Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, MD, MPH, is a Palestinian doctor who was born and raised in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. He is a passionate and eloquent proponent of peace between Palestinians and Israelis and has dedicated his life to using health as a vehicle for peace. He has succeeded despite all odds through a great determination of spirit, a strong faith, and a stalwart belief in hope and family.
He studied medicine in Cairo, Egypt and obtained a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology from the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of London, UK. From 1997-2002, Dr. Abuelaish completed his residency at the Soroka University hospital in Beer Sheva, Israel followed by a subspecialty in Fetal Medicine in Italy and Belgium, and a Master’s in Public Health (Health Policy and Management) from Harvard University. He is the first Palestinian doctor to receive an academic appointment in Medicine at an Israeli hospital.
Dr. Abuelaish has overcome many personal hardships, including poverty, violence, and the tragedy of the deaths of his three daughters and niece in the 2009 Gaza War (see below). He continues to live up to the description bestowed upon him by an Israeli colleague, as a “magical, secret bridge between Israelis and Palestinians”. He is now one of the most outspoken, prominent and beloved researchers, educators and public speakers on peace and development in the Middle East.
Dr. Abuelaish is currently an Associate Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (University of Toronto), where he teaches courses in women’s health and international conflict resolution. You can read more about Dr. Abuelaish’s life journey in his 2010 memoir, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey.
Adapted in part from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health
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Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is an optimist to the core. He challenges the cultural and geopolitical forces of the Middle East, which seek to divide and instil fear, and he refuses to succumb to hatred, even when a shell from an Israeli tank killed three of his daughters and his niece back in 2009.
People like Dr. Abuelaish seem to be in short supply but in dire demand in the world. And it is people like Dr. Abuelaish who give hope to a seemingly hopeless conflict between two peoples – his people and my people, Palestinians and Israelis.
I was truly honoured to have had the chance to interview him and to share his story with you.
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ON HEALTH, PEACE, AND WAR. For Dr. Abuelaish, ‘Health’ is not so much about health services as it is about the world around each of us; “it’s about the school, it’s about the community, about work, about the street, the bus, and everything in our lives.” He sees health as being far more than just the maintenance of human wellbeing, but rather as a “human equalizer and stabilizer”; health, therefore, contains within it the socio-political dimensions of freedom, equality, and justice for all.
As such, a society at war or a society in conflict is just as ‘sick’ as a body subjected to the horrors of disease. And health professionals, therefore, are “messengers of humanity and peace” who address the needs of individuals and communities irrespective of race, religion, or political beliefs.
Dr. Abuelaish served a unique role as a Palestinian doctor working in an Israeli hospital. He notes: “I was treated with respect, with an acknowledgement of what I do, and with appreciation for what I do as one of them…they [my colleagues and patients] gave me the good feeling that it’s my home.”
Throughout his two decades at Soroka Medical Center in Beer Sheba and then Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, he has crossed the Israeli-Palestinian divide – both physically and metaphorically – every time he drove to or from work.
“I wanted the Israelis to see the face of the Palestinian people: we are human, we are similar, we are equal. We can live, we can share, we can work together, and we can overcome the stereotypes and the misinformation.”
Dr. Abuelaish applies his medical perspective to the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As a first step, he says, “the patient will never be cured and recover if he [or she] doesn’t admit that he is sick, and that he has a problem.” There needs to be some sort of acknowledgement; “not to [bury] our heads in the sand like the ostrich.” Next, we need to have the right history in order to come to the right diagnosis and set up the right treatment; “we want to [see] the full situation from all sides.”
“In my life I always use the medical analogy. It’s the easiest way: it’s close to the heart and it’s easy to understand. Not vague, complicated political terms. Medical terms are straight forward and they are clear.”
So what is the ‘right’ history when it comes to such a deep-rooted and complicated conflict? Which narrative (or narratives) could we use to guide our diagnosis? And supposing we arrive at a diagnosis, what are the possible courses of treatment? Who will be administering this treatment, and how?
These are not easy questions to answer, but for Dr. Abuelaish, the key is that solutions can only be found holistically – by taking into account the complete picture, the deep-rooted scars, and the nuanced cultural attitudes.
“We must not see things in a fragmented way,” he explains. “When you deal with a patient, when you treat the patient, you don’t treat organs – you treat the whole. A human. A human being. So if he came complaining of something in the hand, you don’t focus on the hand. You see the hand. But this hand is connected to the whole body, and this human being is connected to the environment, to the community, to the world.”
As an interviewer, I am a bit of an inherent pessimist, so I asked Dr. Abuelaish whether he might be seeing the conflict through rose-coloured lenses. He responds again using a medical analogy: “As long as the patient is still alive, there is hope in tomorrow. So we must not lose hope. We only lose hope once the patient is dead.”
“I am a person of faith. In my life, I fear only G-d. G-d is there….G-d is awake when others are asleep. G-d is watching when others are blind. And I fully believe, if the entire world wants to do me harm and G-d does not, they will never do that. And if the entire world wants to help me and G-d does not, it will never happen.”
For Dr. Abuelaish, faith serves as a guide for individual legacy in the realm of three key human constructs: (1) Money – how did you earn it and what did you do with it? (2) Time – what did you do with your time? Did you use it well? And (3) Knowledge and education – did you keep them to yourself, or did you share them with the world? Through his charitable work, as well as his role as physician and educator, Dr. Abuelaish certainly embodies a full realization of these values.
His mother. “My mother, Dalal, she was my weak point. She is my mother. And when you say “mom,” “Imma,” “mama,” it has a special meaning. A mother is the one who brought us, who carried, who fed, who worked tirelessly. When you are sick, she will never sleep. If you have a fever, if you have anything, she is the one to breastfeed, to sacrifice, to give from her body, from her health, to others, to give life to others, to nurture life.”
Beyond his own mother-son relationship, Dr. Abuelaish gives special importance to mothers and motherhood from a professional standpoint. As an obstetrician and infertility specialist, Dr. Abuelaish helped women from all religious backgrounds and walks of life deliver their babies: “She is a mother of a child. She values life. She gives this world a new hope, a new smile.”
His daughters. In January 2009, Dr. Abuelaish lost three of his daughters: Bessan (age 21), Mayar (age 15), and Aya (age 13). He was determined to honour their memory, their curiosity, and their love of learning in some form, and was inspired to establish a charitable foundation, Daughters for Life. The mission of Daughters for Life is to provide scholarships to young women from the Middle East, specifically those working towards girls’ education and improving the status of women. The recipients of these scholarships show not only remarkable academic achievement, but also a determined struggle against poverty and systemic barriers.
“I believe this world can endure only with women and women’s education. It’s the only way to establish, to achieve a safe, secure, free, healthy, peaceful, just world, it’s the function and the duty of women’s education and role. Women they don’t lack in skills, they lack the opportunity.”
Daughters for Life supports girls from all over the Middle East for their studies in their home countries or for studies abroad. “We give scholarships to girls to study in Canada and in the US [among others]; we give them full scholarships – we cover the tuition fees, we cover the housing, the food, the round-trip flight, and the books.” The organization supports approximately twenty girls each year, with recipients currently studying at Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Guelph, and McGill University.
“That’s the impact we have and that’s the message I can send to my daughters: I kept you alive through seeing these beloved daughters. That’s why I call them our daughters. They are daughters for life.”
FINAL THOUGHTS. I asked Dr. Abuelaish if he had any other pearls of wisdom to share with us, as health professional students. In his words,
“We face challenges in life, but the biggest challenge is to challenge ourselves. So don’t blame; take responsibility, have faith, and maintain hope – whatever the situation of the patient. It may be a difficult case, but there is always hope in tomorrow. But hope, and faith, they need action. So we must translate the faith and hope into action, into hard work, into good work.”
From Dr. Abuelaish, we can learn to do our best for our patients’ wellbeing, to be advocates and messengers of peace and hope in our communities and the world at large, and to appreciate the people in our lives.
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A special thanks to Dr. Abuelaish for his time and for his contribution to ArtBeat.
My name is Alon Coret, and I am a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto. I was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, and moved to Toronto (and later Burlington, ON) at the age of 10. Having personal and family ties to Israel, I resonate closely with the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hope this interview can shed some light on some of the remarkable efforts and sacrifices made by people like Dr. Abuelaish in hopes of building a more peaceful future in our shared piece of land.