Changing gears

Will cycling clubs for at-risk youth catch on in the Beduin sector?

bike 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bike 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few of Israel's thousands of youth at risk can cycle for fun out in nature, but the Israel Cycling Federation is helping to make that privilege more widely available. While competitive sports receive government funding, popular cycling activities do not. The ICF estimates that only 500-700 children take part in after-school cycling events, compared (for example) to the 13,000-16,000 who take judo classes. Not all parents can afford to buy a bicycle and helmet for their children, chauffeur them to and from events, and pay the monthly activity fees. A growing number of the well-to-do cycle for leisure, and cycling is a means of transport for messengers, green-minded individuals, and foreign workers. But Wing of Love and the ICF, as well as the British charity One-to-One Israel, believe that cycling could also become a widespread educational and vocational tool. And bike therapy would be much more attractive to aggressive teenagers than art therapy, music therapy or psychotherapy. Eyal Hershtik is making this idea work. A cycling instructor who knows that cycling can motivate youth at risk, he left his job at Hewlett Packard last September to devote himself full-time to start up and direct the ICF's "Bikes For All" program (www.bikes4all.org.il). The ICF has taken on Hershtik's project, which aims to put youth at risk all around Israel on two wheels, out in nature and out of trouble. Hershtik harnessed support from politicians (including Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i (Labor) and MKs Gilad Erdan (Likud) and Ronit Tirosh of Kadima), local companies, volunteers and local authorities. He established a seven-month course to qualify cycling instructors to run Bikes For All in all parts of the country. He also arranged sponsorship to cover the expense of this training for those he knew would use it to promote the project. Amir el-Hawashlah, of the el-Hawashlah Beduin community near Dimona, is a graduate of this course. Working with Yossi Levin, an MA student in Middle Eastern studies and a keen cyclist, Hawashlah set up the first cycling club in the Abu Basma region with 15 bicycles donated by the Neviot bottled water company. Odeh Abu Sabiyakh, principal of the regional school at Abu Krinat, helped choose the 14-year-old boys with learning and social difficulties who are now taking part in the cycling club. Sixty percent of the Negev's Beduin population are unemployed, 62% are under the age of 18, and one out of every two children lives below the poverty line, Khir Albaz, head of the welfare department of Segev Shalom Regional Council, informed the audience at a conference last year at Ben-Gurion University. He compared the rich and varied after-school activities available to Jewish children to the unstructured after-school boredom of the average Beduin child. A large number of Beduin youth are "at risk," by every criterion. A few months after the conference, I accompanied Boaz Miller, the director of the Wing of Love rehabilitation center for youth at risk, on a visit to Dr. Majid el-Atounah, head of the welfare department of the Abu Basma Regional Council, to discuss a professional training program for Beduin youth at risk that could fit into their culture. However, another exciting project grew up out of the dust of our drive through the desert. I told Tal Horesh-Blitt, a social worker on Atounah's team at Abu Basma, about a cycling project at the Wing of Love park at Kfar Menahem in which disadvantaged Jewish boys in full-time care spend one afternoon a week on challenging bike rides in the nearby hills. "It could generate positive role models for the teenagers," I went on, optimistically, "as well as physical fitness, ecological awareness, mechanical skills, and eventually even a few new jobs in the area. This activity can particularly help youth who have failed in the classroom by enabling them to enjoy success, develop new interests, and engage in a healthy sport." The social workers were immediately interested. The new Beduin cycling club will run along the lines of Eyal Hevroni's Beit Shemesh cycling club, where Jews and Arabs develop discipline, physical fitness, and cooperation during challenging rides. The club is supported by One-to-One Israel and The Abraham Fund, as well as by community volunteers and local businesses. In addition to riding, 16 youngsters have completed a 30-hour cycling mechanics course. For most, the course was their first vocational training, and some are putting their skills to work in bike shops. One-to-One Israel supports the Wing of Love cycling project as well as nine other after-school cycling activities for youth at risk. Some 200 disadvantaged youths take part in these regular cycling activities, including many immigrant teenagers from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, as well as Druse children. Will the activity that is flourishing in Beit Shemesh and developing in a different direction at Wing of Love catch on among the desert Beduin? After taking the Bikes for All instructors' course, Hawashlah found that he needed to change gears and think about bicycles in new ways. He was surprised to find that bikes could be more than a means for getting from one place to another. He knows that the Beduin community will also have to change gears a bit to grasp the bicycle's educational and vocational potential before they support cycling events as an after-school activity and a sport. The coming months will show whether the One-to-One, Wing of Love, and Bikes For All cycling models for youth at risk will bear the same fruit in the desert. If the project works, and this is still a big "if," Beduin cycling clubs - providing after-school education as well as cheap and healthy transport - could sprout throughout the desert like flowers after the rain. Michele Klein is a volunteer at the Wing of Love non-profit organization, which works to rehabilitate youth at risk, and at Bikes For All: [email protected]