'A woman of integrity'

Israel's first-ever female principal of an Arab high school is bringing her students to new heights.

Samaher Zaina 88 224 (photo credit: Diana Bletter)
Samaher Zaina 88 224
(photo credit: Diana Bletter)
Samaher Zaina doesn't think twice before she starts her car each day, but she knows she probably should. When Zaina was first hired as principal of the Sheikh Danoon School in the Western Galilee in September 2003 - Israel's first-ever female principal of an Arab secondary school - her car was set on fire. In September 2007, her new car was sprayed with oil. Despite Zaina's impressive record - the school now has the highest number of Arab students graduating with full high-school matriculation in all of northern Israel - many in her school district still feel it's insulting that a woman serves as principal. Zaina's critics show their displeasure by vandalizing her car, circulating rumors about her and sending anonymous threatening letters, acts that are still under police investigation. Zaina recounts that when a visitor first came to the school, he saw her, looked around and asked, "What, they don't have any qualified men here in the village to run the school?" Yet Zaina, who is 38 years old and a mother of three, insists that nothing will stop her. "I think I'm a strong woman," she says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have survived. I'm on a mission and nothing can stop me." With her dark eyes and fragile, delicate features, she cuts an unlikely figure for breaking barriers. But since beginning work at the school, which serves the villages of Mazra, Arab el-Aramshe and Sheikh Danoon in the Mateh Asher Region, the number of students who complete full matriculation has jumped from approximately 60 percent to 85% - a figure more than double the average in Arab Israeli schools (34%). The number even exceeds that in most Jewish high schools (approximately 57%). Mateh Asher Regional Council Mayor Yehouda Shavit says that out of the six candidates who competed for the principal's job when the position became vacant, Zaina was the only woman. "In my mind, she was the perfect candidate for the principal's job, and she's proven herself," he says. "Her abilities as a leader and the way she connects to teachers and students are very impressive. But she's still a woman and because of that, she'll always face opposition." Zaina, who grew up in Acre, received her B.A. and Masters Degree from the University of Haifa. She worked as a guidance counselor at Sheikh Danoon high school for 10 years and was active in the school administration, but feels she is more effective sitting in the principal's chair. As a hands-on administrator, her office is the heart of the school, filled during the day with a stream of students, teachers, parents and staff. During lunch recess, she makes it a point to come outside and coax students to finish their sandwiches and get back to their classrooms once the bell rings. Zaina is passionate about everything in her school and is particularly keen on establishing relations between Arab and Jewish students in the area. She has pushed for the high school to offer a theater track, the first time the subject has been intensively taught in the Arab sector, so that her students can study with Jewish theater students from the neighboring Manor-Cabri High School. (Their end-of-the-year show is open to the public.) She encourages students to express themselves artistically and also has established tracks in the arts, communication and journalism. Her students also learn how to guide tours at the Beit Lohamei Hagetaot Holocaust Museum, leading their parents and other students through the museum. Several have gone on to other courses and continued to work there. Zaina has also organized Children of Peace - a joint theater project for her students and students from local Jewish schools, as well as a project on identity. "I want the Jewish students to meet their Arab contemporaries and see that they are not frightening, but rather they can be intelligent and optimistic," Zaina explains. She says discussions on identity can be thorny, especially when sensitive topics are raised. But Zaina, who wants to pursue a PhD in family therapy, believes that feelings must be aired in order to establish a dialogue. "In any dialogue, there's good and bad," she says. "Students cry and they get angry but we have to learn to listen to each other's feelings." When Zaina first began as principal, she says, there was no deep awareness of students' learning disabilities. She has since made an effort to reach out to students with ADD (attention deficit disorder), dyslexia, and other difficulties. "In the past, we let those children go," she says. "But I've worked with teachers and set up two new classes for weaker students in each grade." Many students who might have otherwise have dropped out are now staying in school, increasing [the school's] number of students to 700. She has also established double science tracks, which allow students who complete them to apply to medical school directly after high school. If it weren't for Zaina, says Fakhre Ali of the Arab el-Aramshe Beduin village, his son Khaled would not have even considered going to medical school when he graduated from Sheikh Danoon in 2004. But Ali says that Zaina gave his son so much encouragement and support that he is now in his fourth year of medical school in Germany. In fact, Khaled will become the village's first doctor. "Samaher convinced my son, who's very shy, that he could make something of himself," Ali says. As a member of the school's parents committee, Ali recounts that when Zaina was first hired, he had been apprehensive that a woman would not be able to handle the responsibility. "It was a little strange in the Arab sector for a woman to take on the job," Ali says. "Some people saw it as a bad thing. But slowly, people are starting to realize that it helps advance the role of Arab-Israeli women." He also says that because of Zaina, "the school is now one of the best Arab schools in all of Israel." Yet Zaina still battles traditional mindsets. She says that 99% of the school's students are secular - with only one or two girls in each grade wearing a hijab (head covering) - and they dress in the latest fashions. There is still a trend among girls, however, to sport an engagement ring before graduation, which is followed by a wedding. Zaina is planning an evening presentation for mothers of students at which she will discuss family violence and the importance of girls postponing marriage until they can establish careers. "The father might be the head of the household," she says, "but mothers still have the greatest influence over their daughters' fate," she says. Zaina cites her own mother as an example of a woman who pushed her children to succeed even though she wasn't educated herself. One of Zaina's brothers is a successful lawyer, two run a construction business and her sister teaches art and Hebrew and works as an education consultant. Her youngest brother, 18, runs a thriving pizza delivery business in Acre. "We were raised to fight for what we have," she says. Yoseph Moubarki, an English teacher in the school, calls Zaina a woman of integrity. He says that she maintains her honesty despite the challenges of working in a society that doesn't encourage women to lead institutions or head schools. He believes that people have finally accepted her. Zaina's husband, Dr. Adnan Zaina, an endocrinologist and diabetes specialist at Ramban Hospital and Clalit Outpatient Clinics, feels his wife must still battle to prove herself. "I'm very proud of her," he says. "But each day, she still faces a lot of difficulties. Yet she is very capable of being a real leader in our society." Zaina says she would like to help advance equality between Arabs and Jews within Israel. She explains that Arab Israelis are loyal to Israel - like the Jews of Israel, she says, "we have no other country." She hopes that one day she will see an Israeli flag that includes a symbol that Arabs can identify with, as well as a national anthem that speaks to them. "In order to feel in, we have to be in," she says. But she doesn't agree with Arab Israelis who keep complaining about what they lost. "Of course, we have a difficult reality," she says. "But it's in our hands to do something about it."