Harnessing the sun, empowering Beduin equality

NGO helps sick children in southern villages by providing solar generators for medical equipment.

beduin shepherd 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
beduin shepherd 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Fifteen minutes outside Beersheba, past the camels and the goats, where the roads are unpaved, lies the Beduin village of Um Bathin. Although officially recognized by the state in 2004, it still does not have basic utilities like electricity and running water. While some nicer houses are going up, much of the village lives in simple, no-frills housing. However, amid the dirt roads, makeshift huts and fences, an anomaly dots the village's skyline: a set of hi-tech solar panels. The panels power a generator in the home of Hassan Abu Kaf, that runs the machine his son needs to help deal with his acute sleep apnea. The solar energy generator was provided by Bustan, a social-environmental NGO that promotes cooperation between Jews and Arabs and specializes in improving the conditions and social equity of Beduin living in the Negev. In addition to its good works, Bustan's underlying political message is that the government should be providing for these citizens just like any others. While providing critical services, Bustan also attempts to shame the state into action. The group launched "The Children's Power Project" in conjunction with solar energy company Interdan three years ago, by providing three-year-old Inas al-Atrash with power to refrigerate her chemotherapy drugs after she was diagnosed with cancer. This week, Bustan installed four more units around the Negev and plans to install another four by June. They installed two units last year as well. Abu Kaf's explanation of his family's situation on Tuesday was simple and eloquent. "My son needs a machine to breathe at night. I can't afford to run the [gas-powered] generator all night, every night. I turned to the state's welfare units, but they wouldn't help me. I served a long time in the IDF and am partially disabled as a result. Thank you to Bustan for providing the means to treat my child," he said under the shade of a canopy outside his house. A bit further away from Beersheba on another dirt road is a village of huts. This is Kaser Elser, home of Ibrahim Hawashala and his children. Tamer Hawashala, eight, and his cousin Amina, 14, both suffer from SIPA, a defective gene linked to the spread of cancer in the body. One of Tamer's legs ends in a stump, and Amina is confined to a wheelchair because she has only one leg. According to Hawashala, only the side effects can be treated, but many medications are required to do so, and these need to be refrigerated. "They were hospitalized a lot, and during the last hospitalization, I discovered that some of the medications could be given at home. However, they need to be refrigerated," he said. "At first, someone offered to keep them in their office, but that was a kilometer-and-a-half walk away. Then Bustan gave us the generator to be able to run a refrigerator. You might think it's a small thing, but it has made the difference between hospitalizations three months long or home care," he said as he hosted the group of journalists and Bustan volunteers outside his home. According to Silman Abu Zaedi, a Bustan guide, there are 45 unrecognized villages totaling approximately 80,000 Israeli citizens. Some of the villages Bustan considers unrecognized have been formally acknowledged but still do not have basic services. "A village is 'recognized' when the institutions to administer it are in the village itself. When there are plans to build and infrastructure constructed. A paved road must provide access to the village, there must be a well-stocked health clinic, and not just Acamol, and a pediatrician on hand," Abu Zeidi stated in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post. Even according to these not-so-stringent criteria, none of the villages the Post visited on Tuesday would pass. Back at Um Bathin, Gil Nezer of Interdan explained the challenge of constructing solar energy generators according to the requirements of the villagers and Bustan. "We had to construct units for houses we had never seen before, and we had to make them movable," Nezer said. If a child recovers from his or her illness, like Inas al-Atrash, Bustan moves the unit to another family with a sick child. "We also had to make sure it was usable by people" who were not specialized technicians, he said. The generator itself is about three feet by two feet and sits quietly in a case in the corner of the room. It is locked with a key that Abu Kaf keeps elsewhere so the children don't get into it. Wires run all over the house and outside to power the family's lights and appliances. Nezer said the generator actually produced a situation in which the sick child was contributing something that benefited the family - a change from the usual situation in which the ill child uses up all the family's resources to fight his disease. The solar panels point south toward the sun and are shatterproof, just in case any mischievous children decide to throw a rock or two at it, Nezer said. Each unit costs about NIS 50,000. Most parts last at least 25-30 years, and only the batteries need occasional replacing. They are also low-maintenance and only require servicing about twice a year. The trip on Tuesday also included a look at Wadi al-Naam, which sits about a kilometer and a half from the Ramat Hovav Industrial Park, across an empty field, and abuts the Electric Company's turbine plant. In 2003, Bustan built a health clinic out of mud and straw which served the community for a year and a half until the government replaced it with an official one. Ironically, although the village is adjacent to a giant power plant, the huts scattered on the surrounding hills do not receive any electricity. Wadi al-Naam is home to about 6,000 people and is in negotiations to be moved away from Ramat Hovav's and the power plant's pollution. Haj Ibrahim, a local resident, said the village had a 45-percent higher cancer rate than average, as well as significantly increased numbers of miscarriages and asthma cases. "People used to send their children here from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to help treat their asthma. Now we have a very high rate of asthma sufferers," Haj Ibrahim noted wryly. But throughout the Negev, a few generators at a time, Bustan is making a difference in children's lives.