A 91-year-old Australian nurse lives among Bedouins and saves lives

Aileen Coleman has worked through major transformations in the Middle East

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Aileen Coleman, 91, is an unlikely legend, at least to Bedouin communities in the desert town of Mafraq, Jordan.

A slim figure with blue eyes, she walks the sprawling Syrian refugee camps and communities that have swollen in the region since 2011, helping aid organisations teach tuberculosis prevention.

The biggest aid agencies have worked in the Mafraq area — Medicins Sans Frontiers, Mercy Corps, UNHCR — but Aileen, an Australian nurse who speaks fluent Arabic, was the pioneer.

Her work now is a far cry from her early days of six decades ago, before many aid organisations had even been founded.

Her efforts — which she describes as a calling from God — are credited with turning that situation around. Along the way, she's had to navigate a complex world of tribal politics, winning over sheikhs, ministers and farmers, endeavours she says were born from a passion for Bedouin culture.

The devout Presbyterian was one of the first people to work on rural health development and philanthropy in Jordan, the West Bank and what is now the UAE.

Her storied journey from humble beginnings in small desert communities illustrates the universal values and tolerance often forgotten in the troubled and religiously divided region.

In Mafraq, she can take pride in having set up a functioning tuberculosis hospital nestled in a lush olive grove. Decades ago, she performed her first Caesarean section in basic circumstances.

Baptism of fire

In Sharjah in 1955, an American doctor who was supposed to deliver a child was bedridden with typhoid.

Noticing Aileen's hesitance, the doctor asked her how many times she had helped her with the procedure.

“I said many times — but the scalpel was in your hand, not mine,” says Aileen.

As she braced herself to perform the surgery, a colleague held a medical book in front of her, turning the illustrated pages to guide her through the process.

Despite the risk of disease and spartan conditions, the newborn survived.

With irrepressible energy, Aileen still works at a 44-bed tuberculosis hospital she founded in Mafraq in 1965 with Eleanor Soltau, another US doctor.

Aileen says Eleanor, who died in 1997, believed that Bedouins living in Mafraq and elsewhere were more prone to tuberculosis and that their bodies “get infected quickly but they get over it quickly if they are treated”.

The two women felt that Mafraq was “where God wants us to be".

"Two single women, coming to live among Bedouins, one American, one Australian. It does not happen," Aileen says.

Unlike mostly nondescript Jordanian hospitals, the medical complex in Mafraq, called Annoor (the light) Sanatorium, after a biblical description of Jesus, is nestled among 10 hectares of land full of olive and pine trees.

Annoor Sanatorium complex in Mafraq, northern Jordan. Amy McConaghy / The National

The resident cat, a furry white creature bought from a Mafraq market and named Cloud by one child visitor, basks in attention from staff and visitors.

Many of the 44 staff are foreign, with their salaries arranged by churches in America and Australia.

The hospital treats thousands of patients every year, including people from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Flying doctors

Aileen cut her teeth as a nurse practitioner flying to sheep farming areas in Australia and consulting with doctors on two-way radios.

At the time, she’d read about the Middle East and how “there were women dying when having babies”.

“They did not need to die. There were no doctors and nurses to help them,” she says.

She boarded a ship to Sharjah and started working in 1955 at a missionary hospital in the Sheikhdom.

Its houses were mostly made of palm leaves and there were almost no paved roads, she says.

Bedouins with their donkeys at a water well, Original caption reads:- 'Beduins with their donkeys at a water well in the desert in the Trucial States, between Sharjah and Manama, where the Trucial Oman Scouts have a depot. These two old men made no objection to our photographing the women; but a minute later an irate Beduin on a diminutive donkey rode up and roundly scolded them for being so shameless'. Barbara Wace (1907-2003) was a British journalist, United Arab Emirates, There is no official date for this image, possibly taken in the 1950s / 1960s.  (Photo by Barbara Wace/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

The ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan, used to lend one of his cars, a “rough and old” Land Rover, to Aileen and her colleagues to go grocery shopping in Dubai, then a small town.

They drove along the beach to a shop belonging to the Jashanmal merchant family, today one of the biggest retailers in the Middle East, and had to wait until the tide subsided to drive back to Sharjah.

Aileen solved a medical problem the Sheikh's wife had that had prevented her from having babies.

“With the Arab people, you do a kind act to them, you have a friend,” Aileen says. “When they realised we were there to help their wives they embarrassed us sometimes with their kindness.”

Meeting ministers

By the late 1950s Aileen had left Sharjah for the West Bank because she wanted to learn Arabic.

“All I knew when helping a lady have a baby was to say (in Arabic) 'push', 'don't push' and 'are you OK?'”

She and Eleanor had met in the late 1950s while working at a Western-funded tuberculosis hospital in Arroub, near Hebron.

Bedouins from the east of the Jordan River would sometimes walk for days to reach it, relying on the stars.

Between tending patients and teaching at a nursing school she started there, Aileen obtained a degree in classical Arabic, which she speaks eloquently with a distinct Bedouin lilt.

Having formed what became a life-long friendship, Aileen and Eleanor left Arroub in 1965 for the East Bank.

They soon found themselves in Amman, asking health minister Ahmad Abu Koura if they could start a tuberculosis centre in Mafraq.

“Everyone said you will never get permission because we’re a Christian hospital. We prayed a lot to make his heart soft,” says Aileen.

The minister’s secretary did not know that the two women spoke perfect Arabic, and was overheard telling the minister, “you'd better give these ladies what they want because they are not going to shut up until you do”.

“For a few minutes the minister looked at Eleanor and me and I thought he was seeking a way to say 'no'. Then he said 'thank you very much, how I can help you?'" Eileen says.

Interfaith healing

The small town of Mafraq had in 1965 only one paved street where Bedouins came from the surrounding steppe to trade in milk and sheep’s wool.

“When people realised that I and Eleanor were serious about living in Mafraq they started to help us,” Aileen says.

They still had to deal with an ultra-male dominated society, but their authoritative demeanour and command of Arabic helped.

Eleanor was in her late 30s and had white hair.

“Bedouins do respect age, and even though she was not old they respected her and called her khetyara [old lady],” Aileen says. "They were good people, poor people, arrogant people. But very grateful for help."

“For me I think it was my size,” she says, referring to her towering height.

Fatalism abounded. Often if a Bedouin was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he would dismissively say "basseeta" (it is nothing serious).

Aileen’s typical reply was “it is going to kill you”, which helped to convince people to take their treatment, cover their mouth, not spit on the ground and not cough without a tissue.

“We wanted people to know that we were in the service of Jesus and we won’t see a difference between Christians Muslims or whoever wants to come,” Aileen says.

Building the hospital

Upon arriving to Mafraq, Aileen and Eleanor rented a “dirty and horrible” two-storey house, using returns from a savings fund belonging to Eleanor.

The two women cleaned the house for months, turning it into a makeshift, eight-bed hospital. One room was a lab and they lived in the house, despite the risk of infection.

A widowed American farmer, Lester Gates from Ohio, heard about their work and came to help improve the condition of the house by installing cupboards. For the next 22 years he became their resident handyman, even divining for water, leading the Jordanian Army to blast a hole for a well, for what would become the hospital.

In the 1960s some of the Trucial states started exporting oil, helping to accelerate the development of Sharjah, and Eileen’s work then focused on Jordan and the West Bank.

Poverty still abounds in Mafraq. Its population has swelled to 500,000, with thousands of Syrian refugees moving to the city in the last decade.

When she walks through Mafraq, the mostly male shop owners call her name, addressing her as “doctor.”

“I am not," she says. "They say ‘doctor, come and drink tea. Visit us. Just come and be a friend'”.

Updated: March 16, 2022, 11:45 AM