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Category: International, Reproductive Rights, Violence against Women

A Palestinian Midwife Who Defies the Odds

| September 29, 2010

Feeza Shraim overcame violence and Israeli embargoes in the Gaza Strip to bring new life to her damaged homeland, as independent journalist Nida Khan recounts before Shraim receives her award from Americans for UNFPA. ]Midwife Feeza Shraim attends to a client in the Gaza Strip.

During the tumultuous days of the first Intifada, the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, a devoted and determined midwife risked her own personal safety amid bombings, random explosions and unpredictable warfare to literally deliver new life into a land ravaged by destruction, turmoil and hopelessness. Held at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers, barricaded in a hospital for 48 hours and at times sneaking out in the middle of the night hidden in a vehicle, this woman’s courageous and selfless actions saved the lives of countless babies and their mothers.  But then this was just daily life for Feeza Shraim.

Growing up in a region that's among the most dangerous in the world, Shraim was born in the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip in a place known as Beit Hanoun. A border city plagued by regular skirmishes and a consistent sense of unease, this area and the Gaza Strip at large also suffered under another harsh reality—regular embargos.  When even basic medical supplies became scarce, equipment unavailable and a hospital out of the question, her bold actions transformed her to the likeness of an angel in the eyes of the thousands she served.

“Before the Intifada, it wasn’t a matter of accessibility,” explains Feeza Shraim, now 50. “Women just felt more comfortable with another woman delivering. But after the Intifada, it was about accessibility and I began helping all kinds of women when it was too hard for them to reach a hospital.”

Conducting her work by word-of-mouth, Shraim would go to each woman’s house armed with her own equipment, and later—when violence subsided a bit—she set up a room in her own home with an oxygen tank, disposable tools and medical kits.  It wasn’t long before this midwife and caretaker opened up her very own clinic in a city with daily births numbering in the hundreds.

“I used to leave the children at home with my husband,” she explains, referring to her eight girls and five boys. “The ambulance would take me at seven in the morning and I’d come back at seven at night. Of course there was fear, especially at the time of shelling and invasions—our lives were always at risk.”

Despite instances of dodging bullets and being held at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers, Shraim remained vigilant and steadfast in her work throughout the decades. Unable to exactly quantify her work, she has single-handedly delivered thousands of babies and at the same time saved the lives of thousands of mothers. To date, she says she has never lost a mother during childbirth, and refuses to break her impeccable record. Perhaps it was her own early in-the-field training that provided the foundation upon which to serve as a savior to her fellow countrywomen.

Unlike most children playing games outside, a 12-year-old Feeza was indoors helping her own mother deliver her baby sister. The experience foretold a lifetime of service to others.

Growing up in an agricultural society, Shraim was one of 13 children who were destined to work in the home and contribute to the family structure. Because money was scarce and survival so necessary, education was pushed to the back burner.  But for an unwavering Feeza, continuing her schooling was well worth the risk of going behind her father's back to fulfill her dreams. Attending nursing school and eventually garnering a diploma in midwifery at a college in Israel and a bachelor’s at another in Palestine, she was the first woman in her town to obtain a higher education.

“I remember living in the dorms and I had three jobs at the time,” she recalls.  “One was at a private clinic, the other two in hospitals.  Because our farm didn’t produce enough income for the family, I worked to help my father provide for us.”

Married at the age of 26, Shraim now has seven grandchildren of her own.  And after years of such grueling midwifery work, she says that she is just as motivated as ever.

“Seeing a healthy child and a healthy mother is all I want,” she says.  “And I want people to know that women are capable of providing and serving despite any circumstances.”

With such sheer resilience regardless of catastrophic blockades along the way, Freeza Shraim serves as a beacon of hope in an area that desperately needs a glimmer of her light.  And it should come as no surprise then that she is one of two individuals being honored with this year’s Americans for UNFPA International Award for the Health and Human Dignity of Women.

Taking place in New York City on October 7, the award gala will highlight, honor and pay homage to Shraim’s tremendous work, as well as that of Marta Julia Ruiz, who works for girls' empowerment in Guatemala, and from the United States,  philanthropist Teresa Heinz, women's advocate Patricia Fili-Krushel of Time Warner and Christy Turlington Burns, documentary filmmaker and founder of Every Mother Counts.

Americans for UNFPA is a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness and support within the United States for UNFPA—the United Nations Population Fund’s life-saving work in 150 countries around the world.  Feeza Shraim and Marta Julia Ruiz will receive $5,000 each in grant money to support their programs.

Currently, Americans for UNFPA is still working diligently to secure a visa for Shraim to enter the United States and receive her award in person at next week's gala.

“I am very excited about this award,” she says.  “But I want people to know that there are others working just as hard here.  I really appreciate all that Americans for UNFPA is doing, and I am going to use that money to provide training for more women to continue this necessary work.”

In such a volatile region where new Mideast talks are held together by the most fragile of threads, Feeza Shraim’s optimism and commitment to a stable future serve as an example of the endless possibilities of female engagement.  Perhaps if more women were at the negotiation table, there would have long been peace in the Middle East.

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