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A holiday to SA, courtesy of Chaiyanu, inspires Israeli cancer patients




When it felt like life was slipping away from them during brutal treatment for their illness at Dana-Dwek Children’s Hospital – located in the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center – Noa Azulay, 18, and Rotem Gelbart, 21, grew to understand each other without even uttering a single word. A mere glance was enough to explain 1 000 words of pain and suffering.

For the past two weeks, these two best friends joined a host of other seriously ill Israeli cancer patients – some of them in wheelchairs – in South Africa as part of the Chaiyanu Hope Tour.

Chaiyanu is part of Chai Lifeline International, a Jewish community-based organisation that helps sick children and their families. For the past eight years, the South African Jewish community has hosted the Hope Tour of the Israeli division of Chaiyanu.

It is an annual, mammoth endeavour involving countless volunteer hours and logistical arrangements – the aim being for each child, in various stages of their treatment, to experience a wonderful, life-affirming trip.

From the moment that travel-weary patients touch down in the country, they are treated to a thrilling, non-stop, adventure-filled journey that, in the words of organiser Elad Maimon, “leaves them ready to tackle all of life’s difficulties when they return home”.

Chaiyanu alternatively run separate trips for boys and for girls. This year, 18 girls between the ages of nine and 21 – all requiring special doctors’ approval and medications –experienced everything from riding elephants and patting lion cubs to enjoying helicopter flips and quad biking.

“I have seen these girls change from frail flowers when they touch down in South Africa into sunflowers by the time they leave, with a renewed energy that is hard to believe,” said Hope Tour volunteer Ronit Beleli.

“The activities are life changing. These are out-of-the-ordinary experiences that they would never imagine doing in their wildest dreams.”

Beleli said she went on a helicopter ride after one of the girls noticed her fear and insisted that she accompany her.

“She gave me the courage to get over my fear. Imagine the fear that she has had to overcome in her life and there she was, helping me,” said Beleli.

The girls have been on an open-air bus tour of Cape Town, followed by a sailing trip on a yacht. They’ve been driven around in fancy sports cars and stayed at upmarket hotels. They danced at the Yom Ha’atzmaut 70th birthday celebrations at the Ratanga Junction amusement park in Cape Town, visited the Montecasino Bird Gardens in Johannesburg and Lesedi Cultural Village in Broederstroom, and, of course, went on a safari excursion.

Chana Yitzhaki, 21, who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said the safari drive in Zebula, in Limpopo, was the highlight for her.

“I’ve never seen animals like that before; we don’t have them. I’m so excited to be here, it gives us a lot of happiness. We really need it. It has been tough.”

Last Friday, the girls were treated to a pamper spa day. It was hosted at one of the volunteer families’ homes, which was turned into a beauty salon for the day. Beauticians gave them manicures, pedicures, mini facials and massages, and applied make-up. Some even had their ears pierced.

“I loved it,” said Azulay, “especially the massage on my leg, which was so sore from all the walking.” Her cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, presented in her leg.

Ayala Moffson, a madricha on the programme, said the girls go from party to party and at each event they are “spoilt rotten” with party bags and hampers full of goodies.

Tziporah Birnbaum, 21, of Jerusalem, who was diagnosed with leukaemia one week before Rosh Hashana, said her illness has opened her eyes to “what’s important in life”.

“It’s the real things in life that talk to me more now. Life is about caring for others and giving. When I’m well, I want to spend my days helping others. It is the right thing to do.”

Full-time nurse Shulamit Amar said the Chaiyanu Hope Tour spreads joy and hope for patients who may have lost hope during their daily struggle to survive: “There is no place in the world more hospitable and warm than South Africa. You can see the girls’ health improving each day.”

She said the tour also offers a holiday for the families back home who have a “real vacation from the sickness”.

“It gives them time to spend with other members of the family who often get neglected because the cancer is all-consuming,” she said.

Maimon, who is CEO of the organisation, which is based in Johannesburg, said this week that the tour is made possible because of the generosity of the South African Jewish community. “People open their hearts and homes every year, and every child is treated like family, like one of their own.”

Each of the girls expressed their gratitude to the local families who make the tour possible, agreeing that it has given them hope and strength to continue their fight for life.

Tziporah Birnbaum said: “Life is hard for us. It is not a regular life. Being here gives us an escape and fills our batteries with hope. Despite our illness, this allows us to live life to the full.

Chaiyanu brings hope to lives devastated by cancer by combining hands-on care with emotional support to families facing the challenges of paediatric illness.

“When we see the smiles on these girls’ faces, we know that our work at Chaiyanu is worthwhile,” said Maimon.

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