“I was the first sampling volunteer in the Jerusalem area,” says Fadi Dekidak (37) of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, proud husband and father of four. He has worked and volunteered as a paramedic at Magen David Adom (MDA) – Israel’s national emergency medical, disaster and ambulance service – for 20 years. “And I’ve been vaccinated,” he laughingly adds.

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During last month’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Dekidak and an MDA medical team traveled to Uman, Ukraine to accompany thousands of religious Israelis who make the yearly Hasidic pilgrimage to Ukraine to visit the burial site of the Breslov Hasidic movement leader, Rebbe Nachman.

“I spoke Yiddish with the Hasidim and Russian with the locals, and people couldn’t believe it. Hearing an Arab speak Yiddish and Russian was an exciting experience for them,” Dekidak explained.

In Uman, Dekidak says, he worked on his feet for almost 36 hours straight administering COVID tests and attending to patients.

Fadi Dekidak at work. “The days during the Uman pilgrimage [were] very difficult. You’re standing on your feet for many hours, working all day and night” (Photo: Magen David Adom)

“It was difficult, but I felt as if I was on a national mission. People have to return home, and we need to make sure they do not bring COVID-19 back with them, he said.”

Dekidak’s work continued after Rosh Hashanah some ten days later when on Yom Kippur he worked a 24-hour shift in Beit Shemesh.

“As an observing Muslim myself, I understand the stress that comes with being a healthcare worker on holidays. When the testing sites are closed for the Jewish high holidays, I try very hard to accommodate my Jewish brothers and colleagues,” he said.

Fadi Dekidak: “We work at a very fast pace, especially in rapid testing, so that children can go to attractions.” (Photo: Magen David Adom)

“I know when to start but I do not know when I’ll finish”

As head of the MDA volunteer team in the Jerusalem area, Dekidak arrives at the station at 6:30 am everyday and receives his daily assignments.

“My responsibilities include providing COVID-19 tests at drive-ins, schools, yeshivas and even over the green line. There is always something to be done; whether we’re building new vaccination sites, or placing more MDA volunteers at testing sites because of increased congestion during the holidays,” he explained.

On weekdays, the sampling sites are especially busy.

“I know when I start working, but I don’t know when I’m going to finish,” he added. “We work at a very fast pace, especially for the rapid testing, so that children can enter the attraction sites. Sometimes I finish at midnight. Working on those is very difficult for me – I’m standing on my feet for many hours and literally working from morning to night – but that’s what is needed of me.”

“I explain to the apprehensive how I vaccinated my mother”

Dekidak samples a lot of people every day and encounters all sorts of reactions and thoughts.

“Sometimes when I am administering COVID tests or vaccines I’m asked about the side effects, what actually happens,” Dekidak said.

“Conversations develop from all sorts of things. There are also those who are afraid or apprehensive about the testing or the vaccine. I try to calm them down as much as possible.

“I always say it is natural to be afraid, but I provide a professional explanation: I explain the reasoning behind getting tested and vaccinated, how it works and what it does for us. I simplify the concepts, and I speak at eye level,” he continued.

Portable immunization stand. “I try to calm people down as much as possible. I always say that it is natural to be afraid, but I give a professional explanation” (Photo: Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

In particular, Dekidak remembers one conversation he had with a Haredi woman who was skeptical about the vaccine.

“ I was stationed at a mobile MDA vaccination center, and a Haredi woman arrived who was very afraid to get the vaccine. During our conversation I found out that she was a daughter of Holocaust survivors who had been abused by [the Nazi physician] Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. Her fear of needles and medical care had been ingrained in her since childhood,” he said.

“After understanding this part about her, I assured her it was not the same,” Dekidak went on. “And here I was , an Arab paramedic, who was finally able to convince this person to get vaccinated.”

Opponents of the COVID-19 vaccine do not particularly bother Dekidak.

“I have not yet found any medical reason to oppose the vaccine. In the end, people who are against the vaccine are mostly harmful to themselves, their parents, and their family,” he explained.No one knows their level of immunity, and no one wants someone to die because of them. That’s a talking point I explain to a lot of the unvaccinated, and a lot of people are actually convinced.”

“My wife loves MDA as much as I do”

“My wife Doaa, loves MDA as much as I do, and has given me a push to start convincing the population in our area/neighborhood about the importance of the vaccine and protecting ourselves against COVID-19,” Dekidak said. “I first gave a presentation for my immediate family, and after that we expanded it to our extended family in East Jerusalem. So far we’ve spoken with some 5,000 people. Today, I have a lot of volunteers who have signed up to help with sampling.”

Fadi Dekidak in the vaccine compound. “I’m glad I’m helping people and saving lives, that's enough for me” (Photo: Magen David Adom)

Two things provide comfort and ease the load for Dekidak. One is the atmosphere in the MDA staff.

“Here in the Jerusalem area, the sampling staff is like a family. When needed, we have each others’ backs. Especially in the Arab sector in the city, volunteers who sign up come whenever they are available.”

The other comfort comes from the citizens who show up to the COVID centers to get tested.

“I’m glad I’m helping people and protecting their health, that’s enough for me. But when people say we’ve done a good job, and that they appreciate the staff and volunteers, it warms my heart,” he said. “It gives me the push needed to move forward.”