Engineering a future for Beduin youth

Engineering a future for

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
September 19, 2009 03:18

As a little girl in Tel Sheva, the first of Israel's planned Beduin villages, Sihan Aljallad dreamed of studying in a university, maybe one day becoming a doctor. But as one of 21 children in a family with few resources and even fewer professional role models, it seemed likely the little girl's dream would remain exactly that. Myuassar Abo Sbeitan also grew up in Tel Sheva, home to 13,000 Beduin, just east of Beersheba. A middle child in a family of eight with a widowed mother, Abo Sbeitan's dream of earning a college degree seemed unlikely, too. If nothing else, financing such a venture would take a miracle. Other issues - daily transportation from the village, buying books and a computer - not to mention the biggest problem of all, getting admitted to an Israeli college - made the notion seem impossible. When only 43% of Tel Sheva's youth were managing to graduate from high school, what chance did a girl have of going to college? Yet today both young women are successful second-year students studying chemical engineering at Sami Shamoon College of Engineering (SCE). Nor are Aljallad and Abo Sbeitan alone. This year, 39 young Beduin men and women are in their first or second years of engineering studies at SCE. It all started with another Beduin, Kher Albaz, who also had a dream. Ask Albaz what he does, and he'll tell you he's a social worker, which indeed he is. Among other titles, Albaz is the director of social services for Negev Beduin in the Segev-Shalom Council. But ask anyone who knows him, and they'll tell you Albaz functions just as readily as teacher, advocate, fundraiser, counselor, administrator, father-figure, cheerleader, occasional disciplinarian and all-round problem-solver. Whatever it takes to pair young Beduin with higher education, that's what Albaz does. The driving force behind Albaz was helping Beduin find a way out of the vicious cycle of poverty where so many languish. "I was lucky enough to have had very special parents," Albaz says. "They were committed to seeing that their children - all 21 of us - were educated. Nine of my sisters are teachers, a brother is a doctor, several siblings are engineers, and others serve in other professions. For a way out of poverty, higher education is it." Albaz, who now holds an MBA as well as a master's degree in social work, struggled mightily for his own education. "I was the oldest kid - I went first," he laughs. "When I was earning my first degree at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beduin weren't eligible for any scholarships. So as a married man with two children, I paid my own way, driving taxis, trucks and buses. It was very difficult. Once I got out, my goal was to find a way to help other young Beduin avoid all the problems I'd faced." As it happened, David Begleiter, dean of students at SCE, was entertaining a dream of his own. "I wanted to raise the number of engineers in the Beduin community," Begleiter recalls. He hoped to bring them to study at SCE. "I couldn't do it myself," he continues. "I needed someone within the Beduin community to make it work. Kher Albaz's name kept coming up, and after we met, he agreed to become SCE's special adviser for the Negev Beduin Engineers Project. Kher took my idea and closed the gap between my dream and reality." In theory, the Beduin Engineers Project sounds simple enough: Over a three-year period, find, recruit and retain 100 Beduin to study engineering. Making it happen, however, turned out to be anything but simple. Finding appropriate Beduin students, allaying the fears of both parents and students, then tutoring the students to prepare them for college and finding the money to pay for it all - not to mention bridging the cultural gaps to make it socially acceptable within the Beduin community for young people to study at SCE - were the big issues. But even today, what might be thought of as smaller issues still crop up. Keeping the dream fulfilled still takes most of Albaz's time. Albaz dismisses out of hand the notion that Beduin parents don't want their sons - let alone daughters - to leave home to get an education. "That's a stereotype," he says. "That's the way the world looks at the Beduin: 'The Beduin don't value education; it's a low priority with them; Beduin won't send their kids away; they won't allow female students to leave home.' None of that is true. Right now, Beduin send their kids to Eastern Europe, to Japan, Germany and America to study, and they're paying big bucks for the privilege. They're doing it because they want their children to get a good education. The problem isn't that Beduin don't want their children educated. It's that very few Beduin young people qualify for higher education in Israel, and most Beduin families can't afford to send them abroad." One of Albaz's own sons studies computer science in Jordan. "He's in Jordan because with his Beduin education, his academic qualifications weren't high enough to get him into a university here. There are no scholarships in Jordan, so it's all out of my pocket. I'm facing the same dilemma as any other Beduin parent. My son wanted to study computer science, but couldn't do it in Israel. So do we tell him, 'Find something else to study?' Or do I pay? I decided I'd support him whatever he wanted to do. But I have a full-time job. I can do it. Can you imagine how difficult it is for Beduin parents who aren't fully employed to have to tell their son or daughter who wants to go to college that they can't go? That's a really bad feeling." Stereotypes aren't confined to Beduin parents, Albaz adds. "There's the other side of that stereotype, too. When I first started, I had to deal with people who refused to believe we'd be able to attract Beduin students to come. Even fewer of them believed we'd get Beduin women to study engineering. 'Forget it,' they said. 'Women won't come. They won't stay.' Right now we have 39 Beduin already enrolled and a great many more preparing to start. A third are women. That disproves both stereotypes." Not that it was easy. "It took a huge effort to get the first students in," Albaz recalls. "I was in personal contact with all the parents, meeting, talking, working with both them and the student to overcome all the objections. One of the big problems was that the students felt inadequate. 'Engineering? That's not for me,' they'd say. 'I came from a low-quality school. I'm not good enough, not smart enough. I can't do it.' That's defeatism, a vicious psychological problem, overlaid with a lack of hope. They needed assurance that with the proper preparation, they were capable of doing the work and graduating." Clearly additional pre-college preparation was necessary. Albaz designed a remedial education plan to make sure the Beduin students entered SCE at the same academic level as other students. "It's important to know that SCE categorically refused to compromise the quality of the education or the value of the degree. We have no intention of creating bad engineers - after all, we drive across bridges, too. So if no compromise on quality was permitted, then it was the Beduin students we had to bring up to par," he explains. "We created a pre-college course, up to a year, where Beduin study until they're as academically qualified as anyone else. Then we established a system of ongoing academic support. Each student has a one-on-one relationship with a third- or fourth-year student, special mentors for all the subjects they didn't have in high school - mathematics, physics, chemistry, all the sciences plus English. We arranged small groups to offer practical help and peer support. We teach them how to study for college, how to use computers, the library, how to write papers, how to start thinking like a college student, which is a very different mind-set than anything they've experienced before. With all that in place, the 'I can't compete' fear diminished." That brought up the next issue: Would it be worth it? "'Okay, I'm capable of graduating,' they'd say. 'But I'm not sure I can get a job. Hi-tech jobs will be closed to me. No one will want to hire me,'" says Albaz. "So right away, we began working to match possible employers with students. We will try our best, we say. It's not a promise, but we will do our best." With the parents, a basic lack of trust was the problem. "The Beduin have been ignored for years," Albaz notes. "Now I come to them with this program and the parents say, 'Your promises are great, but who knows what will happen? Does it really exist? Will it continue?' So I make parents partners in the whole process. I tell them, 'Look, there's a college here that has opened its doors to you. The president is committed, the staff is committed. We're raising money for the scholarships, for academic support and transportation. But you have to work with us. Then we can make it work.' That helps, but how long does it take to build trust? A long time." How to pay for the education was always the big question, according to Albaz. "Virtually all of these students come from families who rank very low on the economic scale. They haven't much to contribute," he says. "So SCE designed a business plan, setting out what we intended to do, the benefits that would accrue and how much financing was needed. We've been very lucky. We found many generous people around the world who wanted to help, especially among the French and Americans." Full multi-year scholarships are available, but not quite free. The students have to earn the privilege. "We're creating engineers, but we also intend to create leaders," asserts Albaz. "Each student is required to contribute 120 hours of volunteer work in their own community. They go back to their own or neighboring villages to work on some project, which, for us, is a key concept. We want the students to remain connected to their environment. We want them to remain as part of the general community, serving as leaders and role models for the next generation." With the big elements - scholarships, remedial education and defeatism - resolved, you'd think the rest would fall into place. "Not at all," Albaz says. "One of the biggest issues was to make sure the Beduin students who come here, to this Israeli institution, would feel welcome. It's not that we expected any actual rejection of Beduin by the Jewish students - that's not it. Instead, it's something the Beduin feel. There's always that sense that they're different, not a part of the real community. The women dress differently. They face different problems in all kinds of daily life situations, like having spending money, dealing with transportation problems, living very far from the campus. Most of the time they don't have a lot of the things the better-off Jewish students have. Overall, it's more of an emotional thing, another kind of fear, that of being different." The staff at SCE led the way in solving that problem, doing everything possible to ensure all the students felt welcome. "This is a very communal college anyway. For all students, SCE feels like family. But toward the Beduin especially, everyone, staff and students alike, went out of their way to be kind, helpful and welcoming," Albaz says. "It's real, too, not just a show," he adds, mentioning several warm relationships that have developed among staff members and the Beduin. "One staff member here collects little frogs, little knickknacks, just for fun. One of our students admired them, and the next time she saw a little frog at the market she bought it and gave it to the lady. It was just a small gift, but she said, 'I just felt like giving you something because you're always so helpful to me.'" Still, other issues loom. All SCE students live off campus because there are no dorms, but for the Beduin, renting an apartment in Beersheba is too expensive. "That means they travel to and from their villages every day, many of them from a considerable distance," says Albaz. "There is no public transportation because in most locations, public buses don't come into Beduin villages. We had to make other arrangements. Some of the local councils help by paying for transportation, but in places, that help has disappeared. We arranged shared buses, but even the cost of NIS 20 a day is more than students can afford. Then, too, sometimes students have to stay late. How will they get home? Especially for the women, that's a problem." Computers are also an issue. "So far, we haven't been successful in raising enough money to see that each student has a laptop. A computer here is a tool, not a game. It's something you need to do your daily work. But many Beduin come from villages that don't have electricity. They need a good laptop with a long-lasting battery. We're still about $10,000 short on that project," he says. One issue that has been resolved is food away from home. "Some can't afford to eat at the cafeteria, so we have a list of students with food vouchers, an agreement with the cafeteria," Albaz explains. "The student picks up his food just like anyone else. It's all prepaid. No one knows, there's no embarrassment. But each student gets one hot meal a day. That's important." Another thing to keep in mind is that these are teenagers, he says. "They're at an age when appearances matter. Almost every week, someone asks me if I can help with something - just a few shekels - for clothing or other personal expenses. It's really hard to raise money for that kind of thing. I'm still trying. But if we could free a student from worrying about that kind of social pressure, it would help. They're in classes with young Jews who tend to dress very well. It's an issue. I remember being that age. I sympathize." To deal with the myriad situations that confront the Beduin, Albaz has established regular counseling hours. "I invite individuals, but for the most part, they all come," he says. "It's a chance to talk informally - how they're doing, what family issues have come up, whatever else is going on. I've been successful in helping a few of them find some extra work - one works in the library here, others in security. A little bit of extra income helps." A less obvious problem is how to help the Beduin students straddle two very different cultures. "In the morning, they leave a highly conservative and closed community. When they get to school, they walk into a very free and open society," Albaz points out. "College is like learning a whole new way of life. Everything is different - the way men and women interact, the way you approach others, social norms between equals, issues of respect to elders. At home, a child owes complete respect to his father, no matter what the father says or does. But in school, the student has to learn to challenge authority, to question. "Then, too, Beduin society is totally communal. Everyone is in charge of everyone else. You can't just act or talk the way you want. But they come here, and we expect them to be individuals. They need to learn to defend their own points of view. That's a real challenge, one they have to master in a very short time - and then switch back and forth, morning and evening." Not that it's easy for the Beduin parents, either. "Suddenly there are differences in the way their child thinks and looks at things," says Albaz. "Mothers and daughters don't relate in quite the same way anymore. Sons have to learn to cope without damaging their formal position in the family. As the student becomes educated, a change takes place: The children become the teachers and the parents become the students. Dealing with social life back home is a very big issue." Albaz says he thinks of each Beduin student as his own. "We're two years in now, and by this time, everyone in the Beduin community knows about this program. We don't have to do much recruitment anymore. Now we focus on keeping the students we have in the program. I'll do whatever it takes to keep them, but not even that always works." Still, he says, the program has had some great successes. "One student came from a very difficult family situation and started with very low academic achievement. We weren't at all sure it would work. But then something just clicked. In an incredibly short time, he just jumped ahead. Now he's one of our best students. "But we've seen the other side, too," he adds. "We've had to ask a few to leave. We tried everything - they tried. But it didn't fit their personality, it wouldn't work." Even for those who make it, there's plenty of heartbreak. "One student came to me in tears," Albaz recalls. "She just couldn't come up with the daily money for transportation, she said. What she needed was NIS 5 more - NIS 5! She told me how it hurt her to ask her mother, because she knew she was taking something away from her younger brothers and sisters. That was one I solved. I approached several families and arranged some monthly support. "That's not a unique story by any means. Sometimes I sit with these kids and see them crying like babies - the coping process is almost overwhelming. But these kids are like my kids - what else can I do?" Ultimately none of these growing pains will matter, Albaz says. "Two-and-a-half years ago, there were no Beduin students here. Today there are 39, and many more in the pipeline. Thanks to the great Sami Shamoon, to President [Jehuda] Haddad, to the staff and our generous donors, in two years there will be 100 Beduin students here," he declares. "Israel needs to find a way to educate all our young people right here at home. Higher education ought to be just as available to Beduin as anyone else. We shouldn't have to send our young people abroad to study. I dream of the day when all Israeli academic institutions will be as welcoming to the Beduin as SCE is today."


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