Begashaw Berihun on the ward at Herzog Hospital. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Begashaw Berihun on the ward at Herzog Hospital. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

When he fled Ethiopia for Israel eight years ago, Begashaw Berihun had experience as a science teacher and a commercial banker.

With three children to support, and a fourth born while the family was in a government absorption center in Nahariya, Berihun didn’t feel he had time to attend Hebrew classes and perhaps requalify in either profession. He worked in a factory, post office and supermarket to save up money to buy a home in Rishon LeZion.

Then his relative told him about a free course she took at Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital to train Ethiopian immigrants as certified nursing assistants. Now employed at Herzog – a 330-bed teaching hospital specializing in geriatrics and psychiatry — she encouraged Berihun to apply.

“I heard this is good work for the future and I could go on to become a nurse,” the soft-spoken 38-year-old man tells ISRAEL21c in halting English during a short break from his job on the ward.

“I like this work. I like to help people. I see people who cannot speak, who have pain, and if you don’t help them move they cannot even change their position.”

“He’s a hard worker and very ambitious,” says Ronni Suna, the nurse educator who currently heads Herzog’s donor-funded Geriatric Caregiver Training Program, run under the auspices of the Economy Ministry. Berihun was one of 20 participants from across Israel who graduated from the 17th cohort in June last year.

Since January 2004, 307 men and women (including two Arab-Israelis) have completed the course, which provides a living stipend plus two meals per day. Today, 85 graduates are working at Herzog Hospital; others found employment elsewhere in Israel. This represents a step toward addressing Ethiopian immigrant unemployment, thought to be as high as 40 percent among a population of more than 90,000.

The course has had an unexpected international impact as well. Rotary International took great interest in the program and enabled Herzog to adapt the curriculum for long-distance public-health training at a Christian hospital in rural Ghana.

Going international

Steve Schwartz, Herzog’s director of international resource development, explains that the hospital was already participating in international videoconference “grand rounds” sponsored in part by Rotary International in Canada.

This setup enables doctors in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority-administered territories to share details of specific cases.

After learning of the Ethiopian training program, Rotary partners in Toronto put Schwartz in touch with the Ontario club, one of whose members is Ghana-born physician Dr. Godfrey Bacheyie. The doctor assisted Herzog in getting a Rotary Foundation Global Grant for a Tele-health Project at St. Joseph Hospital in Jirapa, a predominantly poor farming region near Ghana’s border with Burkina Faso.

“This project will broaden the knowledge base of medical practitioners and allied health professionals and provide interaction between healthcare providers with counterparts in advanced and developed countries in a rural, resource-poor area where one doctor serves a population of 80,000,” says Bacheyie.

A video training session from Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem to St. Joseph Hospital in Ghana.
A video training session from Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem to St. Joseph Hospital in Ghana.

Suna and other nurse educators from Herzog teach about infectious disease control andother public-health topics as part of this project, whose partners include the Rotary Club of Jerusalem, the Jirapa Health Alliance, the Rotary Club of Accra Ring Road Central in Ghana and the Rotary Club of Windsor.

“Now, Rotary clubs around the world want us to do the same program in countries such as the Philippines and Peru,” Schwartz tells ISRAEL21c.

The original nursing-assistant training program also attracted the attention of groups overseas. One of its supporters is Bridges for Israel, a Christian organization in Switzerland that runs an orphanage and school in Ethiopia.

Holy work

Each student in Herzog’s Geriatric Caregiver Training Program completes 300 hours of course work and 280 hours of supervised practical experience in the departments of physical rehabilitation, occupational therapy, acute geriatric care, complex nursing, chronic respiratory care and psycho-geriatrics.

Outside professionals come in to give workshops on topics such as reflexology, shiatsu and first aid.

“They now have the basic knowledge needed in order to help them understand medical conditions that our geriatric patients can suffer from and how they can best help them,” says Suna.

“They have also been taught the basics of how to assist a patient, such as how to lift them from the bed to a wheelchair, and to assist with activities of daily living such as bathing, feeding, dressing, hygiene and toileting.”

Graduates of the Geriatric Caregiver Training Program. Nurse educator Ronni Suna is second from right, front row.
Graduates of the Geriatric Caregiver Training Program. Nurse educator Ronni Suna is second from right, front row.

“Ellen,” a 40-year-old mother of five, immigrated to Israel 11 years ago. She was a farmer in Ethiopia but was cleaning houses in Israel. Then her husband took the course at Herzog two years ago and suggested that she do the same. Both now work as nursing assistants at Herzog.

She tells ISRAEL21c that now their children are proud of them. “Cleaning didn’t teach us anything,” she says. Assisting nurses is hard work, she adds, but it affords job security and benefits she did not enjoy before.

Suna visits her graduates on the units every day, and encourages those with the aptitude and English skills to go on to nursing school.

“Nurses rely on them to be on the frontlines at the patients’ bedside. They are really doing holy work,” Suna says. “And they are very proud to be acquiring a diploma in a respected and honorable profession. They thank me all the time, and it’s really beautiful.”