First Israeli government-sponsored Bedouin daycare opened

The center has two goals: to provide a safe care environment for children, and to enable Bedouin mothers to work outside the home

THE CHILDREN enjoy activities such as natural arts and crafts. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE CHILDREN enjoy activities such as natural arts and crafts.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Najach Rustum is a nursery school aide in her Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj, about halfway between Beersheba and Sde Boker. Until recently, she had difficulty finding reliable care for her two-year-old daughter, the youngest of her six children.
“I was constantly switching caregivers, and sometimes I had to take her with me. If she was sick, I didn’t go to work,” Rustum says. “I always wanted a nice daycare where I could take her.”
Her wish came true when Israel’s first government-sponsored daycare center for Bedouin children opened in November. Run in partnership with the Kehilla social-welfare nonprofit organization from Beit Shemesh-based Kibbutz Tamuz, the center is heavily subsidized.
It has two goals: To provide a safe care environment for Bedouin children from the age of three months to three years – who are ordinarily at home or in substandard care environments until they’re old enough for preschool – and to enable more Bedouin mothers like Rustum to work outside the home, pursue an education or at least focus on other responsibilities from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“The local council says 90% of the women in Bir Hadaj stay home – I think it’s more like 70% – because they don’t have job opportunities,” says Orli Isralowitz Avitboul, director of the daycare.
“So they’re home, and the kids are home until free education begins at age three. The solution to get these women more opportunities is to open a daycare just like they have in other places in Israel.”
For the minority that is employed, like Rustum, the options were meager and unsafe.
“In small sheds across Bir Hadaj, they have ‘daycares’ with no windows, no toilets, and 18 kids with two caregivers. It’s just crazy,” says Avitboul.
The sparkling new center provides what most Israelis consider basics but Bedouin families would never expect: trained caregivers; indoor plumbing; proper mattresses and blankets; age-appropriate toys, games and educational materials; an outdoor play area; and meals prepared by a cook.
The structure was built by the government three years ago, but it stood empty and was frequently vandalized. Nobody could or would manage it until Kehilla took on the project.
Avner Yisraeli of Kehilla explains that the urban kibbutz established the nonprofit organization in 1996 to develop projects in Jewish pluralism, social welfare and dialogue among different populations in Israel.
“We made a daycare here [on Kibbutz Tamuz] 30 years ago, and we assumed everyone had one available wherever they live. But for people who don’t have a lot of money, it’s not a given,” says Yisraeli.
“So we started helping other groups establish daycare centers like ours. In the past six years, the government is giving money for building them. But if your municipality isn’t organized well, you can’t access the funds.”
Kehilla general manager Yair Alberton went from one municipality to another to explain what was available from the government and how to get it. These efforts bore fruit in the form of 20 new daycare centers in under served Jewish communities.
THE DAYCARE in Bir Hadaj is the first in an Arab community that Kehilla took under its wing. Yisraeli says only 2% of Arab kids are in daycare compared to 25% in the rest of Israel.
“Lots of daycares were built in the past three years,” says Yisraeli.
“But just building a daycare center doesn’t assure people will send their children or overcome other organizational problems. In Bir Hadaj it’s not easy. The parents are used to not paying for childcare, and it’s hard for the municipality to help us find a solution.”
Headhunting a director proved the biggest stumbling block. “We thought in the beginning that an Arab would be better to run it,” says Yisraeli. “We interviewed women in Bir Hadaj, but none had the right qualifications, so we tried to find someone qualified who was willing come to the middle of the Negev. In the end, we found Orli. She lives close by on Kibbutz Revivim, and they have connections with Bir Hadaj. Orli brought the good spirit and the will to do things. She’s doing a wonderful job.”
Avitboul, a mother of three children aged seven, six and two, has experience working with babies and youth. Just as critical were her 30 years of living next to Bir Hadaj.
“Revivim always had a relationship with Bir Hadaj, positive and negative. I felt if I could give something to raise the level even a bit, it could help,” she says. “I saw it as a patriotic, pioneering job.”
When she first came to see the daycare building last June, she found that all the windows and bathroom fixtures had been smashed by local men hoping to be paid protection money.
“The next day I took a deep breath and started interviewing women to work here,” says Avitboul.
About 20 women from the village of 10,000 residents had the proper credentials in order to be interviewed. Many more had applied.
“If I would put up a sign that we’re hiring, I’d have 100 more women,” Avitboul says. “They’re looking for work every day. They want to come and clean or garden, anything to earn money.”
Says Yisraeli, “One of the good things in Bir Hadaj is there are willing workers. They want to be part of Israel and they should be. We just have to give them a hand.”
Avitboul hired nine caregivers and five backup caregivers, all women who speak Arabic and Hebrew and have a childcare certificate from a course that runs for a few months.
The staff began the cleanup and fix-up process even before bureaucratic approvals were in place to pay their salaries.
“They trusted me,” says Avitboul. “In Bir Hadaj, the main value is respect. When I respect them, they respect me back.”
It became obvious that these women also were grateful for the social outlet. Many would stay after work, talking and laughing together. “Most of the women in Bir Hadaj are home all day and don’t even know their own ID number, because everything is done for them by the men. It’s different than Rahat or Segev Shalom, which are cities. Women in those places are more independent,” says Avitboul.
THE ROAD to the November opening was quite bumpy. At first, there was continued vandalism.
“I had to get myself involved in local politics to get the support of the most respected people in the settlement to deal with this problem,” says Avitboul. “I went into every tent they sent me to. I sat and had tea and explained I need their support for the daycare because babies are often in danger at home from cooking fires and sheep and cars. And I explained that if children get an early education, they have a valuable foundation for the rest of their lives. Now I have political backing from the village. They have discouraged vandalism, so I don’t think it will happen again.”
The official dedication of the center in December was attended by officials from the Neve Midbar Regional Council who have been actively involved in supporting the project.
Funding is an ongoing challenge. The actual cost per child is NIS 2,000 per month. Nobody can afford full tuition. Some of the families consist of two or three wives and lots of children, with nearly no income.
“About 90% of the kids in the Bir Hadaj daycare are in the welfare system,” says Avitboul.
Those families get tuition subsidies determined by the regional welfare authorities. For employed families, the tuition subsidy is determined by the Labor Ministry. “In families where both parents work, they can’t get help from welfare. Every day I’m trying to maximize the help I can get for these families,” says Avitboul. “Cooperation leads to results.”
Yisraeli would like to see the daycare center come under the aegis of the Education Ministry. “Kehilla is part of a political coalition – Education from Birth – that wants to make daycare free for everybody because we feel Israel should take care of all kids from the day they are born.”
As it stands now, families with children in the Bir Hadaj daycare center pay from NIS 100 to NIS 700 per month. Avitboul believes that if the cost were capped at NIS 500, “the place will be packed.”
The current enrollment includes 11 babies ages three months to one year, nine toddlers from ages one to two, and 16 two- and three-year-olds. “I want to gather another 35 kids,” says Avitboul.
An educational adviser comes every two weeks to guide the caregivers in developing the daily schedule. “The women we hired do know how to take care of kids, but they do not have the educational part,” says Avitboul.
The children enjoy activities such as natural arts and crafts. They are taken out for a walk every day. “When we walk by, with the babies in their group carriage, people come out and gawk at them like they fell from the moon,” says Avitboul. “All of this is very new here.”
For Rustum, the daycare center is a lifesaver.
“Thank God for the ma’on,” she says, using the Hebrew word for daycare. “I can go to work every day with my mind at ease. My daughter is very happy there and loves the caregivers. When I come to pick her up at four, she doesn’t even want to leave.”