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Kids Learn to Heal, From the Inside Out

July 6, 2006 By:
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Israeli burn survivors (left to right) Basil Massarwa, Sagi Arusi and Hashem Abo-Zalok hang out on the first day of camp.
No translation of the rapid-fire Hebrew was needed to comprehend that Sagi Arusi -- a gregarious 15-year-old from Rosh Ha'ayin, Israel -- didn't want to talk about the night three years ago, when his family's home caught fire and much of his body was badly burned.

Moments earlier, Sagi -- one of 40 kids, including four Israelis, who traveled to Millersville University in Lancaster County for a short stay at Camp Susquehanna, a volunteer-run retreat for survivors of severe burns -- was kicking around a soccer ball with other campers. He threw his arm around a younger boy, one who wore a mask covering most of his face, encouraging him to join in the levity.

But when the past was mentioned, Sagi's demeanor completely changed; he adopted an almost defensive posture when the origin of his injuries became the subject. His face is discolored, though a long-sleeved shirt and gloves hid the worst of the damage to his body.

Batya Himelfarb, an occupational therapist accompanying the Israeli children, observed that it didn't help matters that the campers happened to be on their way to the pool, and Sagi had to decide whether or not he wanted to take a dip in the water and bear his scars -- resulting from severe third-degree burns and dozens of surgeries -- for everyone else to see.

Himelfarb -- who directs the occupational-therapy program at Schneider Children's Hospital in Petach Tikvah, Israel -- reminded Sagi that part of learning to live with his wounds means being able to talk even with perfect strangers about how he got them.

"It's okay," he said in English before switching back to Hebrew; Himelfarb acted as translator.

On the night of the accident, he was alone at home with an older brother, he said.

"I fell asleep. I felt that something was happening. I got up and saw fire everywhere," he recalled. "I ran outside and thought that I didn't see my brother, and thought he might be inside."

Sagi went back inside the house, unaware that his brother had managed to escape. And it was his decision to return to the house that would ultimately change the rest of his life; it was at that time the boy was severely injured. To date, it was not clear what caused the fire.

But standing so close to a swimming pool on a humid day in late June, Sagi grew impatient talking about the past and soon headed straight for Millerville's indoor pool, surprising Himelfarb with his willingness to display those scars.

The pool was full of campers and counselors who've gone through similar experiences, some even missing arms or legs. A few faces were so changed by their encounter with fire that they didn't quite seem real, and the unaccustomed eye's reaction is to look away immediately or, even worse, to simply fixate.

"Most people who have been burned feel isolated. They don't really know people who have been through the same experiences," explained Marcia Levinson, a pediatric physical therapist from Wynnewood who started at the camp as a counselor in 1995, a year after it began, and is today its co-director.

"Some of these kids have had 50 surgeries; for some of them, it's never ending," said Levinson, a member of Wynnewood's Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

In the end, the four-day annual experience is about showing the kids that they are not alone, she said.

"It's a humbling experience when I am with them. I can see their joy. They are true survivors. They are not victims at all," said Levinson, 60.

The camp is run and funded by the E. Elvin Byler Sertoma Club of Lancaster, which took its name from a local attorney who died from burns resulting from a plane crash. Among other things, the club runs an annual golf tournament to raise the roughly $30,000 needed to operate the camp for four days, as well as cover the airfare for the Israeli participants.

The camp is free for participants. Activities for the 7- to 17-year-olds include swimming, mini-golf, basketball and arts-and-crafts. But the program also offers workshops on self-esteem, and as such, exposes children to different ways of dealing with an ongoing trauma that has such a profound physical manifestation.

'It's Okay to Ask What Happened'
"All burn survivors face the staring of the public," attested 80-year-old Alan Breslau, who directed the camp until 2002, and was returning to Susquehanna for the first time since then.

Breslau, a one-time chemical engineer, was involved in a commercial airline crash in 1963 near Rochester, N.Y., in which seven passengers were killed.

Breslau spent five years in the hospital and underwent dozens of plastic surgeries; he went on to start the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, and also wrote a memoir about his experience called The Time of My Death.

"It's okay to ask people what happened," said Breslau, formerly of Levittown in Bucks County. "Asking is much better than staring or looking away. Then you can get to know the person, and you don't see the scars; you see the person."

Levinson, who teaches physical therapy at Thomas Jefferson University, became co-director of the camp four years ago when Breslau and his wife, Dewyn, decided to relocate to Auckland, New Zealand. Breslau met the native New Zealander through the Phoenix Society; her son was a burn victim.

During an unrelated trip to Israel four years ago, Levinson just happened to learn that the Jewish state -- while possessing top-notch medical facilities for child burn survivors -- did not have any summer camps specifically for such kids.

Initially, she thought about starting one in Israel, but realized that with her own full-time job and limited fiscal means, the best she could do was to bring a few kids over each year to partake in a retreat; eventually, she contacted the Schneider hospital.

Basil Massarwa, 12, from the Arab village of Taibeh, and his older brother Saji, now 18, were among the first group to come from Israel. Like most of the Israelis who have participated in Camp Susquehanna, they were hurt in household accidents and not terrorist attacks, said Levinson.

"Basil was burned over 90 percent of his body," said Levinson, adding that it happened during an outdoor cookout. "He lived only because of sheer will, and because his mother was at his side every day. They really didn't know if he would make it."

Levinson said that since his visit in 2004, Basil has wanted only to return to the camp. He even left a toothbrush in Levinson's home -- where the Israeli children stay before official program begins -- in the hopes that he would use it again.

This year, he got his chance, and his twin sister Sali accompanied him. Levinson thought the experience would deepen her understanding of her brothers' ordeals.

Another Israeli Arab -- Hashem Abo-Zalok, 12 -- also made it to Millersville. It wasn't clear if Hashem wore his face mask for medical reasons or to hide his visible scars.

Levinson said she has intentionally made sure that all of the Israeli contingents, including this summer's, have consisted of both Jews and Arabs. (Of the four Israelis this year, Sagi Arusi was the only Jew.) She thought that by bringing kids from both communities to the program, it could contribute in some small way to building relationships, even friendships, between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens and their families.

"This is just the drop of a pebble, getting one Arab and one Jewish child to be friends," she said.

Levinson shared that when it was Sagi's turn to address the closing session, he told the group that he was just glad to be there.

"When they are here, they are not Jewish or Arab, they are children," chimed in Himelfarb. "They are Israeli children." 

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