At summer camps and trauma centers, Beersheba students facing rockets with locals

Children playing at an impromptu day camp set up for the children of hospital workers in Beersheba.  (Ben Sales)

Children playing at an impromptu day camp set up for the children of hospital workers in Beersheba. (Ben Sales)

BEERSHEBA, Israel (JTA) — During Israel’s conflict with Hamas in 2009, Eli Nachmani, already using a wheelchair, injured his leg when a rocket hit this southern Israeli city.

In the last clash in 2012, Nachmani sustained a head injury when the blast from a rocket knocked him out of his wheelchair.

The nearest bomb shelter is 50 yards from his house, and he can’t cover the distance on his own in the seconds between the sounding of the air-raid siren and the impact of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Calls to Israel’s Welfare Ministry and the Beersheba municipality have gone unanswered. His only help is Noa Pney-Gil, a 24-year-old education major from the nearby Ben-Gurion University.

“I thank her, thank her, thank her from the bottom of my heart,” Nachmani said. “We should have many more like her.”

Fortunately, there are.

After Israel’s latest round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza broke out last week, Pney-Gil joined hundreds of Ben-Gurion University student volunteers who stayed in the conflict zone past the end of the school year to assist city residents in need.

The volunteers have helped out in hospitals, delivered supplies to the homebound elderly and disabled, and assisted with post-trauma care.

“When you go home, you understand people need help here and are waiting,” said Pney-Gil, a Tel Aviv native who considers herself a Beersheba-ite. “I want to be connected to the place I live. I won’t escape to Tel Aviv every time there’s a problem. I’ll deal with the problem here.”

The size of the volunteer corps is a testament to the success of university efforts to inculcate a culture of community involvement and serve as a catalyst for the city’s improvement. Some scholarships are tied to the number of hours students volunteer with underprivileged residents. The university provides discounted housing to students willing to live in Beersheba’s rundown city center.

Tami Ivgi Hadad, 32, a doctoral student researching nonprofits, began volunteering as an undergraduate in exchange for a scholarship. Over time she came to realize she really enjoyed it.

Today, Ivgi Hadad coordinates city volunteers during emergencies in addition to her studies. In a municipal building near the university earlier this week, she alternated between phone calls and typing on her laptop. Of her 250 volunteers Sunday, 200 were Ben-Gurion students.

“During routine times, you see a lot of adults volunteering, and young people don’t find free time,” she said. “But when there aren’t work or classes, they come out. They have this kind of adrenaline. Adults have gone through things in life. They don’t come out quickly under fire.”

Missiles overhead Sunday morning didn’t faze Dafna Kandelman, a first-year medical student volunteering as a counselor at an impromptu day camp for children of the local hospital’s staff.

Israeli law compels hospital workers to stay on the job in times of emergency, but it poses a child care dilemma for employees since many day camps have been canceled because of the missile threat. So medical students set up and run a camp for some 250 children of hospital workers.

At 10:45 a.m., the kids were having a late breakfast in the bomb shelter when a missile siren blared. Kandelman and other volunteers rushed to gather campers playing outside, only to find that many of them already were filing into the shelter.

Growing up in southern Israel, a major target for rocket attacks from Gaza, the kids knew the protocol. Kandelman found it harder to adapt.

“You can’t get used to it,” she said. “You [say], ‘OK, there’s a siren, let’s go to a stairwell, let’s go to a reinforced room.’ Most of the day it’s OK. Then you let your guard down and it comes out of nowhere. It catches you off guard every time. That’s the hard thing.”

While Israel suffered its first death in the conflict on Tuesday, some Beersheba residents have been treated for shock from missile strikes. At a temporary treatment center for trauma victims, student volunteers handle administration and engage the patients in preliminary conversation before professional social workers and psychologists treat them. Students are responsible as well for helping to move patients to a shelter when a siren goes off.

“They can run and hit a wall, fall down the stairs,” said Moshe Levy, 27, a physiology student volunteering at the trauma center. “They’re already in a sensitive situation, so any alarm puts them off balance.”

Helping out during the conflict comes naturally to medical students because the medical school’s students’ association places a high priority on volunteering all year round, said Nadav Zillcha, the association’s chairman.

Zillcha, 30, with graying hair and a firm expression, was skipping one day of a rotation at another hospital to organize volunteers. He said helping out during the conflict prepares medical students for the gravity of saving people’s lives.

“There’s a need here,” Zillcha said, adding, “We need to realize that now.”

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