Meet the Majadlas: An Arab Family of Doctors on Israel's Coronavirus Front Lines

Five doctors in one family are battling to save lives, Jewish and Arab, during the pandemic, and wondering if this historic moment will be a turning point in the war against discrimination of their community

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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The Majadlas, an Israeli Arab family five of whose members are doctors, from left, Areen Majadla-Mawassy (holding Joud), Kadri Mawassy (with Jouna), Orwa Majadla, Riad Majadla, Nadine Ashkar-Majadla (with Raseel), Omar Majadla, Fadwa Majadla and Amer Majadla.
The Majadlas, from left, Areen Majadla-Mawassy (holding Joud), Kadri Mawassy (with Jouna), Orwa Majadla, Riad Majadla, Nadine Ashkar-Majadla (with Raseel), Omar Majadla, Fadwa Majadla and Amer MCredit: Riad Majdala
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

Dr. Riad Majadla’s 20-hour days begin in darkness, before sunrise. He awakens at 5 A.M. at home in the Arab village of Baka al-Garbiyeh in central Israel, and is soon driving south to Sharon Hospital 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, where he is the director of the coronavirus department at the only hospital in the country that's specifically designated for those who have contracted the virus.

Before doing his rounds, and like the medical staff he supervises, the 63-year-old Majadla – a veteran internist who in his “old,” pre-coronavirus life headed Sharon’s emergency room – suits up in personal protective equipment, covered head to toe with a hooded white coverall, mask and plastic face shield. The hospital’s most critical cases are on ventilators in the intensive care unit, while the serious and more moderate cases – all under his supervision – are treated in separate wards. Any exposure to a COVID-19 positive patient poses a risk to Majadla and his coworkers' health.

When his shift ends at 4 P.M. at Sharon Hospital, which together with Beilinson Hospital is part of the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva, and he prepares to leave, his second-oldest son, Amer Majadla, 29, is just arriving for his own 16-hour shift and donning his protective gear. It is Amer’s turn to monitor patients, checking their EKGs and analyzing their blood work.

Meanwhile, in other medical facilities in central and northern Israel, Riad’s eldest son Omar, 31, Omar’s wife Nadine, 28, and son-in-law Kadri Mawassy, 37 – all of them physicians – are also treating COVID-19 patients.

They are all part of one Israeli Arab family: five doctors, all fighting the country's collective battle against the deadly coronavirus.

Riad Majadla. “If I am seen as a second-class citizen, how is it that I am the head of my hospital’s coronavirus department?”Credit: Riad Majdala

For Omar and Nadine, one of the hardest parts of their day is walking into their home in Baka al-Garbiyeh after work and not being able to pick up Raseel, their 2-and-a-half year-old daughter. The little girl with brown curls rushes toward whomever of them has just arrived home from the hospital or clinic. The parent who has been at home holds her back, through her sobs. They don’t dare touch her till they shower and change clothes, fearing they may be carrying the coronavirus on their scrubs, their hair, their skin.

“I hate Corona. I want it go away,” Raseel tells them. She will sometimes show her parents her teddy bear and explain to them that she is not kissing it “because of corona.”

‘A stressful time’

By 5 P.M. Riad Majadla is back in Baka al-Garbiyeh, near Haifa, where he treats patients at the general health clinic he runs until it closes at 8:30 in the evening. Risk of exposure to COVID-19 also lurks there, so patients are advised these days to consult with him by phone, instead of coming in, as much as possible.

Finally back home, Majadla’s day tending to patients during this historic pandemic is still not over. He spends the next three hours – until almost midnight – answering questions from fellow Arab citizens sent to him by phone, text or on his Facebook page. This can add up to about 300 queries a night, he says. And that does not include the Facebook Live presentations he holds in the evenings, sometimes for Arab doctors and other times for residents of specific Arab towns. For example, last Thursday he held such a session for residents of Umm al-Fahm.

“I’m not eating so well, just snacking here and there. It’s a stressful time, but we have to push through and work together. If we don’t do our part and help lead in this struggle, who will?” Majadla tells Haaretz, in a phone conversation from his office at Sharon.

When he says “we” he may be referring to his medical colleagues, but in his case those colleagues also include his four children and their spouses. His wife Fadwa, a medical secretary who works with him at the clinic, is also part of this shared battle, he notes, as is their daughter Areen Majadla-Mawassy, a social worker who is currently helping clients impacted by the devastating new economic reality to find financial assistance and psychological support.

Omar Majadla and Nadine Ashkar-Majadla, with their daughter Raseel. Exhausted and struggling with not being able to hug the toddler after coming home from work.Credit: Riad Majdala

Riad and Fadwa Majadla's family boasts five physicians (not including their youngest son, Orwa, who is in dental school), who are among the increasing number of Arab citizens in the country’s medical establishment. Some 20 percent of Israel's population are Arab and they are almost a fifth of the country's doctors. Nearly a quarter – 24 percent – are nurses and 48 percent of all pharmacists are Israeli Arabs, according to government data.

Pursuit of a medical profession is seen as a pathway to financial stability and social prestige in a country where other fields, including high-tech, can be more challenging to break into for Arab citizens.

High-level jobs in the private sector are often acquired through personal connections between Jewish Israelis, and facilitated by having served together in the army.

In the aftermath of an unprecedented three national elections in one year – which featured what critics say were unprecedented levels of incitement against the Arab sector from right-wing politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – Arab citizens, like the members of Riad Majadla’s family, are playing key roles in saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in the hospitals, Jews and Arab working together where the virus does not distinguish between people,” says Majadla. “It affects all of us – men, women, young, old, Jewish and Arab. We are all in this together.”

Looming question

As Israel takes its first steps to loosen restrictions after the almost complete shutdown of the past six weeks, a question looms: Will this crisis prove to be a turning point in the quest for fundamental change that could bring about full civic and economic equality and dignity for its Arab community? Will the example being set at this dramatic moment in the nation’s hospitals, where in some cases the majority of the medical staff are Arabs, make an impact outside the hospital walls?

The fact that the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, won 15 Knesset seats in the March election, making it the third-largest party in the parliament, raised hopes among many voters, especially from the Arab community, that they might be part of the next coalition government. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party mocked that idea, equating it to letting terrorists into the government.

Riad Majadla is tired of this kind of talk. “If I am seen as a second-class citizen, how is it that I am the head of my hospital’s coronavirus department?” he asks. “It’s painful to see the slurs. We see ourselves as an integral part of this country and demand full equality.”

He was the first Arab Israeli doctor to join an online campaign featuring fellow Arab israeli doctors treating Coronavirus patients under the slogan, “Partners in Fate, Partners in the Government.” Sponsored by an organization called “Have you Seen the Horizon Lately?,” it’s video has gone viral in Israel, viewed over 1.9 million times.

Partners in Fate, Partners in the Government

It notes the tens of thousands of Arab citizens who are doctors in Israel, working double-shifts, risking their lives. “Now they are all called heroes. Now we area all applauding them,” and asks what will be after the crisis is over – if Arabs will be included in a future government.

Majadla points to Israel’s nation-state law as especially egregious in the eyes of his community. Passed in 2018, the law declares that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state and demotes Arabic to a secondary status as a national language.

When we meet, Majadla had just finished an interview with Israel Radio’s Arabic language station where, every other day, he gives updated reports on the coronavirus crisis. He’s also appeared several times on Arabic-language television news stations. (To date, he says, the only invitation to speak to a Hebrew media outlet ended up with him being on hold for 30 minutes and the program host running out of time to speak to him.)

The Health Ministry, he says, was slow to get social distancing guidance and information on the coronavirus translated into Arabic. Only a fraction of Israel’s COVID-19 cases have so far been diagnosed in the Arab community, although infection rates are high in some locales, among them Jisr al-Zarqa and Deir al-Assad, which has the fourth-highest incidence of COVID-19 cases per capita. Moreover, there has reportedly been less access to testing in the community, so definitive data remain elusive.

Amer Majadla. Monitors coronavirus patients, checking their EKGs and analyzing their blood work.Credit: Amer Majadla

There are also fears among health officials that numbers of cases could rise, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of family gatherings, which starts Thursday.On Sunday night, when announcing a loosening of some restrictions, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov made a direct appeal to Israel’s Muslims, asking them, in Hebrew, not to hold large gatherings over Ramadan.

Grandpa, parents and toddler

When Riad Majadla was growing up in Baka al-Garbiyeh, the oldest of seven children, there was no option to pursue a math and science track in high school. So his father, the principal of a school in the village, registered him at a Jewish school in neighboring Hadera; he was the only Arab student. He ended up doing one of his high school matriculation “majors” in Talmud and another in the Hebrew Bible. By 15, he recalls, he was fascinated with biology and spent his free time in a local clinic where the nurses put up with his questions. He knew then that he wanted to be a doctor, and pursued his studies at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, where he is today a senior lecturer.

Omar Majadla, his eldest son, is a resident in the ear, nose and throat department at Assaf Harofeh Hospital, Tzrifin. Like his younger brother, Amer, he too decided he wanted to be a physician, after spending much of their childhood tagging along with their father at the hospital and in his clinic.

At Assaf Harofeh these days, all the doctors have been drafted in the effort to treat coronavirus patients. Omar divides his time between the emergency room, where he helps check patients who may be COVID-19 positive, and his department, where even what would normally be a routine examination of a patient is suddenly another place for possible exposure to the virus.

“Of course we all fear getting it,” Omar says of himself and his colleagues.

“The hardest thing is coming home after a 26- or 27-hour shift and seeing my daughter, just 2-and-half years old, who is used to running up to me when I come through the door to hug me – and I can’t hug her,” he says, in a phone interview. “I ask my wife to take her away, to move back, and all she wants is to come to me.”

Helping pregnant women

His wife, Nadine Ashkar-Majadla, was just about to start her residency in gynecology when the coronavirus outbreak began. She says she and her husband have found themselves in impossible childcare situations when they are both scheduled to work at the same time and can no longer rely on their parents and extended family as backup, fearing for their relatives' health should they be in contact with them.

COVID-19 patients being treated at Sharon Hospital, part of the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva, and the only hospital designated solely to treat coronavirus patients.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Raseel, their daughter, cries when one of them leaves for work. “And then when we come home we are exhausted physically and emotionally and so she experiences the impact of this time as well,” Ashkar-Majadla says.

Meanwhile, Ashkar-Majadla has been giving consults to pregnant women at her father-in-law's clinic in Baka al-Garbiyeh, as well as working some shifts at a hospital in Nahariya. She has turned her Instagram page into a clearinghouse for coronavirus-related health information in Arabic.

“Women reach out to me by phone, on social media. Pregnant women, especially pregnant women with high-risk pregnancies, have lots of questions and there is much less guidance for them in Arabic so I am trying to give them answers,” she says, particularly about the potential risks of the coronavirus to the women and their fetuses.

Information on its effect is limited, Ashkar-Majadla explains, because the virus is still so new, but according to previous studies focusing on the related SARS and MERS-CoV viruses, pregnant women are no more vulnerable to COVID-19 than other women and the virus does not cross over into the placenta, so there is no danger to the fetus while inside the uterus.

“Language and being culturally sensitive is so key in working with Arab women, and I’m happy to help,” she says, of her work both at the clinic and the hospital.

Like Ashkar-Majadla, her brother-in-law, Kadri Mawassy, who is married to Areen, the social worker, is playing a central role in the public health information campaign in the Arab sector. A pediatrician, he works at two clinics, in addition to volunteering on a new committee in Baka al-Garbiyeh, tasked with updating the local population and providing it with information in Arabic about the coronavirus. He gives his patients his cellphone number with instructions to call him at any hour if they have any problems or questions.

About two weeks ago he tested three young women in Baka al-Garbiyeh, all of whom tested positive for COVID-19; one became so ill she needed to be hospitalized.

“It feels good to be part of this struggle, and to continue being part of it as we don’t know when it will end. But it’s exhausting,” says Mawassy, who is also from Baka al-Garbiyeh. “And it’s especially hard not being able to see my parents, and in-laws. Both my wife and I are exposed to lots of people and God forbid we’ll infect our relatives – with so many doctors in one family we are a family at higher risk.”

'A different world'

The contrast between their everyday work with patients and fellow medical workers, many of them Jewish, and the political rhetoric coming from some on the right can be jarring.

“We hear in the news these days comments that Arabs don’t belong in the government, but being in the hospital it’s a different world, where the racism is neutralized,” Ashkar-Majadla says.

“It really warms my heart because we are all there together, Arabs and Jews. I wish the government would treat us as one people. We are on the front lines, we treat every patient with the same care and we expect it to be the same way in society and within the government.”

“We want this equality, this togetherness – not just when times are bad but when they are good. We don’t want to have to ask for our rights a thousand times, we don’t want to be viewed with suspicion,” she adds. “We don’t want people to forget that Arab medical workers were here for this fight against the hidden enemy of the coronavirus.”

Mawassy agrees: “The world after corona won’t be the same – perhaps people will wake up because dealing with racism has exhausted us at too many junctures in our lives. With the coronavirus it’s as if we are soldiers in a war. And we are not asking for thanks – this is the work we do.”

For his part, Amer Majadla is not hopeful for a significant change any time soon, especially not within the upper political echelon. “But maybe there will be, I hope there is. I really hope there is.”

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