Ali Obaidat, Palestine Red Crescent
Safiya Al Balbissi walks assertively, like a queen. With great self-confidence and talent, she drives a Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) ambulance through the streets and alleys of Tulkarem Governorate. She has become a familiar sight for many Palestinians, although some people continue to raise astonished eyebrows when they see her behind the wheel.
A PRCS emergency medical technician (EMT) since 1998, 31-year-old Safiya, who is from Ittil in the West Bank, has become the first female ambulance driver in Palestine, thanks to her great determination and perseverance. In 2001, at the beginning of the 2nd Intifada, she was injured in a serious car accident while on her way with a colleague to bring emergency medical aid to injured Palestinians. The accident left her in a coma for five full months.
In 2002, her brother was killed during an Israeli raid and later the same year, while on their way to rescue the passengers of a car struck by Israeli shells, Safiya and her colleagues came under heavy fire. Her colleague, EMT Ibrahim Asad was killed, and Safiya was injured. All of these circumstances, and the death of her colleague in particular, convinced Safiya to register for a course in ambulance driving in 2005, which she passed.
From PRCS Headquarters, and with sirens screaming, Safiya’s ambulance rushes through the streets of Tulkarem to rescue lives, rapidly reaching people in need of help. But the first time Safiya drove the ambulance, she could not hide her fear and anxiety: “I was hesitant and scared that first time. It was a huge challenge for me, but thanks to encouragements from my family and colleagues I overcame all obstacles. The second time I drove the ambulance, it had become a natural thing”, Safiya explains.
As for the community’s reaction, Safiya adds: “At the beginning it was a bit strange. I noticed that people were surprised when they saw me behind the wheel, driving fast, but they soon accepted the idea. My PRCS colleagues and my family have encouraged me tremendously. My father was the first to suggest I become an EMT and that I obtain my driver’s licence. Then my brothers taught me how to drive and all of this boosted my self-confidence”. Safiya notes that other drivers are very cooperative. They pull over when they hear the siren, but some are surprised to discover the driver of the ambulance is a woman.
Safiya encourages girls to work or to volunteer as EMTs, saying that the presence of a woman is often welcome, especially in certain cases. “It is very easy to become an EMT. All you need is perseverance, a strong will and a bit of defiance. It’s that simple”.
Safiya’s colleagues in the PRCS/Jenin EMS Department support her fully. Mu’ayad To’meh (30), an EMS employee since 2003, says he and his colleagues are very proud of Safiya. “What Safiya does is a source of pride for PRCS and for its branch in Tulkarem. She is an excellent driver and a highly qualified EMT who provides great services to all those in need”, he says. He adds that as soon as Safiya talked about becoming an ambulance driver, and when she obtained her driver’s licence, everybody encouraged her. He also praised her strong personality which helps her deal with patients, as well as her high sense of control.
Mahmoud Al Sa’adi, Head of the EMS Department at PRCS/Tulkarem agrees. “Safiya has proven herself. She is skilful, professional, dependable as well as an exceptional driver and EMT. She might have raised some astonished eyebrows at the beginning, but now people are used to her and both pedestrians and drivers are cooperative. They encourage her to continue her excellent work”.
Safiya Balbissi has proven herself as a unique woman, a leader and an exceptional ambulance driver, opening the door of this profession for other young Palestinian women.