I met Ranya Abu Sha’ban a few years back. I was told that out of all of United Hatzalah’s 6000+ volunteers, she was the only woman Muslim medic who spoke English. And she still is.
Our friendship began when I asked her if she wanted to fly to London to be a guest speaker at a UH dinner. When she agreed, my friend Naomi and I headed over to her house in Ein Raffa, an Arab village, to film her for a “tribute” movie that would be shown to the audience at the dinner before she came on stage. Right away, when she welcomed us into her home, I loved her. Her style, her class, her energy, her smile. But mostly, her warmth.
Over the last few years, our friendship has grown. When we talk on WhatsApp it’s filled with “Hi sweety”, hearts, and lots of love all over the place. But last night, at least for me, our friendship reached a whole new level.
Let’s first take a step back and let me tell you about Ranya. Ranya was brought up in East Jerusalem by her grandparents because her parents were living in Jordan due to her father’s work.
A few years ago in November of 2016, she was sitting with her beloved grandfather when he suffered a heart attack. It took 30 minutes before an ambulance showed up and by then it was too late. She lost her father figure, in her hands, waiting for an ambulance. Only six months later, her 21-year-old brother, who had just started university, was tragically killed in a car accident. In one short year, Raya had lost two beloved family members.
Eventually, she found out about United Hatzalah and she right away signed up to be an EMT. In her first class, during her course in East Jerusalem, the head of the chapter Feras Rumman approached Rayna and asked if she was single. She was. Feras told her about his relative who had recently lost his wife to cancer. They had a newborn baby when she was diagnosed and sadly, she died only a few weeks later. Feras thought Ranya would like him and asked her if she would be interested in meeting him.
They say people connect when they speak the same language of pain and it was true in this case – they both spoke the language of loss. They connected and got married on March 22, 2019. They live together with their shared daughter and other two children- a boy named Sam and a girl named Aila.
Throughout this time, Ranya was not only involved as a full-time volunteer constantly going out on calls while working full time, but she also trained to be an ambulance driver and she is one of United Hatzalah’s main “ambassadors”. In addition, as an unofficial “spokeswoman”, by choice, every time we asked her to share or discuss UH’s mission, she did whatever she could to show up. She has joined us for important visits, meetings, zoom calls with donors, events, and has been an important media representative in movies, articles, and publications.
She speaks about unity, working alongside Jews and Christians, and is a huge inspiration for women at large. Sheryl Sandberg even spoke about Ranya at the Miami dinner this past December because she was so blown away by her when they met in 2020 at United Hatzalah’s Headquarters.
When I asked Ranya if she could join a photoshoot of women this past February, she said she would be there. However, when we all arrived, Ranya did not show up and wasn’t answering her phone or any of my messages. I was really nervous and worried that something had happened. I only heard back from her a few days later. Sadly, tragedy had struck her family again.
Every night, Ranya keeps her phone on next to her bed in case she gets a call for an emergency. But the one night that she did shut her phone off, her grandmother suffered a stroke. Ranya’s family wasn’t able to reach her, and sadly, her grandmother died before getting the help she required. Ranya was devastated and couldn’t believe that after all her years of helping others, she was unable to save her grandmother’s life. She had spoken to her earlier that day and her grandmother was feeling perfectly fine. It was a terrible shock to her and her entire family.
When I spoke to Ranya and told her how sorry I was for her loss, I could still hear her smile and strength through the phone. It was so loud.
Well, I certainly was not surprised to hear a few weeks ago that Ranya had won 1st place in a special contest hosted by Fokus Jerusalem Magazine, a prominent European magazine. The contest had their followers vote between different women in Israel who have made a big impact on Israeli society, and naturally, Ranya had won. The magazine was holding a ceremony for the 5 women who had won at a nice restaurant in Ein Kerem and Ranya invited me to join. I was so honored to have been invited and told her that, Inshalla, I would be there. We also thought it was funny that the ceremony was on March 22nd- her anniversary, and my birthday.
Earlier that day, I went to buy her a gift and found a beautiful vase, thinking they would probably give her flowers at the event. The shopkeeper told me the 2nd one was 50% off so I purchased two- one for her and one for myself as a birthday gift. Now if anyone knows me, they know I am not a huge lover of flowers so the last gift I would ever buy for myself is a vase. But I did, oddly enough. Though as I placed it in my car, it broke into 3 pieces. Annoyed, I ran home to get ready to leave.
Of course, I was an hour late to the dinner, which I felt bad about, and the ceremony was already over. Everyone was eating their dinner and I tried to fill the awkwardness of not eating (it was not Kosher) with words. I sat next to Ranya and we started catching up. I was once again overwhelmed by her radiance and smile.
I congratulated her and the other 3 winners sitting at the table and their guests (one winner was not able to show up last minute), and then we started whispering together, talking, and giggling. She then hit me with a very hard and heavy story that she had just experienced, which I will not share, but it was so hard to hear that I immediately started crying. Thank G-d she is fine but she had been through, once again, a very difficult challenge. “Ranya!” I said while tears were streaming down my cheeks, “How do you keep going? You are hit over and over, and yet every time I see you, you are so happy and wear a big smile”.
She then gave me a musser-shmooze (a good talking to). She said, “Sarah, everything that is done to us is for us. We are just a vessel in this world to accept whatever G-d/Allah gives us and we need to receive it with gratitude and faith that he understands the bigger picture and only wants what’s good for us”. At that point, I got down on one knee and proposed; I asked her to be my spiritual advisor or Mashpia as we say in Hebrew. Ok, I didn’t kneel, but I did ask her. I told her that her faith and unwavering belief were way beyond me and that if I could just be at her heels in terms of her inner strength, I would be happy.
Even in the past, when we discussed fasting or covering our hair, she always has the same sturdy base of belief. Allah said to fast on Ramadan, so she does- for the entire month. I only fast on Yom Kipper and that’s one day that I complain about for the whole month leading up to it. Allah says she must cover her hair, so she does so happily. I cry every day that I need to cover my hair and complain about it all the time. Her entire way of approaching life is with gratitude for it- for meeting her incredible husband, for having 3 children (one adopted, two her own), and for having been granted the gift to be part of United Hatzalah.
Well, as we were saying our goodbyes and leaving, I handed her the gift. And just as we were walking out, the CEO of Fokus magazine handed each of the 4 winners a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I had told him it was Ranya’s anniversary, and she had told him that it was my birthday, so suddenly he was also handing me a big bouquet which was originally intended for the 5th winner, but she hadn’t shown up in the end. I told him I did not want it- I certainly didn’t deserve it. But he insisted, along with Ranya and her husband, and said I must take it. So I did.
Ranya and I walked away with our flowers, but she had a vase to fill them with while mine was broken in my car. I couldn’t help thinking how analogous this was to the conversation we had just had; she forms herself into a vessel each day to receive good. And me… well….
I hugged my dear friend goodbye and thanked her for everything she does for United Hatzalah, the people of Israel, and me, personally.
This morning, I went back to the store and showed them how my vase had broken in my car right after purchasing it. The woman handed me a new one immediately, without asking questions. I now have a whole new vessel to fill to the brim with goodness and gratitude. I gave Ranya a vase and she gifted me with wisdom for life.
I can’t think of a better person to have gotten this award than Ranya. I am so proud of her, and more importantly, honored to be her friend.