midst of Gaza’s bloody conflict last January, which elicited a United Nations report this week slamming both Israel and Hamas for war crimes.

But this particular incident caused a media firestorm that crystallized the conflict internationally.

Dr. Abuelaish, a Harvard-educated obstetric gynecologist who had practised in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan and commuted weekly from the Gaza camp to Tel Aviv, made headlines starting nearly two decades ago. In articles and documentaries, he appeared as a fiery, peace-preaching doctor who crossed Gaza’s checkpoints to deliver both Israeli and Palestinian babies in one of the country’s most prestigious hospitals.

So when the shell hit his home he phoned the news media – his friend, TV journalist Shlomi Eldar. Within minutes, his story of grief was on the air in Israel and subsequently around the world. A ceasefire was declared the next day, and Dr. Abuelaish’s new colleagues in Canada believe his family’s tragedy was at least partly responsible.

As it happens, they had recruited him just days before the shell hit, trying to boost the international profile of the U of T’s school of public health.

“It’s not the typical university recruitment. It was a recruitment emergency,” said Peter Singer, a U of T physician who partnered with public-health professor Abdallah Daar to bring Dr. Abuelaish to Canada.

“Of all the people that one would want to make sure was insulated from that particular conflict … Izzeldin and his family were it.”

The January blast put all those plans on hold. But ultimately, Dr. Abuelaish decided, his children needed the chance to grow up, study and explore opportunities elsewhere.

The appointment fits right in with the school’s ambitions to compete with the likes of Harvard and Yale, said Jack Mandel, who heads the school of public health. Dr. Mandel hopes the U of T’s school will become a breeding ground for the world’s brightest medical minds.

“We want to make global health a central theme for our school. … Izzeldin will be instrumental in helping us do that.”

Over the Ramadan fast-breaking in the Abuelaish home, over tea and sweets, the colleagues razz each other and talk about their ambitions for the school. It’s officially changing its master’s in health science program to a master’s in public health, a designation Dr. Mandel hopes will give the school greater global cachet.

Ensconced in his living room, a pyjamas-clad child beside him, Dr. Abuelaish speaks of medicine as an “engine for the peace journey,” with intensity and fervour. It’s his physician’s mindset that allowed him to move on from his children’s deaths, he said.

“Once the patient is dead it’s a waste of time, energy, money. And you have to focus on the live patient,” he said.

All five of his remaining children – two boys and three girls, aged 7 to 19 – have been adjusting remarkably well, Dr. Abuelaish said: They’re making friends, and getting invited to birthday parties with the neighbourhood children.

In fact, the first thing his new neighbours did, when it became evident their children were becoming fast friends, was to pry off several boards of the wooden fence dividing their properties – to make it easier to cross from one to the other.

For a man who had to pass through checkpoints to get to work, the imagery isn’t lost. He shakes his head, delighted, insisting on bringing his dinner guests into the backyard to witness this gesture of friendship.

“This is what neighbours do in Canada,” he said.

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