Gunilla von Hall participated in the refugee simulation in Davos, 2017.
Later in the year, she visited Lebanon and met a young man, Hozaifa, whose story forced her to take a step she never imagined possible.
Hozaifa, a teenager in Syria, had chosen not to go to Lebanon when the rest of his family fled. He loved life in his beloved Idlib. He loved football. He was top of his class. He planned to study medicine.
Life continued for him, amid the ongoing conflict, until, one day, his world went black as a bomb mercilessly found its target. When Hozaifa woke up, he was in a local hospital where the staff told him his back was broken and he would never walk again. The hospital was a basic one, but they inserted a metal frame to bolt his vertebrae together.
At first he was reticent to worry his family in Lebanon. “I’ve had an operation. I’ll be all right,” he told them bravely. Reality finally dawned on his parents, however, and his mother, Maysa, made her way back to Idlib to get her son.
There was no way to transport him safely back to Lebanon. A donkey was the only option. She strapped her son onto its back, paid human traffickers US$600 and set out over the mountains. The donkey’s movement on the uneven paths, though, proved too much for Hozaifa. The metal frame in his back broke and, with the excruciating pain, he lost consciousness. By the time they reached Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, he could barely move.
“Gunilla, can you help us?” they asked, as they told her their story. “Can you arrange for surgery? Can you pay for his medical care?” Gunilla herself did not have the resources to do either, but she tried various NGOs and other institutions. None, though, could help.
In the end, she told the family, “I will do the one thing I can do. I will write Hozaifa’s story.”
Gunilla is a UN press reporter who publishes through a major Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet. She proceeded to write up this tragic account.
To her astonishment, members of the public wrote back. “There are thousands of Syrian refugees, but if I can help one…” “It could have been my 17 year old son,” wrote another. A third said, “I myself have suffered an accident and got the best care in the world. Hozaifa must also get help.”
The reaction stunned Gunilla. She hadn’t appealed for money. She didn’t know these people. Nor they her. She wrote back explaining she was just a journalist, not an NGO nor the UN. She had no infrastructure. Just an aching heart and a personal bank account. “No problem!” they said, and proceeded to donate.
They gave an astonishing $2000. It was now possible to finance an operation. Gunilla contacted various NGOs, the UN and other institutions. None, though, could help. Gunilla then decided to go ahead and organize Hozaifa’s operation herself. She worked for three months, organizing a neurosurgical team, an orthopaedic team, and other related procedures. Every step was complicated. Nothing happened easily.
When all was set, Gunilla packed her bags and flew back to Bekaa. The family greeted her in disbelief, giving her, she said, “the kind of hug that never ends.”
When the day dawned for the operation, the surgeons spelt out the dangers. This procedure, while potentially life-transforming, was not without risk. Maysa, Gunilla said, “hid her face in her hands with prayers streaming over her lips”. It took hours but, finally, brought the longed for outcome.
Fast forward, though, and, today, Gunilla shows us a video on WhatsApp, sent by his family, as he actually walks. His legs are in braces and he is supported by a walker, but those legs are moving. Not even the most optimistic among them had anticipated that.
Today, looking back on the refugee program organized during WEF at Davos, Gunilla says, “It shocked me. I expected that I would be watching the action, but I was in it. And even though the threat wasn’t actual, I could feel it, both physically and mentally.”
In Hozaifa’s life, that implied threat was realized and magnified to the unthinkable and the unbearable. The young man could have spent the rest of his days flat on his back, in impossible pain. Or, indeed, his days could have been tragically cut short.
“It is not only that my son been released from the pain,” says his mother in awe. “He has received a new life.”
And all of this because a journalist was willing to take off her reporter’s hat and put compassion into action.
While a hero to this family, Gunilla remains, herself, astonished and humble about the role she played.
She simply sums it this way: “There was no moral alternative. I had to step out of my role.”