Meet the young volunteer medics on the frontlines of West Bank protests

From a rooftop in Azza refugee camp near Bethlehem, Hashem al Massaid can see trails of tear gas cascade from the sky into the alleyways below. The gas seeps into homes and through narrow streets until it merges with the thick fog already carpeting the ground.

Massaid, 16, has arrived to clashes at Azza refugee camp straight from school. He has to study for a physics exam later, but for the next few hours he is a volunteer paramedic with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS).

For Massaid and his PMRS colleagues, providing medical assistance to protesters injured during violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis is intertwined with daily life.

Since the beginning of October, PMRS volunteers have been working overtime. More than 83 Palestinians and 12 Israelis have died in a wave of unrest across the West Bank Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“Since October, the fight is getting stronger. It’s the strongest we have seen. More people are injured. We usually treat 50 to 70 people affected by tear gas, but if the clashes are stronger, it can be up to 150,” Massaid told the Palestine Monitor.

PMRS volunteers treat tear gas victims using first aid kits and oxygen tanks. Often, tear gas is not only directed at protesters, but also the nearby refugee camps, engulfing the neighborhood.

PMRS volunteers from Bethlehem

“As volunteers, we do not just work in the streets where the clashes are. We also have to go into the houses and help evacuate people near the clashes who are affected by the tear gas,” explained Abed Ghareep, a 21 year old PMRS paramedic working alongside Massaid.

In one family home, a mother looks on as her son lies on the floor, chest heaving, as he struggles to breathe from the tear gas that has infiltrated their living room. The atmosphere is frantic, but Ghareep remains calm. He places an oxygen mask over the man’s face, massaging his chest, reciting the words, “breathe, breathe, breathe.”

As quickly as Massaid’s team arrives, they rush back to the frontlines of the clash or the next family whose home has been consumed by gas.

Many of PMRS’ patients are children, for whom tear gas can be fatal. Oct 30. an eight-month-old Palestinian baby died after inhaling teargas inside his family home in Beit Fajjar, a village south of Bethlehem.

In one home that that paramedic team arrives to with oxygen tanks, a two-year-old girl is asleep on the sofa in her house, unshaken by the sounds of her 7-month-old sister wailing next to her. The family tries to comfort her, the remnants of tear gas still lingering in the air and making it hard to breathe.

“If she hadn’t been treated she would be dead otherwise, absolutely,” said Ghareep, after he had left the home.

Massaid and his colleauges face a range of risks in the field. Most say they have been shot at, either by live or rubber bullets. One young medic laughs as he holds up his finger, half the nail ripped off from when he was shot with a rubber bullet just days previous.

“All of us have been hit with bullets. One of my friends was shot in the leg with a live bullet last month. We were carrying him, to help him, and the Israeli soldiers fired at us as we were carrying him,” said Massaid.

The group of young Palestinian paramedics share the experiences of the people they assist, providing a sense of trust between them and those in need of medical support. Having grown up in Bethlehem, the PMRS volunteers are familiar with the frequent clashes and the local communities they affect.

“The success we have here is that people start to trust us and open up their houses to us. If anything happens to them, they come to us. We are young but the community here trust us to help them,” said Ghareep.

Massaid’s phone rings. It’s his mother, calling to tell him to be careful and make sure he is safe.

“When I first started I didn’t tell her,” he said.

“But now she knows this is part of me and I am going to do it,” he said. “These guys [at the protests] and the paramedics, we are one. We are in this together and I want to help any way I can.”

(Source / 21.11.2015)

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