To launch our new series raising awareness of societies working for human rights within the University, we interview Caoimhe Quinn, a founding member of Friends of Medical Aid for Palestinians.
There are few topics more hostile than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Conversations are often shut down at the mere mention of it, whether to avoid controversy or out of a fear of ignorance, given its complex history. Yet this can lead to a sense of helplessness. How can we follow the news with no practical way to engage with it? How do we offer help in a situation with such gravity attached to every side?
Caoimhe Quinn, along with other founding members, sought to address these questions when they formed Friends of Medical Aid for Palestinians (FOMAP). Founded in October 2018, FOMAP is a student-led society which raises awareness of, and fundraises for, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). MAP works with doctors in Gaza and throughout Palestine to provide aid, approaching the conflict through an express focus on humanitarian demands. Caoimhe firstly introduces FOMAP’s ethos:
“We’re trying to make it clear that it doesn’t have to be that controversial. You don’t have to know everything that’s happening because the history is so complicated. Conversations get shut down quickly because people feel they have to know everything – that’s not how human rights work. We encourage people to engage with what is happening on a more personal and empathetic level.”
So how can this be achieved with such a contentious topic? FOMAP focuses in on MAP’s practical work, which Caoimhe argues “testifies for them. MAP is doctors, nurses, and psychologists – when they come back and say they treated x number of people with bullet wounds, […] you can’t quibble with that in the same way. They are able to look at things through a different lens. We’re not trying to explain everything. I think, especially, I’m Irish, it would be ridiculous for me to come in and explain it all, I can’t speak as if I’m from there. But what I can do is support the actual work that the organisation is providing.”
Looking at the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank, FOMAP believes it’s important to encourage people to prioritise the needs of those affected, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the political situation that often poses a barrier to securing aid. Caoimhe stresses the fact that “every single day there is a power cut, which means that all premature babies, everyone that is on life support, and machines that require electricity – every single doctor has to manually keep those things going.”
Asking how MAP differentiates itself from other organisations working in Palestine, Caoimhe is quick to note that its origins lie in the mass displacement of Palestinians into the surrounding territories, i.e Lebanon. MAP cites the events that took place between 16 and 18 September 1982 in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila, in which Lebanese Phalangist militants with the support of a then-occupying Israeli force engaged in the killing of hundreds of unarmed refugees. Doctors present in the camp witnessed the violence and toll of events and returned to the UK, establishing MAP as a means of providing trained doctors for the region.
MAP operates with the express desire of providing well-qualified professionals to assist in the training of doctors on the ground: “there is a lot of fundraising for medicines… particularly [with] all the embargoes that are placed on Gaza, they run extremely low on essential medicines, like antibiotics”. Caoimhe reminds us that “every time a hospital is bombed, you lose all the equipment and medicine, as well as human life. There is a huge infrastructure cost.” Crucially, MAP often engages in a knowledge exchange with Palestinian doctors, who are well-trained and experienced, but lack equipment and medicine: “it’s medical aid for Palestinians, it’s not Médecins Sans Frontières; it’s designed to help the doctors who are there to do the best job that they can.”
Given the complex nature of the conflict, FOMAP recognises the difficult line they must walk. For Caoimhe, it’s “easy to say I support MAP, which is different from saying that I support this side or that side”. FOMAP is currently the only university society associated with MAP, who are happy to have “their name out in a different generation of people”, because the majority who work for them are “people who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be politically engaging [in this].”
To encourage student engagement, FOMAP published a zine, detailing the nature of their work and presenting the need to view this as a cause that requires support as a matter of basic human rights. Caoimhe read us a line from the zine which struck her the most, in which a mother confesses: “Life in Gaza is not easy. I cannot protect my children. All I can do is take them in my arms and pray.” Through highlighting the individual stories of those affected, FOMAP invites us to reconsider our approach to the news we hear, which risks becoming detached and desensitised from endless statistics and debates. We’re bombarded with stories of the latest atrocities from all over the world, to the point where it can be difficult to fully process the weight of what we’re hearing.
“Humans aren’t built to process these issues on the volume it’s presented. It’s something that we can’t deal with at all,” Caoimhe notes, believing that we process these issues by distancing ourselves from those affected by armed conflicts. This was actually one of the motivating factors in establishing FOMAP: “we felt like there’s just too much and we don’t know how to make a dent in it”. But change must start from somewhere, however small. For students, actively engaging with a limited range of causes may help with a Catch 22 situation in which we’re forced to confront events, but are overwhelmed to the point where we feel unable to pursue any form of activism. Caoimhe suggests that, instead, we should choose a cause we’re passionate about and give it our all – it’s impossible to fight every injustice without burning out. Although she acknowledges that it’s a privilege to disengage from the reel of atrocities presented in the news each day, Caoimhe reasons that she “can put so much more into those few issues I care the most about”.
She is also honest in stating that it’s often a binary conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, as “for a lot of people, it’s just like you’re either on this side or the other. With FOMAP we’re trying to make it easier to engage by just having this lens where you can leave all that to a side.” Citing Greta Thunberg’s argument, Caoimhe is not here to debate what is happening, she is arguing that something needs to be done about it. This leads to the question: what can be done?
Last year, the society hosted a karaoke night as an alternative option, to boycott watching the Eurovision finals which were hosted in Israel. Caoimhe argues: “What I found quite different about that, was that people in Palestine specifically asked for a boycott.” This viewpoint came from a place of humanitarian advocacy, as little had changed politically with Palestinian civilians continuing to experience extreme hardship as a result of the Israeli government’s policy outlook. In this instance, she believed the issue was “cut and dry”, something that she and FOMAP acknowledge is not always the case. This year, the society are looking to host revision lectures, movie screenings, and potential talks with politicians, such as Dr Philippa Whitford MP (SNP Department of Health Spokesperson), who volunteered for MAP in Gaza prior to entering politics, in her capacity as a breast surgeon. Caoimhe proposes that whilst the issue is inherently political, the type of work MAP is engaged in “allows you to be slightly more apolitical”.
We ended the interview by asking how others can get involved: “You can message the page or come along to our events. Any ideas you have, we’re very open to that.” Central to FOMAP is the desire to approach the matter from a place of empathy, making the contentious topic more approachable for those wishing to help. The society emphasises the individuals’ plight at the heart of it – falling away from the statistics, toward the real needs of those affected, human to human. Caoimhe leaves us with a closing thought to reflect on, as she questions whether, in the future, people may look back and say: “Why weren’t more people engaged? Why were so many people happy to accept that it was too complicated for them to engage with?”