Israel offers Bedouins a study route

November 12, 1999


A record number of 200 Bedouin students, 85 of them women, have enrolled for degree courses this year at Israel's Ben-Gurion University in the Negev Desert, posing a major challenge for the fledgling Bedouin centre, which helps absorb them into the Israeli system.

"These people are Israeli citizens but they live on the margins of the marginalised," said Ismael Abu-Saad, a professor of education at the university and, in his spare time, head of the Centre for Bedouin Studies and Development.

Dr Abu-Saad, himself one of 11 children of illiterate Bedouin parents, completed his BA and MA at Ben-Gurion, but did a doctorate in education policy and administration at the University of Minnesota. He returned with an American wife and a driving vision to help his own people, especially when he saw the programmes on offer to new immigrants such as Ethiopians and Russians.

He finally got the centre underway three years ago with eight students. The university gives him an office and reception room, pays for the assistance of a graduate student, who works as a liaison officer, and helps with printing and other administrative costs.

Additional funding, mostly in the form of scholarships, comes from Robert Arnow, chairman of the university board of governors, whose support played a vital role in establishing the centre, Heide Simonis, president minister of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and the Friedrich Ebert Fund.

In return the Bedouin students do community work, usually with Bedouin schoolchildren in extra-curricular activities. Some also collect material for a project compiling documentary material on computer about Negev Bedouin history and culture.

Israel's 180,000 Bedouin community, mostly based in the south, comprises about 60,000 people living in camps dispersed around the Negev with another 60,000 living in one of seven special towns set up by the state. A further 60,000 live in the Galilee area.

They are traditionally a very loyal, peaceful community, said Dr Abu-Saad. "But if we don't do something quickly we will lose them and create lots of social problems as well."

He is worried that government policies aimed at urging them to make the transition from a backward rural existence to a modern urban lifestyle are not working and resentment will soon set in. "Education is the key to this. It's a question of empowering the community to decide its own fate."

Six out of ten Bedouin students in the Negev drop out of school, while only two out of 1,000 have university degrees. "We could increase the number of Bedouin students at the university but I care deeply about quality and I don't want to create a tier of second-class students. Our job is to help narrow the gap between them and their Jewish counterparts," said Dr Abu-Saad.

The problems faced by the students stem from poor education at primary and secondary level, where there is a shortage of teachers and equipment as well as a different, more old-fashioned approach to learning, largely based on memorising. Writing undergraduate-level essays and understanding the system of marking is a major difficulty when their native language is Arabic, but lectures are in Hebrew while most of the books are in English.

"The centre has to act as a bridge between the teacher and the student. Although we can request that our students are given more time, naturally the professors won't lower their standards for them nor do we want that. It's the job of the centre to give extra help in tutoring. I'm not asking for millions, but we do need money for that."

Dr Abu-Saad knows many of the students' families personally and spends much time persuading fathers, who could not afford to pay for a university education, to allow their daughters to sit for scholarships. He visits Bedouin high schools to explain university requirements and application procedures and to show how the centre can help provide support for new students.

Hardly any of the female Bedouin students live in, which creates additional problems because of a lack of public transport in the area. In many cases they do not qualify for residential accommodation for a variety of reasons. This often means that after a full day studying they have to take a bus to the next town followed by an hour-long walk. Dr Abu-Saad said: "When they eventually get home it's sometimes to a tent with 12 kids around and no electricity. How can they study in these conditions?"

This was the case for Seeham, a third-year student completing a course in social work, who has 16 children and three mothers in her family. The only way she was able to pursue her studies was by staying late at the university and getting home after nine o'clock. She already has a job lined up at the hospital working with a Bedouin project that the centre has helped organise for her.

Amal, who wears traditional Muslim dress, said the main difficulty for her was making friends with other students. "Now I have many friends but I remember taking an Israeli Jewish girl to my village and she was scared to get out of the car in case she was set upon."

Dr Abu-Saad is aware that he must attract more Bedouin students onto courses other than nursing, social work and the humanities. Few Bedouin undergraduates study science and technology and there is only one engineering student.

But with further funds from Robert Arnow, the centre has embarked on a three-year university preparatory programme for high-school pupils concentrating on maths and physics. As part of this programme, Bedouin schoolchildren will be taken around laboratories to give them aspirations. "Often computers are completely new to these kids. We want to create the vision that they too could become the next Pasteur," said Dr Abu-Saad.

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