Georgette Rizek (b. 1925 in Tulkarem) founded and directed the first medical center in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Georgette Yousef Elissa (later Rizek) was born in Tulkarem on November 27, 1925. She had two sisters and two brothers. Her father, Yousef Elissa, was from Jaffa and lived there in his early years. An accomplished pharmacist, he supervised pharmacy standards of practice in Palestine for the British Mandate. Her mother, Alexandra Sahhar, was from Jerusalem, and she worked as a staff nurse.
Rizek graduated from the Ramallah Friends School, a prestigious private high school founded by American Quakers. Both parents were government employees who often got transferred to different hospitals, which meant that her family moved extensively throughout the country (particularly in Ramallah and Jerusalem). As the eldest child, she assisted her parents in caring for her siblings. Right after graduating from high school, she worked as a secretary at the American Colony Hotel. She then got a job at the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which was based at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem at the time.
A Newlywed in Turbulent Times
On August 17, 1947, Georgette married Dimitri Rizek from Jaffa. They had four children: Eileen, Johnny, George, and Mira.
Dimitri worked at the Morris Car Company; he went on to start the first garage business in East Jerusalem in 1952. It was located where the Holy Land Hotel currently is. He then established a gas station and car repair garage, which still exists today on Nablus Road.
In July 1946, while the couple were engaged, King David Hotel was bombed by the Irgun Zionist underground organization. Rizek worked at the BOAC office in that building; luckily, she happened to be out on a lunch break with her fiancé when the bombing happened, killing 91 people of various nationalities. Had she been inside the building, it is very likely that she would not have survived the blast.
Less than a year after she got married, the Nakba struck. She was then just 22 years old.
The couple were on their honeymoon in Lebanon when they got messages prompting them to rush back to Palestine, where the situation was alarming. Upon returning home, they had to immediately flee Jaffa; they moved to Jerusalem. Her family lived in Jerusalem, and they fled from their home in upper Baq‘a.
Mira Rizek, Georgette’s youngest daughter, recalls her mother’s often repeated description of being uprooting as a newlywed: “I had to leave my entire possessions and all the wedding gifts behind in our home in Jaffa before we got the chance to open them. I never found out what these gifts were, or who got me what.”
The horror that was inflicted upon Jerusalem following the atrocities of the 1948 Nakba induced Rizek to take immediate action. The city was full of injured and ailing people with nowhere to go for help. Rizek realized that there was a dire need for a medical center to assist the people, and she took it upon herself to start one.
The First Medical Center in the Old City of Jerusalem
With courage and a sense of mission, Rizek embarked on an unexpected career path: to establish an emergency medical clinic in response to the needs of the Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948.
Clearly, there were quite a few challenges that Rizek faced in founding the medical center: neither her formal education (high school graduate) or work experience as a secretary and airline employee prepared her for what she wanted to do. But she was determined, and so she approached the Greek Catholic Church and asked it to start an emergency center.
Driven by her passion, Rizek succeeded (with the support of her mother) in getting the certification from the Health Department to establish the medical center in the Old City of Jerusalem. Her vision was realized in what would become the Infant Welfare Center (of the Greek Catholic Annunciation Society). The center operated from the basement of the Greek Catholic Church in Jaffa Gate and then moved to Souq al-Husor in the Muslim Quarter.
Rizek soon demonstrated exceptional abilities in mobilizing people to act and in fundraising, two essential skills for a new center. She appealed to qualified doctors to volunteer their medical expertise and services. The health inspector and medical director, Yacoub Nazha, had a crucial role in the success of the center. Some of the renowned doctors who rose to the occasion over the years included George Dibsy, Yacoub Zayadin, Adnan Jaber, Emile Jarjoui, Emile Tarazi, and Salim Anati. In due time, Rizek managed to pay the salaries of the doctors and cover their expenses.
Together with other women from her parish, she started a charitable society in 1950 through which they raised funds via church bazaars, dinners, calendar sales, society membership fees, and donations. Subsequently, funds were obtained from other sources such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.
Since its establishment, at least 50,000 children have benefited from medical services offered by the center. It was the first in Palestine to get certified to provide vaccines for babies and children by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). More than 6,000 Palestinian adults receive quality care each year, with a focus on serving those unable to afford health insurance or private clinics.
Throughout the years, the center and its services have largely expanded, and 16 new specializations were included. It now provides medical and dental treatment, literacy classes, food aid, health education for women (including in preventive medicine and first aid), nutrition education, and immunizations for children. In 1977, a day care center was established, to provide care for infants from underprivileged families whose mothers work outside the home. The society also started a student fund to help children from the Old City of Jerusalem to further their education.
The War of 1967
Having lived through the terror and heartache of losing her Jaffa home in 1948, Rizek would once again witness loss when the 1967 War struck. Forty year later, she wrote about the tremendous shock of seeing her husband’s garage in Jerusalem in ruins; the “business that my husband worked all his life to establish” was destroyed. Rizek wrote how she “started thinking about how to break the news to my husband, so he would not have a heart attack when he saw it.” She described the scene in a written testimony:
The offices were demolished, all the furniture was broken, all the tools were stolen, and all the cars were damaged or had been stolen. There was blood all over the floor and walls. Children’s school bags were thrown all over the garage. Oil, from our stock of oil barrels, was seeping all the way to Damascus Gate. The account books and ledgers were all over the place and the cash register was broken into pieces. I stood there crying and crying.1
Committed Role in Jerusalem Society
After the war, Rizek participated in a political protest with the Palestinian Arab Women’s Union (in Jerusalem) against the Israeli occupation. The Israeli army beat some of the women at the event, and the state issued deportation orders against some of the protesters. Although the deportation order was later rescinded, Rizek was shaken to learn that standing up against occupation could have life-changing consequences for ordinary people who simply asserted their rejection of occupation.
Rizek took pride in her popularity among the poor, whom she regarded as her primary focus and who knew her as “Umm Johnny” (mother of Johnny). She remained persistent in her aim to provide free healthcare and medical services to the underprivileged segment of society, and she managed to do so to a large extent. More complex/costly services, such as periscopic operations and dental care, were provided at affordable prices.
Rizek was a Palestinian nationalist who had a prevalent role in society, particularly in Jerusalem. She had a strong presence in one of the first women’s charitable societies in Palestine: the Arab Orthodox Society (AOS), known locally as Hamilat al-Tib (established in 1926). She was also a board member at the Jerusalem YWCA and Caritas Jerusalem for many years. She received several awards in recognition for her services, including a papal medal at a special ceremony in Rome, as well as by the Greek Catholic Patriarchate, the Order of Saint Lazarus, and the Union of Charitable Societies in Jerusalem.
Having been the founder and manager of the Infant Welfare Center, Rizek continued to work tirelessly as a volunteer. In 2000, she had kidney failure and became a dialysis patient, and thus had to slow down her work activities. Yet she continued to go to the center every day until she retired in 2008, at age 81.
Rizek died on March 16, 2018, at the age of 92.
Her daughters, Eileen Rizek Kuttab and Mira Rizek, have shared how their late mother always urged Palestinians to never leave Jerusalem, because they would regret it: “Do not leave Jerusalem as we left Jaffa” in 1948.
Her daughters also reflect how, in her last moments when she could hardly recognize her own children, she seemed to be getting flashbacks about how “they [the Israelis] robbed our land. They took our home. Do not leave the city. The future of Jerusalem rests on our shoulders.”
Alghad Extra. “Georgette Rizek . . . Stations in the Life of Volunteer Leader in Jerusalem.” [In Arabic.] March 19, 2021.
Coyne, Nora. “Serving the Smallest.” One. Winter 1978.
Kidd, Lucinda. “Those Who Do the Never-Ending Work.” One. Fall 1988.
Pilgrimage People. “Project: Infant Welfare Centre, East Jerusalem.” Accessed July 4, 2021.
Rizek, Georgette. “One Woman’s Story: A Testimony from June 1967.” Cornerstone [Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center] 46 (Fall 2007): 12.
Georgette Rizek, “One Woman’s Story: A Testimony from June 1967,” Cornerstone [Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center] 46 (Fall 2007): 12.