Asmahan Abu-Salam (42) from the predominantly-Jewish town of Gan Yavneh, has volunteered at Magen David Adom (MDA) for 16 years. Over that time, Asmahan gave birth to six children, but between one maternity leave and another, she has come back again and again to volunteer at MDA as an emergency medical paramedic and ambulance driver. She also volunteers as a search and rescue operations officer with Gan Yavneh.
Asmahan does all this as a Bedouin and as a single mother to her six children, the youngest being 10 years old.
It is surprising to hear of a Bedouin family that lives in a mostly Jewish town. Israeli Bedouins make up an Arab-speaking minority group that lives mainly in several settlements and areas in southern and northern Israel. They are Arabic-speaking and predominantly Muslim, but have a separate ethnicity and historical identity from the larger Israeli Arab populations. Many Bedouin men volunteer to serve in the IDF. Asmahan says that in contrast to the past, the average Bedouin family today has settled down and does not migrate with animal herds any longer.
Asmahan’s father came to Gan Yavneh as a teenager to work with a farmer there and ended up staying. She grew up speaking Hebrew at Jewish schools along with her 10 brothers and sisters. She says they did not feel out of place, but rather fit in well with the Jewish kids.
Asmahan says, “This is a beautiful country that gives me my rights and dignity even though I am a minority. I did not feel racial prejudice, although I have dark skin… No matter where you are in the world there is some level of discrimination, but I choose what to look at or not to look at… Sometimes I tell [Israeli Jewish] people that I am Bedouin and Muslim, and they cannot believe it. They think I am an Ethiopian Jew.”
Asmahan and her family live among Jews, but she still prays five times a day in the Muslim way and observes Islamic traditions with her children. At the same time, they also participate in some Jewish cultural experiences with their Jewish neighbors, such as eating traditional Purim cookies.
Give and it shall be given unto you
“I get crazy support from my kids,” Asmahan shared. “If I’m in a bad mood, they tell me to go do an MDA shift because they know it will make me feel better. Being productive and giving of myself brings me a lot of satisfaction, and I feel at any given moment that I am part of the warm and supportive MDA family. It’s a huge privilege for me to volunteer at Magen David Adom. I can give to others, and no less, to myself.”
Asmahan says that every patient goes “into her heart,” and that it’s never just a job for her:
“When I treat an older woman, I treat her as if she were my grandmother. I always think of the person in the ambulance, that he or she is hurting and anxious. My job is to give the best medical care possible, but I believe it is also very important that I be human and caring.”
In recent months, Asmahan has been one of those MDA medics at the very forefront of the fight against the coronavirus. She received special training for Corona testing and has served in the homes of patients in the Gan Yavneh and Ashdod area, in the “Get tested on the go” drive-thru medical site in Ashdod, and nursing homes in the area. She says, “Let’s not be complacent regarding corona, even though so far Israel has survived the pandemic quite well.”
“I took a lot of test samples, but it was important to me not to be callous or indifferent toward any of the patients,” Asmahan said. “I remember going to test a tourist who was in isolation at a hotel in Ashdod. They said it was his birthday. So I sang ‘happy birthday,’ and he got quite emotional. Coming with the protective suit to homes that had children, I told them I was not a monster but just looked like one. I tried to do everything I could to allay their concerns. The activity around the Corona crisis has been intense and challenging, but I knew I was part of something big. I am volunteering in an organization that constantly needs to become more efficient and adapt to the situation in the country, with the help of people like me and my volunteer friends.”
“I sometimes come as the head of the response team, to a patient or injured person, and people ask me where the person in charge is,” Asmahan said, “but I’m quick to make it clear that I am in charge. I’m confident in what I’m doing, and as soon as the people around me realize I’m there to help, their attitude changes. At the end of each emergency response, they always thank me profusely and express appreciation for what I have done.”
“I love MDA,” she concluded. “It’s a framework in which people can give of themselves without limit, with all their heart. There are 24,000 volunteers in MDA. We look at each individual as a person, without regard to their differences of religion, color, gender and ethnic background.”