Israel Pulse

Bedouin woman battles genetic diseases in Israel's Negev

Article Summary
Israeli Bedouin doctor establishes a foundation that collects data and educates young Israeli Bedouin couples about genetic illnesses that occur because of marriages among family members.

Israeli financial daily Globes has selected Dr. Yasmeen Abu Fraiha as one its “Forty under Forty” promising young people in 2016. The prestigious group includes high-tech entrepreneurs, CEOs of financial firms, lawyers and trailblazing researchers, all under the age of 40. The newspaper believes that they will have a decisive impact on the Israeli market and will emerge as leaders in their fields over the next few decades.

But Abu Fraiha’s story is not just the story of another successful young Israeli woman. What distinguishes her is that she is a Bedouin who grew up in a family that decided to swim against the stream, shatter the rigid conventions of Bedouin society and overcome obstacles in order to integrate into Israeli society. Her family was the first Bedouin family to relocate from the southern Bedouin village of Tel Sheva to the prosperous Jewish neighboring town of Omer.

“Tel Sheva and Omer are just a five-minute drive from each other, but they are a hundred years apart,” Abu Fraiha told Al-Monitor. “When I was a girl, we faced a lot of criticism [from the Bedouin society]. We were considered outsiders. I’m received very well there these days; there are even people who are proud of me.”

It all began two decades ago when family patriarch Aoudeh Abu Fraiha realized that if he wanted to provide his children with a higher quality education, he would have to cross the physical and psychological boundaries separating Tel Sheva from Omer. This, he believed, would ensure his children a brighter future in Israeli society. Twenty years later, the transition proved itself. His daughter Yasmeen, now 27, has already completed her medical studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During her internship, Abu Fraiha founded the organization Genesis, with the goal of diagnosing and preventing genetic diseases common in Bedouin society due to the frequency of marriages within the extended family. Her initiative to convince young Bedouin to be tested before they get married, to ensure that their children do not suffer from genetic diseases, got Globes to include her in this prestigious group of Israel’s most promising young people.

“I first started being active during the final part of my internship,” Abu Fraiha said. “I was researching genetic diseases resulting from marriages within the extended family. When I went to the United States for a program on social entrepreneurship, I met with people who work in genetics, and also with donors, who agreed to invest in my idea.”

Genesis began operating even before Abu Fraiha returned to Israel, through three women who established cooperative ventures with the Ministry of Health and the Genetics Institute of the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. They also made contact with Bedouin religious leaders, hoping that they would grant religious approval for genetic testing.

Abu Fraiha explained that despite widespread changes within Bedouin society, which have led to greater openness, 67% of marriages are still kept within the extended family. Willingness to undergo genetic testing tends to occur only after a sick child is born. According to Abu Fraiha, some 95% of the people tested are married women, many of them during their second pregnancy, after they already gave birth to a child with a genetic illness. The goal of the work of Genesis is to instill awareness among the Bedouin, so that young people get tested before they get married.

“In the past, the Ministry of Health ran [information] campaigns, emphasizing the message, 'Don’t marry your cousins.' We consider this the wrong approach. It is impossible to change a culture and tradition that is 5,000 years old simply by telling people, 'Change! Don’t marry a family member,'” she said. Abu Fraiha noted that the approach of Genesis is not to annul marriages, nor is it to make recommendations that have no chance of being accepted by the Bedouin society.

“If a couple decides not to marry because of the test result, that is their decision,” she said. “We believe in providing the couple with the maximum amount of information, so that they can decide on their next steps. For example, they can undergo in vitro fertilization in order to check the embryo’s DNA and find out whether it is healthy or not. Only healthy embryos would be implanted in the woman’s womb, to avoid bringing sick children into the world.”

Abu Fraiha hopes that Genesis can offer the genetic test free of charge. Her goal is to make it easily accessible at the local health clinics in all Bedouin communities. “This way,” Abu Fraiha said, “everyone will undergo the test within just a few years. This will ensure a healthy society, without genetic diseases, and improve the quality and integrity of the family.”

Abu Fraiha recognizes that one of her motives in challenging the prevalence of genetic diseases within Bedouin society is proving that she is still part of that society, even if she grew up in Jewish surroundings. Nevertheless, she added, “this would never have happened without my access to and understanding of the problems of the society into which I was born and where my family still lives.”

As for her own future, she said, “I have no idea where I’ll be 10 years from now, but it is obvious to me that I will be working in community medicine, or as I like to call it, social medicine.”

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Found in: negev, medicine, marriage, health, disease, children, bedouin society, bedouin

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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