The pioneering spirit that imbued Israel’s founders, has energized creative Israeli minds in many fields and netted the country’s “start-up nation” moniker is budding among the country’s Beduin population.
“An entrepreneur’s job is to do new things, and people thank you. If they tell you that you are crazy, then you are on the right track,” says Ibrahim Nsasra. Over the past 15 years, Nsasra, 36, has created businesses designed primarily for Beduin in Israel’s south.
“No one told me I would succeed,” says Nsasra, recalling the day in 2011 that he launched the Armonot HaNegev Catering Company.
Today, it employs 80 Beduin women who prepare 10,500 lunches a day for children at 20 Beduin schools in the Negev.
In communities facing challenges that appear overwhelming, individual initiatives can make a substantial difference. These people know the challenges first hand, but also understand how to navigate the political and cultural obstacles both inside and outside their communities.
“The life of an entrepreneur is not simple,” says Nsasra. “To succeed, one needs to think outside the box, to be glued to your goals and consistent.”
When we met during his recent visit to New York, his enthusiasm and will to succeed as an innovative entrepreneur were clear.
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The 240,000 Negev Beduin have long lagged behind the rest of Israel’s Arab citizens.
In 2014, only 30% of Beduin completed the 12th grade and earned a matriculation certificate, compared with 46% of Israeli Arab students and 71% of Jewish students. And only 4.9% of Beduin were studying in higher education institutions, as compared with 8.4% of Arab citizens generally.
With 70% of Negev Beduin under age 21, education is critical for employment and successful careers. But as of 2014, the employment rates of Beduin men and women were 56% and 24% respectively, compared with 80% and 35% of all Israeli Arab citizens.
Only recently did the Israeli government begin to try to address the problems facing the country’s Beduin citizens in a systematic way. Government Resolution 2397, adopted in February 2017, is a groundbreaking fouryear socioeconomic development plan providing NIS 3 billion for Negev Beduin.
Nsasra, however, did not wait for the government or a private benefactor to come forward.
“From my father I learned responsibility,” he says, recalling the many weekends he spent as a child with his father talking about life and ambition as they tended the family’s herd of 200 sheep.
Nsasra graduated with a BA degree from Kaye College in Beersheba. The school trains Jews and Beduin from the region to be teachers, but soon after graduation Nsasra determined that a career as an educator was not a good fit for him.
He founded his first business, Lahav Tours, in 2002, to provide local transportation for Beduin with disabilities. The demand surpassed his initial expectations, and today, the company has 180 vehicles and more than 200 employees.
His latest venture is The Tamar Center, a nonprofit based in Beersheba that works to bridge gaps between the Beduin and Jewish societies.
“I believe in order to attract partners, my responsibility to invest creates success,” says Nsasra, who made an initial investment of $250,000 to launch the Center in 2015.
For high school students, the Tamar Center’s “excellence in science” program offers supplemental education primarily in math, physics, chemistry and English, subject areas that until now Beduin have not engaged, but that are important for higher education and future careers. The center also assists students in navigating the process of application to college or university, and choosing a field of study. This year 384 high school students are participating in Tamar programs.
So far, the ministries of agriculture, social equality and education, as well as a number of foundations, have provided funding to the Tamar Center.
“Through contributions of partners we will be able to help hundreds, even thousands, of Beduin students succeed in their studies,” says Nsasra. “This is our initiative, it is grass roots, and we are taking responsibility.”
He hopes some graduates may be inspired to become entrepreneurs, too.
“Encouraging more Beduin entrepreneurs is very important,” says Nsasra. “They will be innovators. This is important not just for Beduin society, but for Israel – and for the world.”
Thinking of his next project, Nsasra has announced his candidacy for mayor of Lakiya, the Beduin town of 18,000 where he grew up and lives with his wife and four children.
“I want to be in a very impactful position in Beduin society, be in a position of more influence, and be a model of responsibility for Beduin society and Israeli society,” says Nsasra.
If successful, Nsasra will be showing that education and business acumen in the Beduin community are today stronger than family ties and agricultural activity, the traditional sources of power.
Based on his energy, vision and success so far, Nsasra certainly intends to win in the October municipal elections.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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