A smile for Gaza's children

A smile for Gaza's children
Feature: They call him the man with the 'incredibly cheerful smile'. He is using it to spread some joy in the gloom of Gaza.
4 min read
21 April, 2015
The man with the 'incredibly cheerful smile' [photo by Shadi Alqarra]

Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. Smiles too. That, at least, is what Abdullah Alreby, a 24-year-old Gazan university student, is hoping.


At Gaza City’s Rantisi Hospital, Alreby was on a recent April Monday trying to put smiles on people’s faces. More specifically, he was trying to put smiles on children’s faces, young patients with kidney problems.


Dialysis treatment is a perennial problem in Gaza. The treatment takes hours, and in Gaza that means hospitals need independently-powered generators so they are not

     I love Abdullah. And when he’s not here, I take my mother’s phone and call him.

- Mariam al-Qouqa, 10

reliant on a grid that suffers frequent cuts due to Israeli restrictions. And for children suffering renal failure, treatment, however necessary, is a bore.


Enter Alreby. In 2013, Alreby was walking down a dusty road, feeling down. It is not an uncommon feeling in Gaza, a place often referred to as the world’s biggest open-air prison, where anti-depressants and pain killers are the drugs of choice, available over-the-counter or smuggled in from under the border with Egypt.


Unlike real prisons, however, Gaza is regularly bombed from air, sea and land. Tens of thousands remain homeless after Israel’s latest aggression last year. And the nearly two million strong population is littered with orphans, widows, the wounded and maimed.


There are grounds, in other words, for feeling down. And on that 2013 August day, Alreby was down. He was looking down. Then he saw an old discarded smiley-face badge.


“It made me smile. It was simple, but it worked. I know that our situation in Gaza, where we suffer so many hardships, had made me less cheerful. But this helped, just for that moment.”


It made him think. So he started by getting hold of more smiley-face badges. He distributed them first to family and friends, then to fellow students at the Islamic University in Gaza where he is studying public relations.


From there, hospitals was a logical next step.


In a place starved of good news stories, his initiative got picked up by the media. That in turn gave him unexpected support. A Palestinian ex-pat in Qatar sent him US$1,600. Another woman contacted him via social media. She gave him enough money to buy 10 iPads. And it was from her, whose son had died of renal failure, that he was inspired to visit children receiving dialysis treatment.


From there to Rantisi hospital this month. Like other young patients here, Mariam al-Qouqa, 10, has gotten used to Alreby’s face.


“I love Abdullah. And when he’s not here, I take my mother’s phone and call him,” the feisty 10-year-old said.


That Monday was Mariam’s birthday. And Alreby put on a treat. His is not an act. He does not dress up or wear clown clothes, juggle or stumble. Rather he simply sits with the children, chats and listens. He hands out smiley-face badges. And throughout, he smiles. His fellow students know him as “the man with the incredibly cheerful smile”. And it works. Within minutes, Mariam is chatting and animated, even if constrained to her bed and the dialysis machine.


She was smiling.

Abdullah Alreby, Mariam al-Qouqa, and the clowns Marroush and Alloush. (Photo by Shadi Alqarra)


But that day, Alreby had brought along two colleagues, Marroush and Alloush. These were dressed in clown suits. These did the clowning, the falling over and the fun. And the children laughed. But still it was Alreby the young patients turned to, again and again.


And hospital staff also attested to his effect. One young patient, Mohammad al-Qunfud, 12, is a particular case for Alreby. Weeks earlier, the boy had been so distraught that he wasn’t responding to dialysis, said Salim Shatat, staff nurse at Rantisi.


“A while with Abdullah, some time on the iPad and a smile on his face later, and Mohammad was taking on the treatment just fine,” said Shatat. “In some ways, Abdullah has really made our mission here easier.”


Alreby is clearly pleased with the reception he gets. But his initiative has also given him ideas going forward. The colleagues in clown suits are the first step in that direction. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a little mobile theatre to tour Gaza.


For now though, he is completing his studies and focusing on what he can do.


“Hopefully, I can relieve just some of the stress we feel here. It’s a hard life here in the territory.”