How one young karate champion in Gaza is fighting coeliac disease with MAP’s support

Twelve years of blockade and closure has placed huge obstacles on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, and badly damaged the economy. Gaza has high poverty, and the highest rate of unemployment in the world at 54%, rising to 70% for young people.

As a result, many of Gaza’s almost two million residents struggle to afford the nutritious food their families need, with 68% of the population “food insecure”. Gaza’s children are most at risk, with 10% stunted by malnutrition and therefore unable to reach their full intellectual or physical potential.

In partnership with Muslim Aid, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) works to address this issue through our support to a nutrition clinic in the southern area of Gaza, run by local NGO Ard El Insan (AEI). This clinic identifies and provides vital support for individuals with a variety of conditions and illnesses linked to malnutrition, including wasting, anaemia and rickets. It also treats children and adults with coeliac disease (a digestive condition where the small intestine becomes inflamed and unable to absorb nutrients).

As well as providing essential medical care, the project distributes dry food packages, provides fresh meals and supplements, and runs health education sessions to teach people about nutrition and food preparation. Between January and March 2019 AEI provided nutritional support to over 1,600 children and their families.

Haitham’s story

Amal Zaqout, MAP’s Community Programme Officer, met with Haitham and his family, who regularly attend the centre, to hear how AEI’s staff are changing the lives and restoring health for Palestinians in Gaza:

Haitham is 16 years old and lives with his family in Gaza City. His family’s socioeconomic situation used to be very good, with both his parents working. His father is a nurse and his mother a psychologist. Unfortunately, since 2015 Haitham’s parents have only received 50% of their monthly income due to the Ministry of Health’s severe financial constraints. This has negatively affected the whole family, particularly Haitham's health.

Ten years ago, Haitham started complaining of pain in his joints and he was diagnosed with arthritis. During this time, he received different types of medication, including calcium and vitamin D, but his health did not improve.

Haitham’s parents noticed that his weight and height were not improving, and he was still suffering from pain in his bones and joints after three years of treatment. They took him to El Rantisi Hospital, where a doctor carried out new tests. This included a TTG coeliac disease test to look for antibodies that the body makes in response to eating gluten.

Unfortunately, Haitham was diagnosed with third degree coeliac disease, the most severe reaction a person can have to gluten.

While at El Rantisi Hospital Haitham was referred to AEI. Within the first three months of follow up at the centre he made significant progress, with decreased transglutaminase antibodies in his blood and increased immunity.

A year before diagnosed Haitham enjoyed karate. When he discovered he had coeliac disease he was going to stop, but the nurse at AEI advised him to continue and reassured him that his health would improve.

Haitham’s parents have also been supported by AEI, allowing them to take good care of him and ensure he has a suitable diet. His mother attended cooking demonstrations at AEI and learned many recipes appropriate for Haitham. She also participated in individual counselling and was able to contact the AEI nurse at any point to get advice on food preparation. Haitham’s family also receive 5kg- 10kg of gluten free flour a month from AEI.

Since attending AEI, Haitham’s health has significantly improved, allowing him to become a trainer in karate at an UNRWA Club. Regular follow up appointments have shown that Haitham’s transglutaminase antibodies have decreased to normal a level which is normal. His bone density has improved and is now suitable for his age.

Since attending AEI, Haitham’s self-confidence has also significantly increased. Before his diagnosis he felt ashamed and afraid. Through the support of AEI, he has continued to pursue his passion for karate and won many matches and progressed through all the colours of the karate belt. Now he represents Palestine in karate matches throughout the Middle East and sometimes further afield. He has won two championship cups, over 50 medals in karate and has received 30 certificates in the last three years. He has also shown great success at school, gaining marks of 92% for his work.

His parents highly appreciate the great role of AEI in turning around their son’s life. Haitham’s dream is to travel abroad to continue his studies and learn new languages. He also hopes to reach an even higher level in karate and participate in the world championships. 

If you would like to support MAP’s work in Gaza, please consider making a donation today.