TORONTO — Khaled Khatib was 13 years old when his brother was accidentally shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.
In 2005, the story of 11-year-old Ahmed Khatib, who was killed while playing with an imitation Uzi during a raid in Jenin, made international headlines when his parents decided to donate their son’s organs to Israelis who were in desperate need of transplants.
George Marcello, founder of Step By Step, a non-profit organization that raises awareness about the importance of registering as an organ and tissue donor, has made the Khatibs the focus of his Torch of Life campaign in hopes of inspiring people to register to become potential donors.
Torch of Life is a province-wide campaign to register more than one million Ontarians as organ and tissue donors.
Ontario has one of the lower organ donor registry rates in the world at only 21 per cent.
The campaign’s 75-city tour, which kicked off in Kenora on March 2, has been led by Khaled, now 20, who has been working with Marcello to raise awareness about the thousands of Canadians whose lives depend on receiving a transplant.
“I wanted Khaled to carry the torch through Ontario and I wanted to show… that it’s not just not about organ donation but so many other reasons,” Marcello said.
“We all can see how organ and tissue donations can bring the world closer, can benefit peace.”
Khaled’s brother’s heart, kidneys, liver and lungs were transplanted into six Israelis – four of whom were Jewish.
Khatib, who spoke to The CJN through his interpreter, Ibrahim Hasan, said when his parents made the decision to donate Ahmed’s organs he didn’t know what to think.
“He was too young and was grieving. That was the last thing on his mind. Little by little as he saw the fruits of the labour and he realized what had happened and the positive outcome that came out of it, and the fact that he saw the people that were helped, he realized they were saved by his brother. He realized that his father made the right decision and he supported him,” said Hasan, who translated for Khaled.
He said when he was approached by Marcello to take part in the Torch of Life campaign, he was eager to play an active role.
“It didn’t take him long to decide that he could help the people who are still on the waiting list. He wanted to be a voice for these people.”
Khaled marched the Ottawa leg of the Torch of Life relay in late March in honour of Hélène Campbell, who was waiting for a double-lung transplant. When he learned that she had found a match last month, he was moved to tears.
“He said he was just as happy in that moment as he was when his brother’s organs were given to the Israeli families. It had brought joy to him and to his heart and he was extremely happy,” Hasan said.
Arie Raif, president of the Canadian Friends of the Meir Medical Centre, said he helped connect Marcello with the Khatibs because he hoped their story might move Canadians to act.
“We at the Meir hospital in Israel, which treats Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis, believe that we talk too much and we do very little,” Raif said.
He said despite the talmudic injunction that “he who save a life saves an entire world,” many Jews still don’t think it’s permissible to donate organs.
“If you’re brought up to believe that your body needs to be whole when the Mashiach comes, it’s hard to change that belief,” Raif said.
“But in a world of terror, to talk about organ donation and co-operation between people in the Middle East, it’s like trying to part the Red Sea again.”
He said most major religions preach the importance of supporting life, and education is the key to getting people to realize that all the major religions endorse organ donation.
“Whether it is a Palestinian who donates to five Israeli kids, or an Israeli who donates to five Palestinian kids, it means that they broke the barrier of ignorance. We have to make sure that happens. That’s why we endorse Step by Step, that’s why I devoted my time,” Raif said.
The goal is to make Ontario a leader in organ donation, Marcello added. “If we reach the one million mark we’re aiming for, we can save 900 extra lives that would otherwise die. What could be more honourable than that?”
Exactly halfway through the tour, having visited 37 cities, with 38 more on the itinerary, Marcello said he’s looking forward to the last leg of the tour.
The tour will end on June 19 in Toronto, with a march to Queen’s Park.
Marcello said he wants to invite the family of the late Yoni Jesner, a 19-year-old Jewish student who was killed in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in 2002, to join Khaled on the last leg of the tour.
Jesner’s family decided to donate Yoni’s organs, which saved the life of a Palestinian girl from east Jerusalem.
Barbara Landau and Shahid Akhtar, co-chairs of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, learned about Khaled’s involvement with Torch of Life and have chosen to honour both Khaled and Marcello at the next CAJM meeting.
“We are moved by the heart-wrenching and heartwarming story of Ahmed Khatib. The response of Khaled and his family are an inspiration to all of us. We can all register for the organ donation program, both as a vehicle for peace between our communities, and for the saving of precious lives,” Landau said.
To register to become an organ donor, visit www.beadonor.ca.