Treating trauma

Steve Sosebee was so moved by the plight of a young amputee in Palestine, that he set up charity to help thousands of sick children.

Born and raised in a small college town in the American Midwest, Steve Sosebee knew little about the Middle East growing up, and says he had never met an Arab until he started studying political science at Kent State University. Following a three-week visit to the West Bank and Gaza during his junior year, Sosebee returned to Palestine as a graduate in 1989, this time as a freelance journalist on a mission to write about and raise awareness of the plight of those caught up in the violence of the First Intifada (uprising).

But when he met 10-year-old Mansour - who lost both legs and a hand in an Israeli bomb blast near his home in Hebron - everything changed. 

A news report wouldn’t be enough, realised Sosebee, who found himself steered onto a path that would change his life - and the lives of many others – and lead to the formation of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), an award-winning humanitarian organisation supporting sick and injured children across the region.

“I saw this child in a wheelchair without legs and I couldn't just write a story about him and walk away,” Sosebee recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing… but if I didn't do something, who was going to?” 

Three decades later, PCRF is a multinational NGO with chapters in 25 countries. Sosebee, 58, is the president, but he has a CEO, Imad Nassreddin, an advisory board, a global staff of more than 60, and a huge pool of medical volunteers from the US, Canada, Japan, Egypt, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and beyond.

From Hebron to Ohio: Mansour's treatment journey

It was several months after first meeting Mansour at Makassed Hospital on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, when Sosebee was back in Ohio doing a summer landscaping job, that he found a way to help the youngster. 

Knowing how limited Mansour’s family’s means were, and how poor prosthetic treatment was in the West Bank at that time, the young graduate showed a grainy photograph of the smiling Palestinian to a Lebanese-American orthopaedic surgeon he knew in the city of Akron.

Calls were made and the surgery arranged, leaving Sosebee with the task of getting Mansour, and his older sister Sabah, who had also been injured in the bombing and needed treatment, out of the West Bank and to the US.

It was a fraught time and Sosebee had to call in many favours, including from the Palestinian embassy in Amman, whom he persuaded to cover the flight costs for the trip. 

But the gamble paid off. Mansour and Sabah’s treatments were a success, and after months of surgery, rehabilitation, and expert care they would not have been able to get in Palestine, they both returned walking to their families in Hebron.

In the months that followed, as more people heard about what Sosebee had done for the siblings, more and more parents started approaching Sosebee about their children, as well as their neighbour’s children and their need for treatment. 

“I never dreamt this would turn into my life's mission or that I would build a big organisation to save thousands of children's lives... I just wanted to help that one child.”

According to the UN, more than two million Palestinians – of a population of five million - are in need of humanitarian assistance, and there are 10,341 conflict-related injuries every year. This is down to the poor socio-economic situation in the country which is partly blockaded by Israel. Meanwhile, a recent study by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found that 120,000 Palestinians in Gaza are living in homes without windows, safe roofs or doors, leaving them vulnerable to winter conditions, flooding, and fires.

Beyond those suffering inside Palestine, many more live in crowded refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan where their families have been stuck for generations following seven decades of violence and forced displacement since Al Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe) in 1948.

In 2020, Sosebee’s work with PCRF earned him a place in the finale of the Hope Maker competition, an initiative launched by the UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

“I never dreamt this would turn into my life's mission or that I would build a big organisation to save thousands of children's lives,” he says. “I never dreamed of that. I just wanted to help that one child.”

Since 1991 and its official registration in the US as a nonprofit 501c, the organisation has raised upwards of US$100m to pay for more than 2,000 children to travel overseas for medical treatment that they cannot access where they live (including complex prosthetics and specialised surgeries), and organised 800 medical missions to operate on some 20,000 youngsters in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan.

PCRF has also built two paediatric cancer departments in the West Bank and Gaza, and has recently cut ground on a new $3.2million paediatric intensive care unit in Ramallah, thanks to funding from ِAbdulaziz and Abdullah Zaman Aqeel from Kuwait who made the donation in memory of their brother Mohammed.

Other PCRF initiatives include: supplying milk to nursery children in Lebanon’s refugee camps; providing medical treatment to children suffering from Thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder common in the region; fitting solar panels in the homes of chronically ill children in the Gaza Strip; distributing winter clothes and food vouchers; paying for paediatric nebulisers and giving out hearing aids.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but if I didn't do something, who else was going to?”

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Palestinian children have limited access to specialised healthcare and many families are dependent humanitarian aid. Photo: Nick Hannes / Panos.

Sosebee tells me his inspiring story in the lobby of a hotel in Dubai, a city in which he has, over the years, succeeded in raising millions of dollars from foundations, philanthropists, corporates, and individual donors. “When I first came here in 1995, I didn't know a single person,” he says, recalling how he approached the head of the Chamber of Commerce, explained what PCRF did and asked if anyone might be able to help fund him. Sosebee’s boldness paid off and he was able to win over local donors.

In 2008, PCRF partnered with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Humanitarian & Charity Establishment to bring children to the UAE to be fitted with prosthetic limbs. And more recently, in 2021, UAE philanthropist Muna Al Gurg, donated US$1m to a new neonatal intensive care unit at Khalil Suleiman Hospital in the Palestinian city of Jenin. The Emirati businesswoman made the donation in tribute to her late mother, Soraya Ali Kazim, who had passed away 18 months earlier.

Speaking at the time, Al Gurg, who is a member of PCRF’s advisory board, said: “My mother knew Steve personally and always supported him in the work he did. I remember every year he'd bring the annual report and she'd go through it diligently, so the donation has a very personal meaning to it.”

A key force in PCRF’s early fundraising in the Gulf was Huda Al Masri, a Palestinian social worker Sosebee had met at the YMCA in Jerusalem, where she worked with injured children.

“The minute she walked through the door, I fell in love,” he says. The couple married and had two children but in 2009, Huda sadly died from Leukaemia. “For the 17 years [we were] together, it was a true love story. Then she died, leaving me with two girls to raise, and the organisation that we had built together to run.”

A grief-stricken Sosebee moved back to the West Bank with his daughters, Deema and Jenna, and poured himself into PCRF. “That's how I dealt with my grief,” he explains. “It was just through my work… Spending all my time helping other kids and building this organisation and raising my daughters.”

Bethlehem’s Huda Al Masri Paediatric Cancer Department, the city’s first public cancer centre for children, which opened in 2013, was Sosebee’s and PCRF’s tribute to Huda. Funded by philanthropists from all over the world, including the Gulf, the unit continues today to offer life-saving treatment to thousands of Palestinian children.

Sosebee continues to live in the West Bank - where he has remarried, to Zeena Salman, a Sudanese-American paediatric oncologist, with whom he has a third daughter, Layla – and he has big plans for PCRF. These include expanding the neonatal intensive care unit in Gaza and refurbishing the paediatric departments in Hebron and Jericho. 

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Dr Ihab Halaweish, a paediatric surgeon from Columbus, Ohio, has volunteered a number of times with PCRF. Photo: Abdelazeez Noman / PCRF.

Sharing skills 

Dr. Ihab Halaweish (pictured) is a paediatric surgeon from Columbus, Ohio. In early 2023, he spent a week volunteering with the PCRF at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza.

During those seven days, Dr Halaweish, a surgeon at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and professor of paediatric surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, performed eight surgeries on children aged between two days to six years.

These procedures included several complex pelvic reconstruction procedures, congenital tracheoesophageal fistula, and major abdominal and thoracic procedures.

From the outside, the geo-political complexity of Palestine with its ever-growing humanitarian needs, feels a far cry from his American Midwest birthplace. But Sosebee says he grew up exposed to activism at a young age as the son of a nurse and a schoolteacher, who were involved in fighting for social justice and against racist housing segregation laws impacting African Americans.

He was a teenager in 1970 when the National Guard fatally shot students protesting against the war in Vietnam in his hometown of Kent, so when he saw the news of the First Intifada a few years later, it very much resonated.

Sosebee adds: “Because I grew up with that legacy of soldiers shooting unarmed demonstrators ... I started to want to understand and read about the Middle East and understand the conflict more.”

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Sosebee and his daughter Jenna at a garden he dedicated to his late wife, Huda, at Beit Jala Hospital in Palestine. Photo: Abdelazeez Noman / PCRF.

A volunteer's story

Palestinian-Kuwaiti American orthopaedic hand surgeon Laith Alshihabi volunteered with PCRF in the Summer of 2007, after his first year of medical school, and found himself in Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem assisting Dr Alan Kerr, a paediatric cardiac surgeon from Auckland, New Zealand, who has been volunteering in Palestine for decades.

Alshihabi, who now works with the Orthopedic Associates of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, signed up because he was interested in having an international medical volunteer experience. His Palestinian heritage made his time there particularly meaningful and he was able to meet some of his distant relatives.

“I learned a great deal both medically and not - about the political situation, my family and its history, the city of Jerusalem, paediatric cardiac disease, the state of medical care for Palestinians, and medical volunteerism in general.  It certainly made me far more appreciative of the medical system I work in,” recalls Dr Alshihabi, now 40.

“Equally, it also reinforced to me that the main goal of medical volunteer work is not simply to do the medical treatment. That's a means but not the end. It's to help the system, infrastructure, and people progress in such a way that they are able to take on that work independently later.”

Today Sosebee’s convictions still burn brightly. “It's not enough to just be sympathetic to a cause. It's not enough to speak out. You have to work, you have to act,” he says.

And acknowledging his “white privilege”, he says: “I'm a white American male…  No species on planet Earth has ever been born with the privilege that I was born with. [It was] nothing I earned, nothing I deserved, strictly by the luck of birth. That comes with responsibility… To stand in solidarity with those who are struggling for those rights I was born with because others sacrificed for me. It's my turn to sacrifice for them”.

PCRF operates in one of the most politicised and divisive conflicts of modern times, and this can make fundraising hard, even in the Gulf region, which has traditionally backed the Palestinian cause. 

Lamenting the mistrust between donors and NGOs, Sosebee says it works both ways: Donors need to ask more questions before making assumptions about how nonprofits operate, he says, but NGOs also need to be more effective and transparent. “If somebody is unhappy with your organisation because you're not doing something right, that's not on them, that's on you,” he notes.

Sosebee’s message to philanthropists is to “give responsibly” and to work with organisations that “utilise your funds in the most effective, efficient and impactful way”. And if you don’t have any money, give your time instead. “College kids don't have money, but they have time and energy and passion and ideas and they're creative,” he explains. “Those are often greater resources than money. Tap into that. Everybody has something they can give.” – PA