Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

Sondos’ Story

Sondos Abu Zer. Credit Samah Salaime/Na'am Arab Women in the Center
Sondos Abu Zer. Credit Samah Salaime/Na'am Arab Women in the Center

Several weeks ago, I was invited to a hafla – a party. Implied in the Arabic word is special food, music, ululations.

In the house’s courtyard, a thin young woman, glowing in a bright pink, long-sleeved, tailored pantsuit and white hijab with matching trim, was hugging and greeting each woman as she passed though the doorway. As the trays of mansaf (meat and rice) came out, she walked back and forth directing women to their seats, food to tables and her seven younger siblings who were carrying drinks and chairs, before sitting down to enjoy the feast in her honor.

That packed courtyard of women had come to help Sondos and her family celebrate the fact that she had completed her nursing degree, and was now a licensed nurse.

I recently talked to Sondos to hear why her accomplishment was special. It is a story worth sharing.

I didn’t know, at first, exactly who they were, but the next time, I started to ask questions

When she was around 13 or 14 years old, Sondos had a medical problem that required repeated hospitalizations. Through her distress, she noticed the figures dressed in white coats who went from room to room, doing their jobs efficiently and calmly, making sure all the patients received the proper care. She knew, at once, what she wanted to do with her life. “I didn’t know, at first, exactly who they were, but the next time, I started to ask questions.”

By the time she got to high school, Sondos was volunteering with Magen David Adom. She had hoped to get directly into nursing school after high school, but her scores on the “psychometry” university entrance exams (given only in Hebrew) were not high enough. Her high-school friends were going off to jobs in supermarkets and sales, and she considered doing the same, but her mother said to her: “Sondos, your dream is to be a nurse. You are going to be a nurse!”

Don’t call me Goy

Since nursing school was not on the horizon, Sondos did a course in taking blood that at least allowed her to work with patients, and she worked for several years in that profession. But her dream was still to be a nurse. She found a different route to nursing – a program in medical management that could, after three years, lead to a two-year nursing degree. The course was not cheap, and Sondos had to work extra hours to pay her tuition. She was studying and working, and she learned to drive and got a car, just so she could get from school to work and back. She worked, among other things, as a “Shabbat assistant,” in a hospital that treats ultra-Orthodox Jews, writing and switching on equipment for the Jewish nurses on Saturdays. “I told them: ‘Don’t call me Goy’,” she says.

By the time she entered nursing school, she switched to the near-by Assaf Harofe teaching hospital just to lessen the commute in traffic. But things started to go wrong for her right away.

Seven long years

“First my grandfather, a man I had been close to and who had supported me in my dreams of becoming a nurse, passed away. Then some benign tumors were discovered in my breasts, and I underwent surgery to remove them, followed by reconstruction. A few months later, I was in a traffic accident. And my social life was a mess. I was only 24 years old. I was struggling. Through all of this, I continued my studies,” she says.

“But my grades started to slip, and I failed two easy tests – ones I should have passed. The school administration called me in. That is when I turned to Samah.”

I realized I could not put off taking control of my life

Samah Salaime is the founder and head of Na’am-Arab Women in the Center, and Sondos’ mother and her family had been involved in Na’am for years. To Samah, Sondos was one of “hers.” For one of hers or for a new face, Samah defines her job as helping women succeed. She began making calls – to the administration of the nursing school and even to the department in the Ministry of Education responsible for medical training. Eventually she obtained special dispensation for Sondos – a track that would enable her lengthen her studies and postpone some of the tests.

Sondos’ problems were not over, however. She started vomiting. She couldn’t keep food down and it went on and on. Her blood tests showed no infection. Eventually, the doctors diagnosed her with celiac, which had been triggered relatively late in life by stress.

Samah Salaime. Credit: Samah Salaime

“I realized I could not put off taking control of my life, couldn’t say ‘I’ll start to eat right or exercise when I finish my studies’,” she says. I started living a healthy lifestyle; my concentration improved immensely and my grades went up. I passed all of my tests with good scores.

“It took over seven years to get my nursing degree. I thought of quitting more than once. I would not be here without the unflagging support I received from my mother and my family, without the help of other women at the critical moments.”

Sondos is now applying for jobs as a nurse in an obstetrics department; she’s working taking blood and managing shifts a regional clinic while she tries to get into her chosen area. If her past has taught her anything, it is that she will attain her dream despite – or maybe because of – any obstacles in her way.

At the party, the guests relaxed on sofas and chairs set around the courtyard, sipping coffee from tiny cups, contentedly finishing off fruit and pastries, and switching to Hebrew when they turned to me. “It’s like a huge bridal shower,” I said to a woman on my right. “I think, we need to make this a tradition,” she said. “Instead of throwing a big party when a young woman gets engaged, let’s party like this when she finishes her higher education.”

And then the music, dancing and ululations started. It was indeed a reason to celebrate.

A word about Na’am Arab Women in the Center: Founded in 2009 to help defend Palestinian women in the center of Israel (the mixed cities of Lod, Ramla and Jaffa), Na’am has become the voice of women – a voice against violence and for equality. Through its offices, its Women’s Rights Center, its educational programs, advocacy and direct assistance, it has helped many hundreds of women, teens and girls and is working to change a society that discounts the lives of some of its members. Today there are more women than ever seeking aid and protection from Na’am. If you would like to help:

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.