AUSTRALIA — It all started with a dream. To have more doctors. Not Jewish doctors mind you, but Aboriginal doctors.

The need was clear: Life expectancy for indigenous Australians remains almost twenty years below that of their fellow citizens. Remote communities thousands of miles from access to adequate care, high suicide rates and infant mortality, limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and genetic predispositions to a diseases like cancer and diabetes all take their toll on this community, which makes up just over 2 percent of Australia’s population.

All of these disadvantages are exacerbated by the scarcity of indigenous doctors. Though growing, their number remains tiny: If 20 years ago there was a single indigenous doctor, today that number has grown to 150, with a similar number currently in medical school. Twelve of those students are currently benefiting from scholarships granted in partnership by a Jewish institution in Sydney, Shalom College, and the indigenous health center at the city’s University of New South Wales.

The scholarship program, which provides food and board for Aboriginal  students, saw its first doctor graduate in 2009. Two more have followed.  Today, more than half of the indigenous medical students at the university are beneficiaries of the Shalom College program.

Dr. Hilton Immerman and Dr. Josef McDonald at graduation. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Dr. Hilton Immerman and Dr. Josef McDonald at graduation. (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The program is known as “Shalom Gamarada.” The word “Gamarada” comes from a phrase in Eora, one of Australia’s indigenous languages, that translates as “We walk together as friends.”

The program has been expanded to other fields like law and engineering. In 2011, the program’s 22 students had a 90% pass rate, which is higher than the national average for non-indigenous students and significantly better than the drop-out rate of around 60% for indigenous students at Australian universities.

Many of the students come from communities too far from Sydney to commute. The cost of being a student in one of the world’s most expensive cities makes university-level study inaccessible to many. The Shalom Gamarada program, which gives each student an annual stipend of  $17,500, helps students concentrate on their studies. In exchange, they commit to returning to their communities after graduation.

The program not only provides living expenses for the students but also gives them a mentor, Dr. Hilton Immerman, the Master of Shalom College. Immerman, who has a steady, understated manner, helps the students navigate the unfamiliar corridors of university life. Nearly all of the indigenous students are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

‘As Jews, our task in life is to be ‘a light unto the nations’ and to engage in tikkun olam, reparing the world. The Shalom Gamarada Scholarship Program is our act of social justice’

Immerman, who calls the state of indigenous heath care in Australia “a national disgrace,” believes that by increasing the number of indigenous doctors the program will make a  difference.

“As Jews, our task in life is to be ‘a light unto the nations’ and to engage in tikkun olam, reparing the world,” Immerman said. “The Shalom Gamarada Scholarship Program is our act of social justice.”

Dr. Josef McDonald was one of the first recipients of the Shalom Gamarada Scholarship program and its most recent graduate. He came to Shalom College, he said, feeling alienated, inadequate, homesick and anxious about his medical studies.”If it wasn’t for the support of the people on the scholarship program, I doubt that I would have successfully completed medicine,” he said.

The college, he said, provided him with a “very welcoming racism-free environment with fellow students from an indigenous background.” He was aware, he said, of the irony of finding pride in his own heritage at a Jewish college.

The program is partly funded by an annual fair, the Shalom Gamarada Ngiyani Yana Exhibition, that sees members of the 45,000-strong Sydney Jewish community support the scholarship initiative by purchasing works from leading indigenous artists.

‘It is no accident that this initiative was so speedily taken up by the Sydney Jewish community, the elders of whom are well aware of the impact of great loss and grief, and also of the healing quality of renewed sprit and culture’

Speaking at the launch of the first art exhibition in 2005, Marie Bashir, the governor of New South Wales, said, “It is no accident that this initiative was so speedily taken up by the Sydney Jewish community, the elders of whom are well aware of the impact of great loss and grief, and also of the healing quality of renewed sprit and culture.”

 

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