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Help for West Bank children comes from University Avenue

Dr. Rand Askalan in 2002 providing primary health care to school children in Jenin camp in the West Bank.

Dr. Rand Askalan

On her yearly visits to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Rand Askalan, a pediatric neurologist, saw children suffering from all types of medical conditions, unable to get much-needed specialized care. She took it upon herself to change the situation.

She secured donors, approached the right people at the Hospital for Sick Children, where she works, and put together a fellowship program last year to bring Palestinian pediatricians to train with specialists in Canada.

"I got to see that if kids need a pediatric cardiologist, or if they need a pediatric neurologist, it's really, really hard to find somebody with such an expertise," said Dr. Askalan, whose parents left the West Bank before she was born. "I just felt I needed to do something."

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The first two fellows arrived last year, and are training in neonatal intensive care and pediatric nephrology. Two more are expected to arrive next month. The main requirement, Dr. Askalan said, is that they return home to practice what they've learned, filling a huge void in medical services.

Dr. Askalan began her weeklong trips to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2002. She helped in clinics and taught Palestinian medical students. She treated children who needed a pediatrician with specific skills. But she knew many of these children couldn't afford to travel elsewhere for continued treatment. "I do a lot, although it's never enough," she said.

The fellowships, she hopes, will fill the "huge vacuum" for children needing specific types of care. "If we don't offer opportunities for them to have dreams, to have a normal life as much as possible, then the chance of peace in the area is not going to happen," she said.

Mutih Abuawwad is one of the fellows. He left his wife and three children in the West Bank to come train in neonatology. He's doing a two-year rotation at three Toronto hospitals, including the Hospital for Sick Children.

Dr. Abuawwad said all too often children will have to manage with their general pediatrician. Neonatal care, as with other specialties, is not so advanced in his part of the world, he said.

"This will be helpful for all the kids there," he said of the fellowships. "We are trying to organize our work to reshape all the medical care in Palestine."

And what does this fellowship mean to him? "This is my dream," he said.

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Dr. Askalan has donors mainly from the Middle East, and one in Canada. She hopes to secure more, so she can increase the number of fellows in the coming years.

She thinks of herself as among the lucky ones. She didn't live in a refugee camp. Her parents were forced out of the West Bank before she was born. She completed her medical degree at the University of Toronto, and her residency at Sick Kids.

Although she has lived in many parts of the world, she felt she had to do something to help the West Bank. In 2002, when she visited with a group of doctors, they treated patients at a refugee camp that was attacked, she said. She has visited on her own ever since.

"I don't forget where I've come from. That's why I go there every year," Dr. Askalan said. "Whatever little thing I can do, I do it."

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