Experience of human flourishing – cancer care in the Gaza Strip

Background

In piloting a new fund for Women’s Rights Organisations from 2021, Oxfam aims to give complete discretion to grassroots communities in Gaza and Kenya.

Going from a process of working with large partners to one in which small partners are given unrestricted, flexible funding has been a rewarding experience for Oxfam and Oxfam’s partners. The approach has given momentum to many programs aimed at human flourishing which run alongside empowerment programs. These locally constructed approaches to human development work with the grain of local relationships, social norms, cultural and faith based institutions. Compassionate leaders create cultures in which women can flourish, even in traumatic conditions. They, desperately, want survivors to benefit from a renewed sense of meaning: by encouraging them to think about their development, offering skills in trauma awareness and creating warm, positive environments, compassionate leaders help survivors create a renewed vision for a life with purpose. In return, compassionate leaders are encouraged to access supervision and specialists.

Country and setting

‘Aid and Hope’ (AH) is a health and women’s rights charity in Gaza that takes an innovative and visionary road that has led to its recognition as one of the premier enablers of cancer care in Gaza providing a chance of survival and recovery from trauma. It supports 1700 women and families in the Gaza Strip. It sends people who are not allowed to get a permit to get treatment in West Bank or Israel, to Amman in Jordan with one of the best medical centres in the Middle East. It has also built the first factory in Gaza for artificial prosthesis.

It was born some years ago out of the tireless efforts of Eman Shannan, Founder and Director who was inspired by her own life experiences. This hope and Eman’s simple pragmatism is the basis of Aid and Hope’s happy success.

The reason for the initiative

Since 2021 when they first received funding through Oxfam for mental health projects, Aid and Hope have been able to provide wellbeing interventions. It is still not common to receive funding for human flourishing, even though mental health is referred to in the sustainable development goals.

Women in Gaza live under some of the most traumatic conditions imaginable. The stories of cancer survivors are of lives marked by frequent traumatic events, including the destruction of their homes, death of children, the violence of war, shame and shunning due to cancer, and violence at home. Inspite of this, during a recent workshop with survivors it was noticeable that their demeanour was peaceful; they claimed that meeting other volunteers played a big part in their recovery.

The approach

The starting point of Aid and Hope’s approach to flourishing is a two week training program. In their conversations women said how this helped them ‘get rid of emotions’ and ‘release this depression’. This early therapeutic introduction to reflection shaped the women’s vision of themselves and, they say, reduced symptoms relating to stress and anxiety. This focus on symptom reduction was not all.

There are positive emotions too. When women shared their story it was apparent from the emotional state in the room that rather than focusing on the feelings of shame or loneliness the women return to a place of strength. They reconnect with feelings of gratitude for support and appreciation for the training. When they talk about their losses they talk to about what they have gained from the triumphs and how they developed.

The women enjoyed a shared experience that resulted in warm encouragement of one another throughout the session. Noor*, 24 years old has been suffering from cancer since 2016. She was encouraged to describe her experience of the training. ‘The training told me that life is not only about illnesses and disease that there are many things in life you have to explore. You have to identify your needs and go to get what you want in this life. During it I got to know my weaknesses, what I have and what I need to develop to achieve’.

After her training Noor wrote to Eman saying ‘I want to lead a productive life and I want to do my studies and be at university’. The trainer encouraged not just a positive vision for a productive life but also a plan that was written down. When writing her plan in search for a better life Noor was inspired by her own intrinsic motivation to study and go to university. She resumed her life with a virtue all of her own – her desire to learn – which manifested in her as a source of resilience for coping with stress and anxiety. If she had not been able to continue her studies then Noor would not have been able to grow and adapt through her suffering.

Impact on health outcomes

This year alone Aid and Hope, has helped 300 women with treatment and medications and raised another £15k for early diagnosis.

The women in Aid and Hope have a confidence and self-assurance around speaking up on cancer and mental health. They are slowly challenging norms around women’s health and breaking taboos. They are fond of their distinctness and want to bring about a remarkable social change in their community which will also help with early detection. ’10 years ago it was taboo to talk about cancer, no-one was hearing about cancer, in the past women passed away without going for a mammogram, now women are aware of it’. Yet at the start few were motivated to speak out. But Eman prizes this courage: ‘these are the women you must look for because they are the ones who know how to find a way through and get themselves heard. We have to grow and find them’. In 2022 Eman launched the Gaza Gala, giving women first-hand experience of speaking in public on the subject of cancer and mental health.

The impact on those providing care

Eman set up Aid and Hope to create survivors and hope. It offers a safe haven providing women in adversity with warm, empathic relationships and giving ‘protection from the storm’. But it offers something more: she and her colleagues offer themselves as sources of strength. ‘Working in humanitarian conditions is the hardest thing in the world because sometimes you should support a survivor, and sometimes you should push them to the future and help them enhance their activities and skills’. Quite simply, it takes sensitivity and judgement to know how hard to push, balancing a women’s goals, needs and capacities in service of growth. Many of the women go onto become volunteers for the charity, supporting other women long after their treatment.

Key learning points

Individual development – especially goal setting – has played an important part in all the women’s journey of hope and wellbeing. Wherever they have got to in terms of subjective well-being, the frequent positive conversations with founder Eman and their training have helped to paint a more hopeful picture, which has in some way been an inspiration for their personal changes. Many talked of how during the years of early diagnosis all they thought about was ‘going from home to hospital and the disease’. Women all talked about the power of seeing a different future and how important this was to feeling you want to change your life.

Though there are other cancer charities in Gaza they embrace empathy more than any other. Eman is demanding of Aid and Hope and rightly of Oxfam ‘We are not the first organisation in Palestine, there are other organisations but they are not women’s organisations led by women, we are different: what makes us different is the passion, we sense very well how cancer patients suffer, we put ourselves in their shoes and imagine losing a breast’.

Eman is a master promoter of compassion yet rigorous: she insists INGOs and donors should listen to and work with her and her women when it comes to issues of health – mental and physical – in Gaza.

Contact details

Aid & Hope program for Cancer Patients Care on linked-in

*Name has been changed

Translate »

Happy Earth Day 2024!

Connect with the planet around you this Earth Day by taking this special meditation from our President, Dr Rick Hanson: