Dr. Sami Owaida is the only Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in Gaza. He emailed us about 6 months before our July 2013 Brain Development and Learning Conference that he would be attending the meeting and was very eager to learn about other ways to better help those in Gaza suffering from stress and/or post-traumatic stress disorders. (The world’s top experts in the diverse ways that trauma expresses itself in the mind and body and in diverse ways to help people recover would be presenting at that conference. There would also be experts on the psychology and neurobiology of stress and on ways to cope with stress.)
When Dr. Owaida contacted us that he would be coming to the Brain Development and Learning Conference we were delighted. The conference organizer (Adele Diamond) immediately offered her assistance in his obtaining a visa to come to Canada for the conference. But shortly thereafter, we received a very disappointed email from Dr. Owaida saying that his institution’s travel funds for 2013 had already been spent and he would not be able to attend the conference after all. Undaunted, Prof. Diamond straightaway said we would give him a full scholarship to cover the cost of conference registration and that the Jewish and Moslem/Arab communities in Vancouver would each raise 50% of the travel funds needed for him to attend the Brain Development and Learning Conference. Then she got to work, and the response was amazing!
We quickly received donations from Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims, from Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Jews, from Christians and from secular individuals to cover Dr. Owaida’s travel expenses for attending this conference. The vast majority of people making donations lived in the greater Vancouver area, but we also received contributions from folks in Washington State in the US, Manitoba and Newfoundland in Canada, and even Jews in Israel. The outpouring of support and enthusiasm for making it possible for Dr. Owaida to attend the conference was truly heartwarming!
In short order we had funds to cover Dr. Owaida’s travel costs in full.
Then only a month before the conference we received a very disappointed email from Dr. Owaida. (Canada does not have an embassy in Gaza, so Dr. Owaida’s visa had been sent to the Canadian Embassy in Cairo). BUT, mass protests had erupted in Egypt against Mubarak and Canada had closed its embassy in Cairo and the border between Gaza and Egypt was also closed because of the unrest. There was no way for Dr. Owaida to pick up his visa to come to Canada.
Hussein Hirji, an amazing man, who at that time was a Representative of Canada to the Palestinian Authority, arranged for Dr. Owaida’s visa to be sent to the next closest Canadian Embassy – the one in Tel Aviv.
But, Israel would not let a Palestinian, Dr. Owaida, enter Israel from Gaza, go to Tel Aviv to pick up his visa, and re-enter Gaza. Therefore, Hussein arranged that the visa to be couriered from the Embassy in Tel Aviv to Dr. Owaida in Gaza.
The next problem was that Prof. Diamond had booked Dr. Owaida on a flight to Vancouver departing from Cairo, but the border between Gaza and Egypt had been closed due to the unrest. So she had to re-book his flights so that he would fly out of Amman, Jordan. But, Dr. Owaida needed a visa to enter Jordan.
He was able to get the Jordanian visa in time, and despite the many obstacles, Dr. Sami Owaida made it safely to Vancouver and back home to Gaza and was able to attend the entire 2013 Brain Development and Learning Conference.
At the conference, he made friends with people not only from Vancouver, but also with people from all over the world, including a woman from Ecuador, a couple from Nigeria, a woman from Israel, and a woman from UAE. Dr. Owaida was able to attend cutting-edge talks, meet the experts on trauma and stress presenting at the conference in person, and attend one of the small dinners for conference participants with the trauma experts. He learned much that he was able to put directly into use to help children and adolescents in Gaza.
As a wise 4th grader once told us, “We’re on the other side of the world but we’re all connected.”
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