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An Indian-American student explains why she now considers Israel her third home.

Mohanapriya Sayeen
Mohanapriya Sayeen

Israel is my third home. Having lived in two other comparably large countries, India and America, Israel has managed to take up a giant place in my life. India was my first home since I was born there but moved a few months later. However, I was able to visit my extended family in India, for weddings, to climb mountains, and indulge in the spicy and sweet foods. But where I was able to grow up and learn, was through New York, my second home.

Looking for Credits

During my undergraduate career at Hofstra University, I was enrolled as a psychology major with minors in neuroscience and biochemisty with the intent of applying to medical school. As my degree was coming to a close, I had approximately ten credits left that could be fulfilled in any course of my choosing. So, as I was scrolling through my University’s Course Catalog, the description of a human rights course fascinated me. It talked about being an informed global citizen and acting as an advocate for those in oppressive social, political, or religious circumstances.

I decided to take this class. One project involved choosing a country and examining a conflict it was facing. Although I had no personal ties to Israel or the Middle East in general,  I constantly heard about Israel and Gaza in the news due to Operation Protective Edge.  I quickly learned about Israel’s influence on the Western World, mainly through medicine. I stumbled upon various outreach programs, such as mobile clinics to Gaza, the IDF’s participation in foreign natural disasters, and about individuals trying to better the world. I was inspired. Along the way, I found several health programs that interested me. Ultimately, it was with the help of Google, falafel-Wednesdays at my house, and a desire to fulfill “wanderlust” that I applied to a study abroad program in this little country located along the Mediterranean Sea.

Ben-Gurion University

In early 2015, I was accepted into the Global Health for International Summer program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. I packed the recommended large-brimmed hat, sunblock, and water bottle for my month-long stay in Israel and was eager to participate. Upon arrival to the Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, a fellow classmate and I took a two hour cab ride down to Be’er Sheva. Being a native New Yorker, Tel Aviv reminded me of New York City, but with Hebrew letters on signs instead of English. Conversely, Be’er Sheva was cozier and surrounded by the Negev Desert.

Unsurprisingly, the desert does live up to its reputation of being quite hot. During the first few days of class, my classmates and I were able to visit Sde Boker, home to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. We were a class of many nations, representing America, China, India, Singapore, and many others. We also came from various healthcare backgrounds, such as a group of physicians, nurses,  PhD and MPH degree holders, and, like me, undergraduate students who had an interest in medicine. While traveling around Israel, we learned how incredibly hot it was in July, as we spent as much time on the alert for shade and filling our bottles with cold water.

We were fortunate enough to learn about the history and culture of Israel through these firsthand hot-climate experiences. One of my favorite destinations was the historic Jerusalem trip, as I visited various religious sites while also seeing modern day culture. However, I learned to appreciate the depth and breadth of global health mostly through didactic lectures and group work at Ben-Gurion University, which were, fortunately, in a room blowing cold air from the AC. I came to understand global health as a multifaceted topic. Examples of global health include the influence of diseases crossing country borders, treating refugees, and assessing human rights in regard to health care. One way in which this summer program facilitated learning was through a project where my classmates were partnered up and sent to various Israeli institutions and organizations.

The Medical School for International Health

A classmate and I were sent to the nearest location, the Medical School for International Health (MSIH). There, we sat with Dr. Mark Clarfield and Mr. Mike Diamond. We discussed how medicine differs in various parts of the world due to numerous factors, such as cultural and/ or financial limitations. We also spoke about the importance of international health education to medical students. In part, this meant recognizing that our patients all have stories to tell us. By studying outside of first-world settings, students learn to rely on what the patient says instead of using technology or other advanced tests to make a diagnosis and treatment plan. After submitting the conclusions which extensively covered MSIH’s curriculum, I knew that is where I wanted to attend medical school. I believed MSIH would be able to offer an exceptional medical education through its incorporation of didactic lecture, first-hand experience in clinical electives, and location in the diverse Israeli city of Be’er Sheva.

Thankfully, I was accepted to the MSIH class of 2020. Classes began in late July of 2016. Our first month consisted of two courses – emergency medicine and introductory Hebrew. Once we passed those first two exams, we began rigorously learning medical sciences: biochemistry, immunology, molecular biology, and so on, which was expected as medical students. However, where we differed from other medical students was located beyond campus gates.

Soroka University Medical Center

MSIH is associated with Soroka Hospital, which is the growing main hospital of Be’er Sheva and Southern Israel. It is akin to an oasis located in the desert. You’ll find palm trees, trimmed shrubs, and colorful flowers lining the outdoor paths. As a girl who volunteered at New York hospitals as a pre-medical student, I came to expect that hospitals would all be closed off with patients found in their quiet rooms. In Be’er Sheva, however, patients could be found sitting on the benches with their family and friends, shaded by outdoor pathways where they could freely walk. It is sun therapy, so to speak. In the main yard, there is a helicopter pad that brings in patients and loved ones from the far reaches of Israel, and every once in a while, the wings of the helicopter could be heard roaring while we sat in class. Another sound that I was not accustomed to came from inside the towers of Soroka. One can always find a diverse group of people speaking Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, and more. A group of Bedouins tend to be found sitting on the grass sharing their culture as they pray at certain times of the day.

Working with Bedouin Children

Part of my attraction to MSIH was the diverse cultures I would be able to interact with cultures different from my own. MSIH has a program where students are allowed to teach and play with Bedouin children in Umm Batin. The Bedouin, who some consider the outcasts of Israel, live in secluded areas. Some of the Bedouin settlements are unrecognized by the Israeli government and do not  have a paved pathway into their settlements. I decided to participate in MSIH’s program to interact with Bedouin children. During my first visit, I was a little nervous because it would be my first official encounter with Bedouins. The tensions were quickly erased as I was surrounded by a group of curious girls who wanted to know all about India’s Bollywood dancing and New York City’s lights. Their English was great, yet when they struggled to find a word, they communicated enough to let me teach them a new word. They even taught me a few Arabic words in return. Soon after arriving, we began a game between two groups in the subjects of math and English. We then played soccer during a small break, a sport I have been playing since I was a young child. Even though I was thousands of miles away from my family, I felt completely at home.

Global Health

While MSIH offers hands-on experiences like Umm Batin, another strong aspect of the program is the didactic and open-group discussions in global health. The global health classes teach more than just what exactly glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase does or the purpose of c-peptide. These classes are where we can interact with each other, teach others about our native countries, learn about Israel, and also hear about the countries of our classmates. We discuss various topics in global health, such as economic situations, diseases, and cultures. One of my favorite sessions was when we discussed tuberculosis. While the disease is rare in America, it is ever prevalent in other parts of the world. The resistance that arises due to antibiotic misuse is creating an epidemic that will leave thousands and thousands of individuals vulnerable. Our classmates discussed the implications of antibiotic misuse as well as what we could do as future physicians in those situations. We also had the opportunity to individually present on the global health topic in which we are most interested. One more project we worked on was a group project where we were asked to read a paper and discuss it in small groups. We were given a budget for a developing country, such as Ethiopia or the Philippines, and had to propose ways to try and fix a burden on that country. In the near future, my classmates and I will travel to these developing countries for a medical clerkship. We will have the opportunity to practice what we have learned in Israel. I am greatly looking forward to this part of my medical school education.

While I have already learned a great deal in medical school, I look forward to learning even more as my second year continues. I will advance my knowledge not only through classroom lessons, but also by exploring all of the culture Israel has to offer. My first home, my birth home, is India. I spent the majority of my childhood summers visiting my extended family there and learnt about my heritage through those visits, and like Israel, how hot India can be. My second home is in New York, where my parents raised and handed me the keys to chase after my life goals – who also, much like myself, moved from their childhood homes to grow in a new country.

My Third Home

Nine flights between America and Israel later, I am grateful for all of the experiences that led me to where I am today. I have gained a large family of native Israeli’s and classmates that make long study nights bearable and exploring Israel even more enjoyable.  I can confidently say that Israel has become my third home.  With the aid of MSIH,  I will enter a profession with the knowledge to create strong bonds with my patients. Learning these important skills here in Israel, my third home, is an absolute privilege.