“Don’t be a do-gooder, do-good.”
Graduate Diploma, Social Science (Health Counselling)
For the past 14 years, UniSA alumna Merlin Nathan has been volunteering her time and professional expertise to support children with disabilities and injuries in the worn-torn Gaza Strip and the West Bank in Palestine through the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF).
Among the many horrors of a continued war are the injuries and permanent disabilities innocent children unnecessarily receive from bullet wounds and explosions and subsequent psychological trauma.
The PCRF is a non-political, non-profit organisation that was established in 1991 by concerned people in the U.S. to address the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East. It has since expanded to help suffering children from the region, based only on their medical needs.
As the former Head of Occupational Therapy for the Head Injury Rehabilitation Service, a department she established, Merlin has certainly acquired instrumental medical and organisational wisdom. Funds raised by the PCRF allow Merlin to travel to the Middle East twice a year to meet with professionals in clinics and care facilities so she can share her wealth of information and further educate and mentor staff. As well as treatment, Merlin assesses the local facilities, determines the most effective way for them to operate and the equipment required to care for the children in need.
“The most important aspect of any world-class voluntary health organisation is its primary objectives, which should be to develop eventual self-reliance and autonomy through direct health care and education of its focus group. We are hopefully meeting these objectives with each visit to Palestine for its clientele and its professionals,” Merlin says.
“One of the reasons why Occupational Therapists and other medical professionals in Gaza Strip and West Bank benefit from mentoring is because they are restricted to where they can travel, so their potential for further learning is limited. By going there, I am bringing with me new information, treatments and specialised equipment.
“On one trip I visited Farah Centre in Nablus City (West Bank), and was asked to assist in the assessment of the children attending and training of staff. I had the opportunity to offer to extend their skills base and facilitate a number of new treatment approaches and planning strategies for the team to consider. Some primary concerns for the mothers of the children with disabilities other than mobility was the management of toileting, feeding and general requirements. We were able to look at their wheelchair seats and modify them accordingly with the financial support from PCRF.
Merlin’s husband, who is an Eye Surgeon, first visited Palestine while on a trip to Jerusalem. He witnessed the incredible need for more medical treatment and equipment and started volunteering with PCRF in 2000 with the support of Australian Friends of Palestine.
“Although my husband’s skills were greatly needed, he realised how essential mine would be. I started volunteering with PCRF in 2002. The dedicated staff running PCRF are incredible, especially Steve Sosebee, who established the organisation of which I am very proud to be a part.
“While studying the Health Counselling Degree at UniSA, I reflected upon the concepts of empathy and sympathy. I realised that empathy is not just about reflecting back a client’s feelings, but actually putting those reflections into use and doing something to make a positive change.”
“Volunteering in Palestine has also helped me personally. It is the antithesis of everything I have here in Australia; I am a woman travelling often unaccompanied through the Middle East, a Catholic in a predominately Muslim area who is living a privileged life by comparison. This has taken me out of my comfort zone for the better.
“Our Australian Government Officials in Palestine have been very supportive of our work, and have provided funds for new equipment and made us feel very welcome.
“Travelling from Tel Aviv – where I fly into to – to Palestine, Gaza Strip and West Bank is difficult as there are numerous check points, heavily armed by the Israeli military along the way. However, travel for me with an Aussie passport is much easier than for my Palestinian support team, who can often be held up for hours.
“Life for children with disabilities in Gaza Strip and West Bank can be really challenging. The roads are really narrow and uneven, it is densely populated, settlement camps have now become 2 to 3 storey homes and often there are large extended families living in the one house. This is not ideal for someone in a wheelchair.
“One of my favourite memories is when I met some children and adults at the El Wafa Rehab centre in Gaza, who had never been to the beach before. We helped the children from their wheelchairs and carried them into the ocean, some for the first time – it was a really a beautiful experience to observe.
“Over time, I have seen Palestinian’s opinions about disabilities evolve. Families come together to support the children, especially as more wives become widows and an increasing number of children become disabled, which are sadly the realities of war.
“I feel very fortunate to be in a position of a lucky Australian where I am able to give back to ‘the world.’ I have been provided with this opportunity, and I am so grateful that I can share my professional knowledge to help people living in this devastating situation.
“There are many ways in which people can get involved besides volunteering. By increasing your knowledge or awareness of the issue or considering involvement with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The smallest gesture here can really be of impact there.
If you are not in a position to donate money, you can donate your time to help another person in need. I have been touched by the random generosity of many people who upon hearing of my work have donated goods and services that have gone on to make a big difference to the lives of the children and staff.”