Once while prepping a Ford Fellows class for the iTOEFL at the AmidEast institute, I had a young man ask me if I were of Greek descent. Once he heard I was indeed, he blurted, “then you must know Evangelia Kaffe.” No, I had not. “But you must,” he insisted, “she runs the Hippocrates Blood Hospital in Old Ramallah.” As there are few Greeks in Palestine, except of course for the clergy that run the holy sites, it was assumed that every Greek would know the other ones in the area.
So, I took him up and meandered through the alleys of the Old City of Ramallah which was incidentally built by the Byzantines. I passed through the pink-granite and clay Jerusalem-stoned Byzantine Cathedral of St. George, or Khader, and worshipped the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos with that penetrating stare you’d think the Panagia could see right through you. Drifting along with the sounds, scents and motions—the cardomon-spiked kawe (coffee), burlap sacks brimming with chick peas, pistachios, and all sorts of goods from the earth, skinny school boys kicking up dirt along with soccer balls in the heat of the afternoon, the random servic vans that dart around corners and pick up hijabed women holding babies and baskets—I turned a corner and WOW! Right there smack in front of me was Hippocrates Hospital for Blood Disorders—a white classical Greek building with Ionian columns! I was completely taken aback to see an ancient Greek building in the center of Ramallah.
The story of Evangelia Kaffe Alawneh is equally remarkable. She is a hero of Hellenism and symbolizes all the greatness of Greek ideals: philoxenia, philotimo, arête, and agape. She radiates warmth, compassion and strength. She greeted me with a heart-warming embrace and immediately led me through the corridors of the hospital she built from the ground up. The hospital is an act of agape in the highest sense. Here is the story of its founding along with its founder.
Heralding from a quaint town in the Pelopponesus, Verdikoussa, Evangelia was smitten by a young, bright debonair Palestinian medical student who was taking physiology and anatomy in the same lecture hall in the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich. So enraptured was she with him, so completely and utterly in love(and he with her) that she did the unthinkable. She forsook family and home to follow him to his native Palestine. She had by that time deserted her medical career to become a full-time homemaker and eventually mother of four extraordinary children. Since her husband had always long-held a strong position in Fatah, the reigning political party of the Palestinian Territories, she had always been active in the arts and cultural events. Staying devoutly true to her Greek culture she by default became a cultural and educational ambassador for all things Greek in the West Bank. She established a Greek-Palestinian cultural foundation she named “Macedonia” just to drive home the point that Macedonia is Greece; she accumulated a library of Greek works and writers both in Greek and Arabic, she started giving Greek classes at the local university.
It was during one of the cultural events she had organized that she heard her calling from God from within the distraught cries and tears of a mother who had loitered after the performance of traditional Greek dancers from Kalamata. The mother had sought her out to ask for mercy and charity. The lady had had two children both of whom had been diagnosed with thalassemia, a hereditary blood disease that interferes with the body’s production of red blood cells and necessitates a transfusion twice or more per week. It is a disease that leaves its sufferers with little energy and a sallow pale complexion. The distraught mother had spent her entire life’s savings tending to these twins; as there were no hospitals in the West Bank that allowed for blood transfusions. If tending to the disease were not enough she had to contend with the merciless red tape of the Israeli authorities at whose mercy she was obliged every time she had to arrange for passage into Israeli territory in transit to hospitals as far away as Italy to have her children treated. With tears streaming down her face, and with the desperate call of the soul when it is at its most needful nadir, Evangelia sensed that this was perhaps a wake up call from God. She had always wanted to pursue a career in medicine and while organizing cultural events was fulfilling, this stood out as the chance to really do something not just meaningful but necessary for families with this dreaded disease. Upon researching, she discovered that diseases of the blood such as thalassemia were statistically more prevalent in Palestinian society as cousins were permitted to marry. The irony was that it could have been prevented with a simple blood test before marriage. Evangelia had found her calling.
With funds granted from the the late Yassir Arafat, Evangelia founded the Palestine Avenir Foundation, the principle sustaining body for the “Hippocrates Medical Center,” the first of its kind in the West Bank and the entire Middle East for its specialization of diseases of the blood. The institution has not only provided needed employment for those in the community but makes a point of hiring people affected by these diseases, especially thalassemia and hemophilia. Indeed, most of the doctors, orderlies, nurses, even cleaning staff, either suffer from the disease themselves or else have someone in their family who does. When I visited a young girl and her brother, both victims, were waiting on the third floor for their turn to receive a transfusion. The entire hospital has become a work of philanthropic synergy.
Notwithstanding Hippocrates Center has fallen on hard times due to the ongoing global recession worsened by the political upheavals in the West Bank. During my visit, the elevator was not working and neither would it have the possibility to work due to lack of funding for repairs. Yet through her own initiatives and some help from NGOs, Hippocrates Hospital has helped thousands of patients cope with life-threatening illnesses. The Center has serviced several thousand patients and their families since its inception.
In her private life, she is still hopelessly in love with her husband of 40 years. She is a doting mother of three grown children, all successful university graduates, and a loving grandmother of three (maybe four). She is still taking care of her aging mother even though she too is at that age when she should be “retiring.” She is the center of the clan, making sure the family stays together and orchestrating huge food get-togethers on weekends. She still continues to teach all levels of Greek language and literature at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
Evangelia Kaffe Alawneh is a symbol for all that is great in an “Ellinida”: devotion to family, leading community service, dedication to Hellenism, exhibiting professionalism,philotimo and charisma. She will be a role model for many generations to come.