Native son clings to dream of turning Rahat into a green Beduin city

BGU students, local volunteers enlist to help Ahmed Amrani change the face of his run-down town.

ahmed amrani rahat 248 88 (photo credit: DANIELLA CHESLOW)
ahmed amrani rahat 248 88
(photo credit: DANIELLA CHESLOW)
There's not a single playground in all of Rahat, the Negev's second-largest city. There's only one park - a small expanse of uncut grass opposite the only community center. There's garbage strewn in almost every empty lot and down the sides of the wadis. A city of 42,000 people, mostly Beduin, parts of it look like the townships of South Africa. Shacks are stuck in the middle of what was supposed to be a country club - but plans have been stalled for the last 15 years, so the squatters have moved in. Rahat was established in 1972 as part of a government program to permanently settle the previously nomadic Beduin. Thirty-seven years later, however, the city is struggling. Housing is uniformly poor and utilitarian, the municipality is buried under mounds of debt, and the majority of the population lives below the poverty line, surviving on National Insurance payments. Most of the young people who succeed move away to bigger and better opportunities elsewhere. Except one. Ahmed Amrani, a balding 29-year-old native son, has a vision for his dilapidated city. Better educated than most city residents, with a BA in business management and trained as a journalist, he left to pursue his education but returned afterwards because "I love my city," he told The Jerusalem Post this week during a private tour ahead of Rahat's first environmental conference. Amrani is the founder of Green Rahat, the only environmental organization in the city, a small group of "about 40 volunteers." Their biggest project so far - turning a kindergarten's backyard into a community garden. As a testament to how difficult things are in Rahat, when Amrani showed this reporter the garden, he was at pains to even point out the improvements they had made. They painted the walls, used old tires to create a climbing toy for the kids and roofed two sand patches to become sand boxes. And, of course, they organized local residents to come and periodically pick up all the trash that piles up in the yard. However, Amrani has been moving up in the world. The new mayor, Sheikh Faiz Abu Seheban, appointed him as his chief of staff shortly after his election last year and Amrani has used his new position to champion a green vision for the city. But what does a cash-strapped municipality do if it needs expert advice? Who will justify the expense of hiring a professional environmental urban planner? Instead, Amrani turned to Ben-Gurion University Prof. Alon Tal. The two met when Amrani wanted to register Green Rahat with Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental organizations in Israel, which is chaired by Tal. They struck up a friendship and when Amrani saw an opportunity, he turned to Tal. A professor in the Mitrani Department of Dryland Ecology at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at BGU, Tal is one of Israel's foremost environmental activists. He founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense nearly 20 years ago, went on to help found the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and is the co-founder of the Green Movement - the environmental movement's political arm. Tal answered Amrani's plea by assigning the students in his Environmental Policy: The Role of The Local Authority course with tackling different aspects of Rahat's environmental issues and building a plan to address them. On Monday, the students presented their plans to municipality representatives, who can use them as a basis for an environmental master plan for the city. As Amrani pointed out the various challenges in his city before the meeting, he outlined what he saw as the major goals. "Our biggest problem is garbage and waste. See there, the wadis are filled with it and the empty lots along the streets are, too," he said. There's lots of open space in Rahat, but none of it green and none of it well cared for, he noted. In fact, aside from a few houses with some plants and bushes, there are practically no grass or trees in the city. A row of palm trees had been planted a few months before, their beauty especially stark against the otherwise barren landscape. There are different levels of environmentalism - shades of green, if you will. In some cities, recycling infrastructure is all the rage, with cages for collecting bottles, bins for newspapers, and even organic matter composters. But those are dreams for a city like Jerusalem, where new housing complexes regularly include small green areas with playgrounds for kids. In Rahat, environmentalism is about basic quality of life: Cleaning the garbage off the streets, building sidewalks on both sides of the road. It's providing every resident with even just a little bit of green through a neighborhood park or, more ambitiously, a KKL/JNF plan to create a metropolitan park at the mouth of the Grar Stream, which would be rehabilitated from its current polluted state. To get a sense of the task ahead, each of the student groups toured the city and met with various local people and academic experts. The five groups tackled issues such as rehabilitating the Grar Stream, creating an environmental unit for the area, garbage and recycling, open spaces, and environmental education. The groups developed plans with a level of detail that included mapping out locations for recycling containers to be placed or concrete suggestions for creating neighborhood green corners. "This was my first planning project," urban planning Masters student Asaf Rosensweig told the Post. "We tried to take into account specific factors like Beduin culture, gender issues, and the clans who run the neighborhoods, the Beduin concept of space and the desert landscape in our plan for open spaces." "We decided to suggest developing green spaces within the neighborhoods which would each be controlled by a different clan rather than a larger municipal park because there are already lots of land disputes about which clan owns what territory," Rosensweig said. The environmental education group proposed plans for encouraging local involvement and raising awareness. Half of Rahat's population is under 18 and enrolled in school. Similarly, the group which examined the KKL plan for the Grar Stream also strongly urged community involvement on all levels. All of the plans cost money, which the municipality lacks at the moment, but the students did suggest ways to raise the funds, such as outside philanthropy and charging certain fees. While Amrani said that environmental issues rank very low on the list of priorities of the people of Rahat, he said the mayor was receptive to his ideas. It is too early to say whether this project will remain a student exercise or form the basis for something more. But Amrani is determined not to let his city sink into the desert, but rather to give the next generation the green childhood he never had.