BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Two Palestinian teenagers have made history by becoming the first amputees from the Arab world to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
On Jan. 23, Mutussam Abu Karsh, 16, from Gaza and Yasmeen Najjar, 17, from the Nablus village of Burin completed a demanding eight-day journey to the peak of Africa's highest mountain.
The Climb of Hope was organized by the Ramallah-based Palestine Children's Relief Fund
to raise awareness of the plight of children injured in conflict zones in the Middle East, and to raise money to provide medical care to Syrian children wounded in the country's ongoing war.
Traveling in a group of 12 led by Suzanne al-Houby, the first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest, Mutassam and Yasmeen braved extreme weather conditions to climb 5,895 meters to reach the Uhuru Peak, which in Swahili means freedom.
"I am proud we were the first to carry the Palestinian flag to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to help other children, and I want to show that we can do anything despite our injuries," Mutassam said after the climb.
"It's the first time that I have felt truly free, no walls, no borders, no checkpoints and soldiers."
Yasmeen Najjar, 17. (PCRF)
In 2006, Mutassam lost his left leg and part of his hand after an Israeli tank shell exploded while he was playing football in the northern Gaza Strip.
Following treatment by the PCRF in the United States and Dubai, he was fitted with an artificial leg below the knee and had reconstructive surgery on his hand.
Yasmeen, 17, had her leg amputated at the age of three after being struck by an Israeli army vehicle while playing outside her home in the Nablus village of Burin.
She had to cross several Israeli military checkpoints to reach the nearest hospital and by the time she arrived her leg could not be saved.
PCRF provided treatment for her in 2005 in the United States, and again in Dubai and Jerusalem.
Mutussam Abu Karsh, 16, from Gaza. (PCRF)
"The most beautiful moment was when we reached the peak. It was a very exciting moment, I enjoyed it a lot, it was unforgettable," she said in a video after completing the trek.
"I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro because I want to inspire other young Arabs to think that no matter what happens, you can do anything you want in your life."
The climb raised over $120,000 through corporate and individual sponsors, which will go toward treating injured Syrian children as healthcare facilities continue to deteriorate under the strain of war, PCRF president Steve Sosebee, who also participated in the climb, told Ma'an.
"They (Mutussam and Yasmeen) represent the true spirit of kids in the region who have had to overcome physical, political or economic circumstances to live a normal life," he told Ma'an.
"When both kids had a taste of freedom in Africa it empowered them to use this experience to overcome their disabilities."
Mutassam and Yasmeen pictured on Day 5 of the hike. (PCRF)
Gaza travel restrictions nearly prevent climb
The group unveils the Palestinian flag just short of the summit. (PCRF)
Despite overcoming enormous physical and psychological barriers to complete the climb of Africa's tallest mountain, politics nearly prevented Mutassam from arriving in Tanzania to begin with.
On the day he was due to leave Gaza for Africa, Egyptian authorities closed the Rafah crossing, meaning his only option was to travel via the Israeli controlled Erez terminal.
To cross Erez, Israeli authorities require a travel visa in advance, meaning PCRF had to negotiate the UAE's visa process, which is generally restrictive for Gazans.
The children's charity also had to apply for permission from Jordan to cross the Alleby Bridge before leaving Gaza.
After passing Israel's security check at the Erez crossing, with the help of President Mahmoud Abbas' office, Mutassam crossed into Jordan on the last available bus and managed to fly to Abu Dhabi.
He then flew to Doha and finally arrived in Dar es-Salaam, although his luggage was lost and only arrived three days later, after the climb had already begun.
On his return journey to Gaza, Israeli authorities prevented Mutassam from crossing the Qalandiya checkpoint despite having obtained authorization in advance.
After two days of being prevented from traveling, and with pressure from Abbas' office, Israeli forces finally allowed Mutassam to cross the military checkpoint and return home.
Sosabee says that both teenagers are more confident following the climb and are taking on the responsibility of becoming leaders and ambassadors for other children who have been injured in conflict zones.
"They are representing the true spirit of Palestinian kids and carrying a message of hope for kids all over the Middle East who are like them, not disabled, but 'abled'".
"The goal for them is to continue to be a role model and source of inspiration for other kids, to show that despite their physical disabilities they can overcome them and achieve their dreams in life."