Celebrating Changemakers: Najma Abbas

12 May 2022
Shatil Changemakers: Najma Abbas | Head nurse and member of the Shefa-Amr City Council

To celebrate four decades of Shatil’s (NIF’s action arm) work cultivating Israeli civil society, and to usher in the next chapter of progressive social change work, the New Israel Fund is spotlighting 40 change-makers whose trajectories were shaped by Shatil, and who represent the past, present, and future of Shatil’s work. These individuals will, in their own words, describe their journeys in social change work; their profiles will be shared at a series of celebrations around Israel. This week, we present Najma Abbas, a head nurse and member of the Shefa-Amr City Council, who works to promote equitable healthcare policy through Shatil’s Citizens’ Forum for the Promotion of Health in the Galilee:

Every year, my family piled into the living room dressed in our best clothes, smiling for the photographer my parents hired for our annual photo. It took a while until I realized why my parents were so insistent on this photography ritual: it turned out that I’d had a sister and a brother, twins, who had died suddenly as infants. My parents had no pictures of them, so after their loss, they made sure to document us regularly, so that we wouldn’t suddenly disappear on them. Maybe a photographer should have been sent more often to our other relatives and to our neighbors as well. There was so much illness around me – parents, acquaintances, friends. So much loss. Ultimately, to become a public health nurse was a choice but also a destiny from which it would have been hard to flee.

As a nurse, I’ve seen pregnant women who’ve monitored their babies’ development with vigilance and awe, and postpartum women who’ve recovered physically and emotionally while also caring for a totally helpless creature. I’ve examined children and adults coming to be vaccinated – or refusing vaccination. With dismay, I’ve observed ever-rising obesity rates, passive and active smoking, and their consequences. As a public health nurse, I’ve kept a map of my community’s health challenges. It was painful to realize that some, and perhaps even most, of the cases brought to us could have ended differently had there been awareness or meaningful preventive medicine – all things we lack in Arab communities.

In 2013, I decided to run for city council. I managed my own campaign, explaining the community’s needs to the best of my ability from my perspective as a nurse. And in fact, for the first time in the history of Shefa-Amr, a woman – me – had a real shot at being elected! In retrospect, my joy was premature. I turned out to be four votes shy of winning and of entering the city council. And so, I realized I’d failed. As though those four missing votes were fate, willing me not to become a public figure.

Then I saw Shatil’s announcement for a course for healthcare leaders, and I signed up. Maybe change was still possible. I decided that, even without being on the city council, I could promote health policy through civil society. In the course we learned about the sector’s grave health challenges – and also about the social and political reasons that cause us — those who live at the social and geographic periphery — to live less long and also less well. As part of the course, I founded a health committee in Shefa-Amr, and later I joined the steering committee for the conference of the Citizens’ Forum for the Promotion of Health in the Galilee that was hosted in Shefa-Amr, a first for an Arab city.

In the 2018 local elections I took another step forward – no longer as a woman candidate on a male list, but as the leader of a women’s list that succeeded this time in being elected. Shefa-Amr has become part of the Ministry of Health’s Healthy City Program. Years ago, if I brought up the need for a health department in the city, and I was told: “There’s already a sanitation department!” But today, everyone in the city understands what health is and what it means to narrow gaps of inequity. The municipality has pulled out its wallet and helped fund programs to reduce smoking and obesity, and [to promote a] healthy lifestyle. Those working in the field know that this cannot be taken for granted, but they also know how much we have left to do.

Photo credit: Alex Farfuri, photo courtesy of Shatil