Meet the trailblazer Bedouin doctor fighting to change Israeli society

Among Negev residents, life expectancy among Bedouin residents is three or four years lower than for Jewish residents. 

 BEDOUIN WOMEN seek employment via Rahat’s Rayan center, focusing on the integration of previously unemployed women from Bedouin society in the Negev into the workforce (Illustrative).  (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
BEDOUIN WOMEN seek employment via Rahat’s Rayan center, focusing on the integration of previously unemployed women from Bedouin society in the Negev into the workforce (Illustrative).
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

The success story of Dr. Yasmin Abu Faricha, a doctor at Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba, is not just another example of how a Bedouin woman broke through the glass ceiling but also of a social activist who is fundamentally rectifying the ills of Israeli society. 

“A large portion of my social activity and medical research is geared toward improving people’s health and implementing preventive medicine,” explains Abu Faricha, who recently returned from a year of training as a Wexner Fellow

“A large portion of my social activity and medical research is geared toward improving people’s health and implementing preventive medicine.”

Dr. Yasmin Abu Faricha

Following participation in this program, which is designed for outstanding Israelis employed in the public sector, Abu Faricha returned home with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. 

What’s most important to me is to figure out how to minimize the gap between the rich and poor with regard to medical and healthcare. There are starkly different levels of care for people living in Central Israel versus those in the periphery, and for Jews and Arabs. My goal is to make sure quality services are available for everyone, regardless of their economic, linguistic or cultural background,” she says.

 MINIMIZING GAPS: Dr. Yasmin Abu Faricha.  (credit: Courtesy Soroka Hospital Spokesman) MINIMIZING GAPS: Dr. Yasmin Abu Faricha. (credit: Courtesy Soroka Hospital Spokesman)
Where specifically have you found the gaps to be exceedingly large?

Considering that Israel is such a small country, you wouldn’t expect the level of care to be so different in various locations. And I’m not just talking about the Negev. In recent years, more and more Arabic-speaking doctors are filling positions in Israeli hospitals, which is helpful for populations that don’t speak Hebrew. 

Arabs make up 20% of Israel’s population and one-third of Negev residents. According to estimates, Arabs will comprise 50% of the Negev population by 2050. And even when Negev communities are provided with medical services, they often have not been adjusted for cultural and linguistic differences, which makes it incredibly difficult for residents to receive quality medical care.

At the end of the day, if the medical professional cannot communicate with the patient, the care cannot be helpful. My stethoscope definitely helps me do my work as a doctor, but it’s not nearly as important as my ability to speak with the patient.

What was your year at Harvard like?

It was a marvelous and eye-opening experience. The Wexner Fellowship was created as a way to retain quality individuals in the public service sector. I would not have been chosen to participate in this program if the senior staff at Soroka hadn’t supported me fully. I do not take this for granted for one second. 

There’s always lots of talk about getting promotions, but there’s a limited number of positions available. The year at Harvard is meant to be a time for personal development, during which time we learned to look at the big picture and how to construct long-term plans, analyze and determine public policy.

What did you learn from the Wexner program?

After spending a year in the US, I can honestly say that with respect to the issue of accessibility, Israel is in very good shape – even extremely good. But we also have so many areas where we must make improvements. 

For example, when COVID broke out, Israel’s medical establishment realized that the way they reached out to the Arabic-speaking population was inept and that we needed to make the necessary changes in order to get through to this community, which is so different culturally to Israel’s Jewish population. 

There are also gaps in education and infrastructure. Many of the residents in Arab villages and towns cannot read or write, so we cannot expect that distributing flyers in these areas will be very effective.

LIFE EXPECTANCY in Bedouin communities is eight years less than that of Israelis living in Central Israel. Among Negev residents, life expectancy among Bedouin residents is three or four years lower than for Jewish residents. 

“You can’t help but feel uncomfortable when you hear these figures,” Abu Faricha says. “This is the result not just of a lack of education and infrastructure but also limited budgets. Thankfully, more funds have recently been allocated, but we still have a long way to go. Healthcare in the Bedouin sector has been added to the government’s new five-year plan, so it no longer feels like we’re talking to a brick wall. People are finally listening and doing something to fix the problems.”

Abu Faricha, 33, grew up in Tel Sheva, a Bedouin town, and is the oldest of five siblings. When she was five, her parents decided to move to Omer. “My mother was an English teacher in Tel Sheva, and my father was a road engineer. My parents wanted my siblings and me to receive the best education possible,” continues Abu Faricha. “They knew that, unfortunately, this would just not be feasible if we stayed in Tel Sheva. And it’s even more true today. 

“I remember that we moved in the middle of the night and that we had to get everything done as quickly as possible. My relatives who remained in Tel Sheva did not view this move in a positive light. My childhood in Omer was pretty good. I cannot say that we were disadvantaged in any way.”

When did you realize you wanted to be a doctor?

When I was 14, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I used to go with her to her treatments in the hospital, and I remember feeling such gratitude and calm when I would be with her in the hospital, knowing that there were skilled and caring people taking care of her. The staff was really kind and supportive, which was really helpful. 

For me, the doctors seemed like angels who were there to heal my mother, and I thought to myself – this is what I want to do when I get older.

More Bedouin girls are getting an academic education and joining the workforce. Does it seem like people in Israeli society are aware of this?

We need to do a lot of work in this area, too. The unemployment rate in this sector is still incredibly high. So, yes there is definitely an upward trend in the number of Bedouin women getting academic degrees, and entering the workforce, including Arab women doctors, a few of whom are Bedouin. 

There’s a Nigerian idiom my mother taught me, which I just love: ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ When I look around me at the women working beside me – professors, doctors and women who are leaders in their field – I see how much they influence the circles around them. They know how to stand up for themselves, as women and also as Arab women, and to insist on receiving the things they deserve, and not out of a sense of victimhood. This is all connected with the revolution that is currently taking place.

Abu Faricha completed her residency a year ago at Soroka. After treating a large number of Bedouin children who suffered from serious genetic diseases at the hospital, she decided to form Rodina, an organization that works to prevent genetic diseases and raise awareness in the Bedouin community. “I wanted to help children and their families, so that they wouldn’t have to suffer so much. We help them with family planning and educate them about testing – all free of charge. Our goal is to create a situation in which making healthy decisions is also the easiest alternative,” she says.

Bedouin society is extremely conservative. What kind of resistance did you come up against?

We’re not trying to change people – that’s impossible. I can barely implement changes in my own life. But we can change the community and the conditions we live in.

How hard is it today for a Bedouin woman who wants to be a doctor to make that dream a reality?

It’s difficult for a number of reasons. The first is that the Bedouin community is the poorest sector in Israel, so the financial burden this leads to makes it difficult for these women to get a good high-school education, let alone be able to pay for a psychometric preparatory course or studies at an academic institution. 

Secondly, Bedouin culture in general is not supportive of women going to college and getting a job. Nonetheless, we are seeing a trickling of more women who are graduating from college and becoming role models for younger girls, and this is heartening. I hope that this situation continues to improve with time. These two issues are the biggest obstacles for Bedouin women who want to become doctors. Some choose to study abroad. Each time another woman joins this circle of power, I can feel her influence.”

Is there an organized effort to help Bedouin women with logistics? 

Not really. When it comes down to it, it mostly depends on the parents. I grew up privileged because my parents worked extremely hard so that we could have that kind of life. Most of my friends who went to university grew up in similar circumstances. My father is the only one of his siblings who went to college, and none of my female cousins was allowed to go study. 

There’s still a high level of violence, crime and illiteracy in the Bedouin community. Each time a woman enters the workforce, especially healthcare, the chance of making our community a better place increases.

How does Bedouin society treat women who are trailblazers?

It’s much more acceptable today, but it also depends on the specific location. Israeli Arab society is made up of so many different kinds of communities. In general, almost everywhere I go, I am treated with respect and even admiration. 

I’ve never experienced someone questioning my credibility as a medical professional due to my gender. In fact, I am constantly getting phone calls from young people who are looking for advice regarding college studies and possible career choices.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m at a crossroads now. For some time, I’ve been thinking that it’s important to focus on the macro and be involved in public policy, since that’s where real changes can be implemented. The way medicine is currently being practiced is really just putting out fires. But I also love working as a doctor and being involved in their care. 

I love interacting with my patients and working beside my fellow colleagues. In my opinion, all administrators should also work a certain number of clinic hours to stay in touch with what happens on the ground. Unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a few senior administrators who have no idea what actually happens day to day on the wards. 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.