Nurses and orderlies at Poriya Hospital in Tiberias have spent the last three months attending after-hours Arabic classes in order to be able to communicate better with their Arab patients.

"I've been a nurse at Poriya for 30 years, and a shift head for 15, and during all those years the language barrier was an obstacle in contact with the patients," Ora Zilberman, head nurse of the maternity ward, said on Monday.

Of the ward's 25 nurses and orderlies, she said, only two are native Arabic speakers, and that wasn't enough for appropriate patient communication. Overall, about 40 percent of Poriya's staff are native Arabic speakers, as are about 40 percent of its patients.

Zilberman, who is proud that she can now hold a conversation with her patients, said that in the past she often had to use their husbands as interpreters.

"Generally, Arab women don't speak Hebrew as well as their husbands, and in those cases the man becomes their voice," she said. "But sometimes we want to speak with the woman directly, without an intermediary," particularly about intimate matters they don't necessarily want the husband involved in. "The moment I speak in the patient's own language, she answers and opens up more easily, and I feel there's also a feeling of gratitude for the fact that we're making the effort."

Zilberman said that knowing Arabic became even more urgent after the hospital opened a center for victims of sexual assault four years ago, because half the patients it treated were Arabs.

This year, therefore, the hospital agreed to open an after-hours course in spoken Arabic. Ultimately, 100 hospital workers signed up, most of them nurses. Participants were divided into four classes of 25 each, and they met once a week for three months, for three and a half hours each time.

To run the course, the hospital recruited Rim Othman of Zefat Academic College in Safed. "It's necessary for employees at public institutions to know basic Arabic," she said. "This helps create a dialogue between the patient and the caregiver. A shared language helps, for instance, to pinpoint the patient's pain, explain precisely what tests he needs to undergo, and simply provides a tool for understanding the patient."

The classes focused on the terminology needed by the nurses. For instance, said Zilberman, "a significant portion of our lessons was devoted to learning words for body parts, words that could improve communication during the birth, and so on. The girls from emergency asked to focus on words that would help them."

Othman said that during her visits to the hospital, she was often asked to translate for patients, especially the elderly. "But there's no doubt that if the staff can conduct a direct dialogue with the patient, this will improve the quality of the care."

Aviva Kirshner, a nurse at one of Poriya's outpatient clinics, said she began the course with only basic knowledge of Arabic, but it "immeasurably increased my vocabulary and enables me to talk with the patient." Patients, she added,"appreciate that I speak to them in their own language."

Othman finds this unsurprising: It not only helps them understand better, but "gives them a feeling that you respect them more."

Now, Kirshner said, "I want to take a course in Russian, too."