A Palestinian woman cuts her way into the world of surgery in Gaza
by Sami Abu Salem
In the Beach Refugees camp, west of Gaza City in 1973, Mona Kaskin always knew she wanted to be a doctor.
But the road to success was paved with many challenges for the 42-year-old Palestinian physician and mother of four, now Gaza’s only female neurosurgeon. During her first year of studying medicine in Kazakhstan, her father died, plunging her family into financial woes. However, this didn’t deter the young Kaskin from pursuing her dream, despite having to carry the burden of caring for her seven sisters and brothers after her father’s passing.
When she found space to pursue her master’s degree, fate interfered again, this time in the form of Israel imposing a siege on Gaza in 2006. She is still adamant, however, on pursuing her higher studies when she finds time.
Kaskin currently works at the neurosurgery department in Gaza’s main hospital helping Palestinians who’ve been injured by Israeli attacks, or during fights and treating the traumatized as she has studied psychiatry which helps her attend to those patients “[whose] diseases are linked with nerves,” she says. One requires nerves of steel and a strong yet calm personality to practice neurosurgery according to specialists in the domain.
Newsweek Middle East met with Kaskin at her house in Gaza to discuss her work and life. The doctor’s ability to multitask was on ample display as she moved around her home swiftly preparing a chocolate cake before the power went out, attending to her children and husband, Khalil, 50. Kaskin had to pause the interview several times to convince the children to calm down.
Kaskin has four children: Three daughters Wasan, 7, four-and-a-half years old twins, Ghina and Sana, and a two-year-old boy, Ibrahim.
Why did you study medicine and why neurosurgery in particular?
Kaskin: It was my dream from when I was a little girl to be a physician. When I finished my high school in 1991 I decided to pursue medicine and my father encouraged me.
It was a phenomenon in Gaza for women physicians to specialize in pediatricians or obstetricians [especially] while we are living in a hot zone and see lots of wounds, [sic].
During our first Intifada in 1987, lots of Palestinians were killed or wounded by the Israeli forces, and someone had to focus on helping them, which is another reason why I didn’t pick pediatrics or OB/GYN.
I remember my mother tried to persuade me to study obstetrics and gynecology or pediatrics. But during my training in those fields, she noticed I was unhappy whereas in the neurosurgery department, she noticed I became enthusiastic and active [so] she gave me her blessing.
Why did you go to Kazakhstan to study medicine?
Kaskin: I had finished high school when the first Intifada was flaming and the Israeli occupation closed all Palestinian universities in the Palestinian territory. Also, at that time, there were no medical faculties. I tried applying to study in some Arab countries but that did not work. [A medical school in] Kazakhstan was easier to join. I thought about European countries but I knew it wouldn’t materialize because of visa issues, high tuition and living costs there.
Why did you return to Gaza rather than work abroad?
Kaskin: My father had died, and I missed my family who were in dire need of my help. It would not be [right] to leave my family alone after they have done their best to support my studies.
I supported my brother who studied engineering in Pakistan. Now he is preparing for his PhD. I also helped four of my sisters get married. I don’t like [feeling] alienat[ed], thus I didn’t look for any work opportunity abroad.
Have you faced any obstacles at work?
Kaskin: The first day at work in Gaza, at the neurosurgery department, some colleagues were surprised [to see me]. They asked if I had picked surgery or was in the wrong department. They even advised me to change my field, but I insisted on staying. Now things run smoothly.
There is also the matter of time. I seem to run out of time either at work or at home taking care of my children. I am under pressure 24/7. But I do not complain: my work is my life, I love it, but it is honestly tiring. And it’s difficult to divide your time between your work, children, husband and social life.
Can you describe some of your most memorable moments at work?
Kaskin: I remember during Israeli air strikes on Gaza, ambulances arrived at the hospital carrying dead and wounded people. I was shocked to see my cousin Imad among the dead but I controlled myself and resumed my work to save others. I am known to be a firm person. I must be like this. Either with some patients or some colleagues; in my line of work I am very punctual and sharp. Outside work I am somebody else.
During the Israeli aggression in 2011, I was at work when I was told that the Israelis had bombarded our house while my kids were inside. That did not happen, but [it was certainly an] unforgettable moment.
What does Gaza lack in terms of patient care?
Kaskin: I see some people who are suffering from chronic diseases and in need for advanced treatment that is not available in Gaza. The Israeli siege is the main obstacle in the face of their treatment. Lots of equipment and means of treatment are not available here. I remember when I trained in Egypt, the equipment the surgeons used there were much better than in Gaza.
What do you aspire to do in the future?
Kaskin: I have a dream to resume my higher studies in hydrocephalus, which doesn’t exist here and nowadays it’s highly difficult to leave Gaza. The Israeli occupation freezes all possibilities of development. We need our state [to have] advanced hospitals.
What are your hobbies?
Kaskin: I like to cook. I cook everything I hear about. I like Maftool (traditional Palestinian dish with couscous). When I have time at home I try new things.
And it was on the topic of food that the smell of cake coming from the oven, reminded her that she had to turn the oven off.