Turning personal heartbreak into a positive force, a Gazan doctor starts a fund to further female scholarship in the Mideast, including Israel.
As John Lennon put it, everyone’s saying “give peace a chance.” But in reality, people in the mixed-up, shook-up, desperately fed-up Middle East know that brokering peace can only be done through human, individual connections.
This is the way a Palestinian doctor and grieving father is giving peace a chance, through a new scholarship fund for Middle East college education, including in Israel. During the Israeli-Gaza war in 2009, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a peace-promoting obstetrician working in Israel, was in his Gaza home when a shell landed on the house killing three of his daughters — Bessan, Mayar and Aya.
The news had people on both sides of the conflict in anguish, because everyone who knew Abuelaish knew that he wasn’t only talking about peace. He was already doing something about it, through his work in medicine.
Now living and teaching public health in Toronto, Abuelaish has created a new scholarship in memory of his children, the Daughters for Life Foundation. Launched following the publication of his book, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey, the fund is targeted at young women of any background. The foundation also works toward evaluating leadership programs on health and education in the Middle East.
Cash prizes of $1,000
In total, some 35 awards will be granted at 10 universities across the region, making Daughters for Life unique in that it was founded by a Palestinian and includes Israel in the list of its pan-Middle East recipients. The others are in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
The fund will provide three $1,000 scholarships to students of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. Awards will also be distributed by the University of Haifa. The scholarships are designated for women learning in the areas of medicine, journalism, business, law or education — the fields in which Abuelaish’s girls were interested.
“Only someone with the incredible personality of Izzeldin, with his deep commitment to bridging the two peoples, would be able to turn his own personal tragedy into such a positive force,” BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi said upon the inaugural launch of the scholarship on June 2.
Among the recipients from BGU are Amalya Ze’evi from Holon, studying politics and society; Ma’ayan Givoni, from Ramat Yishai, working on product innovation in business; and second-year medical student Safa Abu Hani from the Bedouin village of Rahat.
Ben Gurion University spokeswoman Faye Bittker says Abuelaish was very familiar on her campus: “I’ve eaten cakes his wife sent,” she says. “He’s a nice guy, and the whole situation is a tragedy. He was clearly affiliated with the peace camp in the middle of the war.”
She tells ISRAEL21c that his first medical fellowship was at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva, the teaching hospital of Ben-Gurion University. He was researching genetics with Ben-Gurion scientists, and taught at its international medical school.
When the tragedy hit in 2009, he had been working at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, a connection brokered through Soroka. “He had a deep connection to the whole medical industry,” Bittker says.
Inspiring women to help others
Abu Hani tells ISRAEL21c that the award is meaningful not because of the money, which will only pay a fraction of her medical school costs.
“It means a lot to me because, as you see, it is a symbol. The issue here is that I was chosen to take this scholarship,” she says. “It’s given to girls that are volunteers, and I am so happy that they picked me – I’ve volunteered so many years at Soroka, working with hospitalized children. Sometimes they are from Gaza, but that’s not the issue. We help the kids, and are playing with them, helping them mentally.”
She had heard of Abuelaish and his work as an obstetrician/gynecologist. “When they called me to receive this scholarship, to know he was the one that gave us the scholarship, this made me very happy. It was an honor,” she says.
“It really inspires a lot. It’s in my mind all the time that I really want to help others like he has helped me. It doesn’t matter where they come from, just to help others.”
As the foundation’s website says, “When female values are better represented through leadership at all levels of society, overall values will change and life will improve in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine as a whole, in Israel, and throughout the Middle East.”