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Looking at Palestinian Public Health

Student group focuses on health inequities in Palestine

Members of Palestinian Public Health raise awareness of public health issues in Palestine during Keffiyah Day, a celebration of Palestinian culture and an event of global solidarity with the Palestinian cause. (Photo courtesy of Hiba Elkhatib)

Hiba Elkhatib’s “fun fact” during ice-breakers in her classes and meetings is that she’s Palestinian.

Yet in the public health clubs Elkhatib joined at UC Berkeley, she noticed that Palestine was never mentioned, even as club members would bring up other international social justice causes.

Whenever she would bring up her home country, she’d always get the same answer: “What is Palestine?” So in 2020, she formed her own club, Palestinian Public Health (PPH). Eighty students, both Palestinian and non-Palestinian, have thus far attended virtual and in-person meetings and events.

Elkhatib, a fourth year public health undergraduate, grew up with her mother’s stories of uprisings and checkpoints in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where Israeli soldiers blocked pregnant women from getting to the hospital and families were sometimes denied water and power or forced to vacate homes that were subsequently destroyed.

She wanted to include these stories of Palestinians denied basic access to health care with other public health students and sought to create a place where she and other Palestinian students could feel seen and where non-Palestinian students could learn more. Club members also discuss the state of mental health among Palestinians—one study found that Palestinians were especially vulnerable to anxiety disorders and PTSD due to war and displacement.

The club largely focuses on discussions of what it means to be in the Palestinian diaspora struggling with the realities of having a foot in two worlds; survivor’s guilt for having escaped the destruction of Palestinian villages in 1948 and 1967, and which are still occurring today; the inability of some members to see their families due to travel restrictions between Israel and Palestine; lack of vaccine access in Palestine during a global epidemic; and reconciling this with an education at a top institution like Berkeley. But in the context of this group, students are able to speak freely about all of it.

“In creating this, I have set an example. It was a huge deal, because coming into Berkeley, I didn’t have that,” said Elkhatib. “It was always a pick and choose—do I want to work towards medical school, for example, or my master’s degree, or do I want to feel like I’m also Palestinian…. It made me happy I was finally able to create a space where students can do both.”

Maryam Obeid, a fourth year undergraduate public health major and member of PPH’s board, said it was the discussions of the health disparities in Palestine, especially those led by student speakers, that inspired her to not only join the club but to become a leader within it.

​​”They created a comfortable sense of community in which they all shared a passion for public health and the health injustices happening in Palestine as a result of the occupation,” Obeid said. “Seeing them speak inspired me to help inspire other students as well.”

“We as students can use our voices and knowledge to educate our peers and the younger generation about the health issues that are not talked about enough,” she said.

Among other activities, the group invites speakers, both students and public health experts, to speak about their work. Recent speakers include pediatric oncologist and public health expert Dr. Zeena Salman; Dr. Layla Al-Marayati, an OB-GYN and chair of Kinder USA, as well as students and faculty from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and UC Berkeley whose work touches on Palestinian health concerns.

And PPH looked to forge bonds outside of school. The club has created partnerships with community-based Dr. Mutulu Shakur Health & Wellness Clinic in Sacramento, and the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Most recently, the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance (MECA), a Berkeley-based nonprofit, assisted Palestinian Public Health with a Ramadan initiative to enhance nutrition and access to food in Palestine.

The funds raised during Ramadan this year will be sent, through MECA, to the Youth Visions Alliance in Gaza to purchase baskets with staples like oil, fresh produce and poultry or eggs.

Elkhatib’s goal is $15,000; each basket costs approximately $50 USD and feeds a family of 5-7 for around 2 weeks. If the goal is reached, the club will send around 300 baskets to families in need.

PPH is also working with the Middle East Children’s Alliance and Youth Vision Society, a Palestinian organization that works on the ground in Gaza distributing food baskets.

Both Obeid and Elkhatib seek to expand the club’s reach to students and young people in high schools both locally and abroad. Elkhatib has cultivated relationships with activists and public health experts in the Palestinian Territories, and hopes these relationships will blossom over time so activists and experts from the region can be brought into the club’s conversations.

“By reaching more college students and even high school students, we can introduce an intersection between health and the issues going on in Palestine,” says Obeid. “We’ll create a great community.”