Gaza’s surplus of nurses works for free

A picture taken on August 5, 2021 show Surgical operating rooms inside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Israeli authorities prevented the entry of nitrous oxide canisters also known as ‘whippets’, used as an anaestheticsince the beginning of 2021, according to Palestinian Ministry of Health. The Gaza Strip needs 400,000 litres per year of nitrous oxide for its hospitals to function adequately. Photo by Omar Ashtawy

For the past two years, Samar Ziada, 27, has been a volunteer nurse at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza.

She assists staff nurses in their daily routines: preparing injections for patients, treating wounds and taking temperatures.

Al-Shifa hospital is known for being a stressful place to work. It is understaffed and lacks much-needed medical equipment due to the 16-year Israeli blockade on the coastal strip of land.

And while Ziada works three days a week, eight hours a day, she is not paid.

She has not been able to find paid work as a nurse since graduating with a degree in nursing from Al-Azhar University in 2018. There are too many nurses in Gaza and too few available paid positions. Every year, when Ziada applies for new nursing jobs at government or private hospitals, she finds that she is one of hundreds applying.

The situation is so acute that in July, the Palestinian Nursing Association in the Gaza Strip issued a statement expressing its concern about employment prospects for nurses.

There are currently 14,200 registered nurses in Gaza, yet only 4,000 are employed as nurses while 10,200 are not working in the field.

The number of nursing graduates is outpacing the available jobs, the statement added, since public institutions simply cannot afford to hire more nurses, despite the need for them.

Ziada took the volunteer position hoping it would lead to an actual job, but so far that has not been the case.

Don’t study nursing

Nursing was once considered a reliable career path in Gaza. It was thought that, despite Gaza’s high unemployment rate, the Strip would always need nurses.

Yet Hasan Hilles‎, 30, now regrets studying nursing. He graduated in 2016 with a degree in nursing from the Islamic University in Gaza.

He worked a year in a private clinic, with a low monthly salary of around $235. This was the best job he could find. All better-paying jobs, he said, require having connections or knowing someone.

Hilles‎ was not surprised by the Palestinian Nursing Association’s statement. He now cautions friends against studying nursing, since job opportunities are so scarce.

Though he still applies for nursing jobs about five times a year, he has mostly worked in construction.

A year ago, when he was on a construction site, a fellow worker endured a head injury and collapsed to the ground. Hilles went to assist him and check for injuries, but his coworker told him to get a paramedic instead. When Hilles explained that he was a nurse, his coworker didn’t believe him until he expertly bandaged his wound.

He also tried volunteering.

“I volunteered in a government hospital for a year and a half,” he said, but this did not lead to a job.

A system in crisis

Gaza’s healthcare system is facing numerous crises. Hospitals lack adequate medicine and medical equipment on any given day. Yet their day-to-day operations are anything but normal, as nurses and doctors often have to treat the wounded and dying following Israeli military attacks.

Muhammad al-Kafarna, a former chairman of the Palestinian Nursing Association, which advocates for nurses’ rights, is alarmed by the number of unemployed nurses.

He said that only 120 nursing positions open each year, yet there are 5,000 nursing students in Gaza.

Gaza’s 22 private hospitals absorb many of the new nurses, yet graduates would prefer to work in one of Gaza’s 13 public hospitals, which are run by the Ministry of Health, due to better salaries.

He fears for the future of nursing in Gaza, especially since many recent graduates are considering moving abroad to find work.

Himam Saeed, 32, traveled to the city of al-Ain in the UAE this August to interview with a private hospital.

He graduated from nursing school in Gaza in 2014, yet finding work has been a struggle. From 2018-19, he volunteered at Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital, and then worked as a nurse on the front lines during the Great March of Return series of protests, treating those shot and injured by Israeli soldiers.

Like many others, he thought a paid job would follow. When it didn’t, he worked for a medical charity for six months but left due to a lack of funding.

Saeed mentioned other college friends who had left Gaza for places like Egypt and Turkey. Many of them traveled to Greece from Turkey, via raft or swimming. This was not an option for Saeed, since he knew people who had died on that route to Greece.

“I love humanitarian work, and in Gaza we gain good experience,” he said. Yet because he wants a better future, he has decided to stay in the UAE.

Like Saeed, Samar Ziada, who volunteers at al-Shifa, views nursing as humanitarian work. She doesn’t want to do any other kind of work, and she’s going to continue to apply for nursing jobs. At this point, it doesn’t feel like an option to find another career, as her father took out loans for her to obtain a nursing degree.

Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.

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