Larry Lester Ends Term as Chairman
After more than a dozen years as chairman of the NGO, Larry Lester announced his intention to step down. Following a transition period, in a few months Larry will be replaced by Amy Yourman.
Larry, what did HWB look like when you took office and how has it changed? In 2009, after working for 30 years in the high-tech sector, I had been self-employed for about two years and I found myself with a driving need to take a stand against the occupation. I sought an organization in which I could actually influence the situation on the ground, in some minor way. A good friend, Ilan, connected me with a small, disorganized NGO – Humans without Borders − that assisted Palestine families with children requiring medical assistance in Israeli hospitals.
I hardly had the opportunity to introduce myself before Gamilla just shouted something like “tomorrow morning pick up Sueilla and Ranya and their kids at the 300 checkpoint and take them to Shaare Zedek". Who? Where? When? I had to figure that out on my own. I was hooked. Oh Gamilla – what a woman. She almost destroyed the wonderful concept she created. But I will always hold her in the highest regard for her driving force and dedicated spirit. Nobody could shout down a border policewoman like Gamilla. Nothing stood in her way. Those kids were going to get to their appointments with permits or without. The Registrar of NGOs was about to close down the organization. The bank account was empty. Volunteers were there but no one was quite sure just who was available and when. Gerry, Alona, Tuvia − these are some of the good souls who held things together in those days and they are still involved today! We started out arranging volunteering, and then we consolidated the masses of paperwork for the bureaucrats, and the annual reports that had not been delivered for years. We raised modest sums. And within six months we had things running smoothly. The Palestinian families began to rely on our volunteers and the suspicious petty clerks left us in peace. Those trips were something special for all of us, just as they are today. We met people whom we would never have had the opportunity to encounter under other circumstances. We were among a very fortunate few; friendships developed with ordinary Palestinians, not activists, not politicians, not militants, just ordinary people. We began to understand just how difficult life under the occupation is and how stoic the Palestinians are. Fifteen years ago, we assisted a few dozen families and, if we drove 10 trips a day, it was considered a major event. Things have changed. The occupation remains. The Palestinians suffer more than ever, and we are still here to provide a bit of help, day by day. And with every trip we leave our mark. Over the years we have expanded our activities – wonderful fun days for the families and volunteers − at the seashore or a resort in Beit Sahur, volunteer evenings and, most important, medical assistance to the children we assist when it is not forthcoming from the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Somewhere around the beginning of 2020 we began to receive desperate appeals from families because the hospitals ceased providing medications and refused to perform essential medical procedures. The issue was (and still is) funding. The PA is literally letting vulnerable children die. We could not stand by passively and sought donations on a case-by-case basis. This saves lives. What were your goals? I suppose Gerry and I slid into management of Humans without Borders without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. All we wanted was to be certain that children, living under the occupation − where advanced medical services are not available − could receive essential treatment. That almost sounds pompous but, in retrospect, I do think that we sincerely felt that way. We were literally horrified by the existing situation while being motivated by the positive activities of the volunteers. All of these deeds are, together, scarcely a spark in a dark sky but knowing that you are the cause of a smile on the face of a weary mother is something very special.
Our coordinators are real heroes. We were not quite sure how this process would develop but we have an excellent infrastructure servicing both Palestinian families and Israeli volunteers. Have the circumstances under which volunteers volunteer changed over the years? Is there a changing reality? Volunteers still volunteer. And the volunteers feel an imperative need to do something positive to assist the Palestinian people while sticking a thorn into the ugly face of the occupation. The volunteering process in HWB has changed. About 10 years ago, I did some fast talking to Orit, an old friend, and convinced her to develop, from scratch, an application that would automate the volunteering process. The product is great. We all use it to register and manage trips. All the relevant information is right there on your computer or phone and this makes life a lot easier for our coordinators and volunteers. Eyal has taken responsibility for the application and, working with a software house in Hebron, is introducing changes and expanding the capabilities of the tool. It is my fervent hope that eventually the Palestinian families will be able use the application to request support, correspond with volunteers, and acquire all the details they need about trips. This is actually my ultimate dream as far as the functioning of the NGO goes. What are the biggest challenges for HWB? I don’t think very many people – except for a few nut cases – are really opposed to what HWB does. We intentionally maintain a low profile within the Israeli milieu and I have, at best, received compliments such as “Arab-lover”, “traitor”, “stinking leftist”, and such. Nothing terrible. The most difficult thing to deal with is the death of a child. These children are transferred to Israeli hospitals because facilities to treat them do not exist in Palestine. Dialysis is performed in the Augusta Victoria hospital on the Mount of Olives and there are major issues that can be criticized about this operation. But the main problem is that Palestinians are not listed on the Israeli database of potential organ recipients. If a parent fails to meet the necessary criteria of a donor, then the fate of the child is sealed. There have been a few exceptional cases of kidney donations but children whom we have assisted for years suddenly pass away. The same is true for cancer patients. It is a shattering experience that is terribly difficult to deal with. How did the job make a difference in your life? I am a part of a group of like-minded people who see HWB as critically important within the socio-political map of Israel/Palestine as it functions today. In spite of all the difficulties intentionally created to obstruct and hamper daily life for Palestinians, our volunteers manage to ensure that every family reaches its goal in a calm and timely manner. This gives me enormous satisfaction.