JEWISH RESCUER AIDS PALESTINIAN MUSLIM CHILDREN
RESCUER WITHOUT BORDERS
* Charity: Arab Israeli straddles two worlds to rescue maimed Muslim youths
from horror of war.
By JOSEPH HANANIA, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES | Los Angeles Times Sunday October 5, 1997
Home Edition Metro Part B Page 6 Metro Desk |
17 inches; 604 words
Call 48-year-old Diana Sufian a one-woman Arab-Israeli peace
Born to a Palestinian Christian father and a Jewish mother in Israel,
she moved to New York, married Muslim film producer Kamel Sufian, then
moved to Santa Monica with him in the mid-1970s.
She became part of Los Angeles' Palestinian community; her life's
vocation was helping her husband promote Egyptian American films.
But after her husband's death four years ago from a heart attack,
Sufian has rekindled her Jewish identity and has taken on a new vocation:
rescuing mutilated children in the Mideast from the horrors of war and
bringing them here for treatment.
Through her Nour International Relief Aid, she pays for medical care,
travel and sends donated clothing to children in Lebanon, Jordan and on
the Israeli West Bank "so that more of them can have a nice T-shirt."
Though she is half Jewish, Sufian works almost exclusively with Muslim
children because, she says, they are the poorest and least likely to
receive proper medical treatment for war injuries.
"Yes, you can look at a child burned over 90% of his body and say he's
a Muslim who will one day grow up to blow up Jews. But you can look at
that same child and also say he will grow up to be a doctor, and one day
save a Jewish life.
"And yes, a lot of those kids wearing the nice T-shirts can be
planting bombs. Does that mean I have to stop my work, doing what I do?"
Like many others, Sufian likens the Muslim-Jewish divide to an
intrafamily feud. Muslims and Jews, she says, spring from a common
Semitic culture and have more similarities than differences. They have
similar kosher food laws, often dance to similar music and frequently
speak similar Middle Eastern languages.
"I can understand the frustrations of both sides," she said.
Sufian founded her relief aid organization last year, then paired it
up with the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation, thought to be the largest
American Muslim charity in this country.
Holy Land Foundation executive director Shukri Abubaker says that out
of 50 volunteers he works with, Sufian is the only Israeli Jew.
"She has powerful leverage and connections in Israel. With her help,
we were able to send gifts with none of the usual red tape and
bureaucratic delays," Abubaker said.
Added Jordan Elgrably, editor of Nasawi News, a Middle Eastern Jewish
publication: "She succeeds in attracting doctors and others from all
sides: Jews, Arabs, and neither. . . . She is dedicated to her cause, to
the exclusion of almost everything else."
Yoram Ben-Zeev, the Los Angeles-based Israeli consul general to the
Western United States, said his office helped Sufian bring children from
the Palestinian-controlled section of Gaza and the West Bank to the
United States for medical treatment on several occasions.
"This is the responsibility of any civilized nation," he said. "It's
what civility is all about, to help children. . . . There's nothing
political about it."
Sufian's work has been criticized by extremists on both sides of the
divide. She has been called a Muslim lover and a traitor by some Jews,
while some on the Muslim side have charged her with trying to whitewash
misdeeds attributed to Israel.
"I've tried to back off from charity work," she said. "But when I did,
I couldn't sleep."
Last year, Sufian said, she went to Israel, planning to pick up four
maimed children from Palestinian-controlled Gaza. An hour before she was
to cross the border, two bombs went off in buses near the main market in
Jerusalem. Despite the bombing, a top Israeli Foreign Ministry official
cleared her to cross the Arab border, pick up her charges and cross back
with them to Israel.
She said the same official--after attending funerals of Israeli
soldiers killed in the bombing--accompanied her to the Tel Aviv airport,
waiving the red tape and allowing her and the children to leave for the
Sufian's interest in starting an aid mission was stirred when she saw
an ad for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund in a Los Angeles Arabic
newspaper last year.
Initially, she used the connections she had made in Israel, Hollywood
and elsewhere to bring a wounded Palestinian here for free medical care.
Then, she brought more children to various hospitals.
"The way I look at it, when a kid cries, the color of his skin doesn't
change. The skin is the same, the pain is deeper."
PHOTO: Diana Sufian checks samples of clothing she will send to
PHOTOGRAPHER: IRIS SCHNEIDER / Los Angeles Times