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A little-known ear disease that hits Israeli and Palestinian children in equal numbers is serving as a bridge to understanding among the affected families.

A team of Canadian doctors is building that bridge to bring thousands of mothers and their children together from both sides of the Middle East conflict.

"We try to come out of the ivory tower and offer a tangible benefit to the population," said Arnold Noyek, head of the ear, nose and throat department at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. "Medical services are a tool to peace-building in the Middle East."

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Progress is slow but Dr. Noyek and his organization, the Canadian International Scientific Exchange Program -- CISEPO -- have helped set up hundreds of child-care clinics in Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

The clinics have tested 8,000 newborn babies for the disease, handed out 400 Canadian hearing aids to young children and set up surgery for children who need it.

Just as important, CISEPO has brought together more than 500 senior academics, health workers and government officials -- from all sides of the conflict -- and got them talking about a subject that concerns them all, the health of their children.

"They were talking to each other in Ramallah as bombs were dropping outside," said CISEPO vice-chairman Catherine Chalin, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto. "It seems unbelievable, but they were talking about their future together.

"He has managed to pull together something that nobody else has been able to do," she added. "Build a lasting legacy of peace."

He may not be widely known in Canada, but Dr. Noyek is seen as a key figure in medical circles in the Middle East, a neutral Canadian who is doing what he can to bring Arabs and Israelis together.

Bill Graham, the federal Foreign Affairs Minister, frequently praises Dr. Noyek when discussing the crisis in the Middle East.

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In a speech, Mr. Graham said Dr. Noyek "has served as an energetic advocate and catalyst to alleviate human suffering through a wide range of collaborative relationships and exchanges between Canadians, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians . . . serving as an inspiring example of how people's lives would be enriched if only they would work together instead of fighting each other."

The federal Foreign Affairs department finances a good portion of CISEPO's $400,000 annual budget, much of it through Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) grants and its human security program. But CISEPO has also received financing from the Silverman family of Toronto and the support of Jordan's late King Hussein.

Why has he been so successful?

"Canadians are seen as fair and even-handed," Dr. Noyek said. "We're honest brokers."

He has the backing of the University of Toronto, an institution that he said is widely respected in the Middle East for its work in public health.

He deals with academics and health workers, non-governmental organizations, mothers and children, building relationships that he said are far more enduring than political whims.

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And, probably most important, he said, "We work with people from the bottom up, through collaboration. We work below politics."

"Once you get involved in politics, you're dead," Dr. Chalin added.

The disease, hereditary neural hearing loss, is a birth defect that affects thousands of newborn babies every year in Israel and Jordan. In some villages, up to 50 per cent of the babies are born with some or total hearing loss.

The disease, which breaks down the nerve to the inner ear, is preventable. It is a result of intermarriage in small, isolated villages, a practice that has gone on for a thousand years all over the Middle East.

Prevention is simple, but not easy and certainly not quick. Health authorities must persuade villagers to marry outside their local community, a task that entails a change in cultural mores that go back for generations.

"It's quite preventable," Dr. Noyek said. "But there are huge cultural pressures" that lead to intermarriage.

There is no cure for the disease, but Dr. Chalin said it is relatively easy to treat the symptoms, allowing the child to lead a normal life. The key is to find the problem early, while there is still time to start rehabilitation programs.

If that critical period is missed, the child grows up isolated from his or her friends and family, unable to communicate, to speak, to go to school or to find a good job.

"Blindness separates people from things," Dr. Noyek said, quoting author Helen Keller. "Deafness separates people from people."

Along with rehabilitation, Dr. Noyek can offer the child a hearing aid, donated by Unitron Hearing Ltd. of Kitchener, Ont., and sometimes cochlear -- ear bone -- transplants.

"We can help them using low-tech methods," he said. "By age 2, they can lead a normal life."

Using techniques developed for Canadian children at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University of Toronto, CISEPO has helped set up screening clinics in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, staffed by health workers from all three countries.

As in any group, the mothers start talking to each other about their children. They forget politics and the war and start to make friends. "These are enduring relationships," Dr. Noyek said.

The baby screening program is going so well that Dr. Noyek is moving into other areas, assisted by Harvey Skinner, chairman of U of T's Department of Public Health Sciences.

They have started a network of cross-cultural, mother-and-child clinics to care for pregnant women and their newborn children. "The maternal and child death rates are very high," Dr. Noyek said. "We help them help themselves."

Later, CISEPO wants to teach teenagers how to resolve conflicts. And it is trying to find ways to cut tobacco use, one of the single biggest health issues in a region where up to three-quarters of the population smoke.

Those projects help real people at ground level. But CISEPO still spends a lot of time on the academic work that got the ball rolling in the early 1970s.

CISEPO originated as a vehicle to build medical expertise in Israel.

It helped build a network that provided Canadian health information in Israel, brought Israeli students to Canada and sponsored a variety of cross-border medical symposiums.

The Israeli program was so well respected that Jordan's late King Hussein invited Dr. Noyek to start a similar program in his country in 1995, and that was eventually extended to Palestinians.

"We are providing hope for our colleagues. We show them that we can do something," Dr. Noyek said. "It may be a little step, but we do a little a lot."

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