Sunday, June 9, 2019

The inspiring story behind the innovative founder of A New Dawn in the Negev

How a quiet student, bullied for his glasses, became an active and visionary leader in his community, the Bedouin city of Rahat.

By Oliver Vrankovic

Oliver Vrankovic's Profile Photo, Image may contain: 1 person

Original article in German here

Jamal Alkirnawi went to school in Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the world. Rahat in the Israeli Negev Desert has more than 62,000 inhabitants and is divided among nearly three dozen family clans into quarters, each with its own infrastructure...

Jamal was a quiet and good student, who was often bullied because of his glasses. When he was 15 years old, an exchange with a school from Rehovot was planned. Jamal remembers how the school was cleaned and decorated for two weeks and how the whole neighborhood was very excited. Jamal and his classmates had to rehearse performances in preparation for the visit from Rehovot. The day the Bedouin and Jewish students finally met changed everything for Jamal.

While the children from Rehovot jumped off the bus casually, carefree and loudly, the pupils from Rahat were standing in a row. Jamal, who had never left Rahat before, experienced a freedom until then unknown to him. While the directors of the two schools exchanged formalities, he took all his courage, stepped out of the line of Bedouin students and walked towards a Jewish student who, like himself, was wearing glasses, and invited him to his home for dinner. The two boys asked each other what they do after school. While Jamal replied that he did nothing, Eran turned out to be the head of the Student Council for the school in Rehovot.

In the less than two hours that Jamal and Eran had, the Bedouin boy gained an insight into the world beyond Rahat. He and his classmates didn't know about the possibility to have a say in school matters. Before saying goodbye, Eran gave Jamal the number of the youth and society department of the Ministry of Education. Jamal called two weeks later, and claimed to be the head of the student representatives of his school in Rahat. Thrilled to finally have a school chair from an Arabic-speaking school, Jamal was invited to Beer Sheva to meet the Inspector of the Student Councils at the Ministry of Education. On that day, Jamal skipped school and left from Rahat to Beer Sheva. Jamal was not only the great attraction of the meeting but this event set in motion a journey which lead to Jamal being elected as a delegate to the national student council  after a very active 3 years as a local youth leader.

Parents and school were shocked by Jamal's initiative. Nevertheless, slowly he educated those around him about the good work he was doing. Finally the director felt compelled to actually have a student representation elected. Jamal changed from an unofficial student representative to an official one.

As a member of the national student representation he travelled to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, felt freedom and acquired practical knowledge. In this time, he recognized the value of non-formal education, tells Jamal.

He remembers that he had prevailed against all resistance. The greatest resistance, however, was tradition. In the Bedouin community, modernization is perceived as a threat to cultural heritage. Jamal explains that schoolchildren are under extreme control because of a fear of change.

More than every fourth inhabitant of the Israeli desert is Bedouin. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90 tribes of the nomadic people migrated to the Negev via Saudi Arabia and the Sinai. In 1900, the Ottoman Empire founded the first permanent settlement for the Bedouins in the biblical city of Beer Sheva. Of the 65,000 Bedouins who lived semi-settled in the Negev before the Israeli War of Independence, 19 tribes remained, with fewer than 11,000 Bedouins altogether.

In the early 1950s, the Israeli army moved eleven of the remaining tribes to a closed area north of the Negev, where the other eight tribes also lived, known as Sajag. In 1968 the first Bedouin community was founded in Tel Sheva (Arab: Tel as-Sabi). Today there are seven recognized Bedouin communities in which 72,500 people officially live: Ar'ara, Hura, Kseife, Lakiya, Tel Sheva, Segev Shalom (Arabic Shaqib al-Salman) and Rahat. In addition, between 55,000 and 77,000 Bedouins live in an estimated 50 unrecognized settlements in the Negev.