Jews join in marrow drive for area Palestinian woman

Maha Khalaf has had more comebacks than John Travolta.

Three years ago, she was told she had a year to live. Three months ago, she was told she'd be dead in 48 hours.

"I was given last-ditch chemotherapy, and now I'm walking around and talking," said Khalaf, 28, who was diagnosed 2-1/2 years ago with a rare and particularly aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma that can only be remedied with a bone marrow transplant.

"I'm a fighter, apparently, but all I hear is 'as soon as possible.' When [doctors] say 'as soon as possible,' it's not a joke."

The drive to aid Khalaf — a Palestinian American who grew up in Santa Clara and now lives in San Bruno — has brought Jews and Palestinians together in the unlikely locale of Birmingham, Ala. Khalaf hopes it may happen here, too.

"There was a study done a year and a half ago in Gaza and Israel by a Spanish researcher," explained Dr. Omar Khalaf, Maha's uncle and a Birmingham general practitioner.

"He found out there is a very strong genetic resemblance between Palestinians and the Jewish population in general, particularly the Sephardic population."

With that in mind, Omar Khalaf contacted Chabad of Alabama's Rabbi Yossi Posner, who talked to Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

Friedman, who knew Khalef from a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group that met in the late 1980s, quickly agreed to set up a marrow drive with the Red Cross, and several dozen Jews and others donated a few drops of blood for analysis last Friday at a Birmingham-area Jewish Community Center.

"We were more than happy to help. There was a particular poignancy to it, she being a Palestinian and we being the Jewish community, but bone marrow registration helps everybody," said Friedman.

"The timing is kind of beshert [meant to be]. We did it on Friday, and this week, hopefully, things will start to improve in terms of the Mideast. And this might be the beginning of a new opportunity to create dialogue with members of the Palestinian community here."

Khalaf, her family and friends run a Web site aimed at encouraging marrow donation, Through the site, anyone can be tested free of charge. Khalaf can also be contacted through matchforma[email protected] or, for the less than Web savvy, at (415) 377-9995.

Maha Khalaf's friends and family haven't reached out to the Jewish community here in the Bay Area as overtly as in Birmingham, but volunteers did hand out materials at Sunday's "Israel in the Gardens" celebration. Khalaf, however, was too sick to attend.

Before her ordeal, Khalaf had been a successful San Francisco lawyer, and a graduate of Santa Clara University and U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

Since her diagnosis, she has spent nearly $100,000 of her own money organizing marrow drives that have added 4,000 donors to the public registry and perhaps 1,000 to private registries. Her family has also spent nearly $50,000 — Khalaf is considered "Caucasian," and her insurance company refuses to cover the $75 price tag for an initial marrow test. Minorities are eligible to apply for additional funding from the National Marrow Donor Program.

Khalaf's efforts have led two other lucky people to be matched with donors, but, to this point, her salvation has been elusive. She points to others' success, however, and feels she is helping to make a difference.

"If my efforts are futile for myself, I really would rather find a match for someone else," said Khalaf, who has been unable to work for the past 18 months.

"Searching the national registry, we found Middle Eastern and Semitic people are very underrepresented."

Her uncle adds that marrow registration "is a good idea whether it's for Maha or somebody else. We are encouraging Jews to get involved in this; we are encouraging Arabs to get involved; it is something everybody should be involved in."

Khalaf's future is uncertain, but one would never know that from speaking to her. Her voice is young and strong. She laughs and jokes, even about subjects that aren't exactly founts of comedic material.

About her area of legal expertise, corporate transitional law: "Until 2001, that was the thing. Conveniently, when I got diagnosed, it slowed down."

How can she be so composed?

"Two-and-a-half years of this," she said. "This is not something you can break apart about every day."

The partnership between Jews and Palestinians "is a huge opportunity to get to a whole group of people I would not have been able to reach if my uncle hadn't bothered to target it. Anything that gives me hope makes me happy."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.