October 30, 2009

Building Bridges Through the Women's Health Empowerment Program

The latest briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

In today’s world, opposing sides often fight out their differences on political stages and battlefields around the globe. But JDC’s non-sectarian programs create bridges between people who have lived on irreconcilably different sides of a conflict. One such bridge was a remarkable event that took place earlier this month in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH), where over 3,000 Muslims, Jews, Serbs, and Croats came together to walk against a common enemy—breast cancer—that kills more than 410,000 women and men around the globe each year.

This second annual Race for the Cure in BH was organized through JDC‘s Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP) and its partner, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and it marked the sixth year of JDC’s partnership with Komen to promote the early detection of breast cancer in overseas communities.

WHEP was the brainchild of the late Marcia Presky z”l, who was the Director of our International Development Program, until her untimely death in November 2005. The partnership with Susan G. Komen evolved after JDC initiated work in Israel in 2000 by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian women struggling with the disease and providing them with psychosocial support in Israel. WHEP is also active in Russia, Hungary, and was launched this year in Montenegro.

Bosnia is politically decentralized. It has two governing entities—Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska—and three ethnic groups: Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs, and Croats. Political tension has risen this past year between the two entities with the Serbs threatening to seek independence. The Race, given the current situation, was a rare opportunity for people from all areas and both governing entities to come together. More importantly, it was a source of true pride for the local Jewish community.

Nihada Muslimovic is a breast cancer survivor from Travnik in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nihada came to the Race in Sarajevo because she felt it was her duty. But she was overcome with emotion as she stood among some 300 survivors in pink t-shirts, Muslim women in their traditional dress, Croatian women in folk costumes, and Serbian women who are members of the Orthodox Church. She could not have anticipated what it would feel like to be together with women just like her, all of them laughing and singing. “My heart was huge and I thought it was going to jump out of my chest. That was a place I needed to be and am going to return to every year.”

Nihada’s story is one of many. Every year, more than 1,300 women in Bosnia and Herzegovina are newly diagnosed with breast cancer—the most common illness among women in the country. One out of nine women in BH is newly diagnosed annually; a woman somewhere in the world dies from breast cancer every 75 seconds. Thousands die because they lack the knowledge, resources, and support to cope with the disease. The Race is just one effort to combat the staggering statistics; proceeds from the walk will help buy vital medicine that significantly improve the odds of surviving breast cancer, even when diagnosed at late stages of the disease’s development.

Nela Hasic, the Director of the WHEP program in Bosnia and Herzegovina, proudly represented JDC in a number of media appearances that focused on the Race, as well as the October 1-2 Regional Breast Cancer Awareness Conference, which brought together breast cancer survivors, NGO representatives, medical professionals, and Government officials from the entire region (Serbia, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia). Nela has a long history with JDC: she and her family were among those evacuated by JDC during the war in 1992. When she returned to Bosnia’s Jewish community in late 2002 after living in Israel with her family for 10 years, she was grateful to join JDC as a staff member on this program.

The local Jewish community in Bosnia was sensitive to the unease in the region during the war in Gaza earlier this year. So Nela was very proud to see JDC’s name on billboards and ads around the entire city and the word “Jewish” uttered in a positive context on various media outlets. It restored her hope that her community could live harmoniously among its Muslim neighbors.

Among the many activities of WHEP Bosnia and Herzegovina are a toll-free helpline run by breast cancer survivors, critical psychosocial support services, and an educational program for senior high school students to raise breast cancer awareness among youth. The progress is incredible: 10 years ago there was only silence; today there is public conversation about breast cancer and models of how to cope with the disease have been raised to the national level.

A literature student from Sarajevo, whose mother died from the disease, expressed his deep commitment to the program. He participated in the Race last year and said he returned to “thank us for the fight we are fighting in the name of all women no matter where they come from or who they are.” Wearing one of the race’s signature pink shirts, he thanked JDC and said that participating in this event is a way to keep his mother’s spirit alive.

This sentiment was echoed time and time again by attendees of other events organized by WHEP in honor of October’s Breast Cancer awareness month. In Hungary, WHEP participated in the “Bridge Walk,” the annual breast cancer awareness event which is organized by the Hungarian Bridge Alliance. WHEP distributed special educational materials on breast cancer awareness and self-exams and widely advertized the nine health days and screening events organized by the program in rural cities all over Hungary with the hope of educating women and their families on breast cancer and the importance of early detection. WHEP also offered free mammograms on-site via a mobile mammogram unit.

In Russia, we organized a special seminar for oncologists and gynecologists on doctor-patient relationships and communication skills, including improving bedside manner. We also launched a new educational outreach program for teachers at 130 schools in Moscow.

Finally, in Montenegro, we held the First WHEP National Conference, which brought together relevant government and medical representatives, survivors, and advocates to discuss and begin mapping out plans for the fight against breast cancer on a national level, including encouraging the work of local NGOs in this field.

If we save one person, it is as though we have saved a world. Irv and I know that through WHEP, JDC and its partners are working not only to save lives, but also to transform the quality of people’s lives, while also creating a multicultural dialogue in the process.

I remind you, as I always do, that JDC does not use annual campaign funds from the Jewish Federations of North America for any non-sectarian projects. All IDP work is funded by designated gifts, individuals, or Foundation grants. If you would like to receive more information or contribute to this program, please contact Itai Shamir at itais@jdcny.org.

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