Volunteers keep teaching Bedouin kids in time of war

Volunteer tutors from Ben Gurion University ensure that life goes on as normally as possible, even in the midst of the Gaza-Israel conflict. For over 30 years, Israeli after-school program Perach has been bringing one on one tutoring to kids …

Volunteer tutors from Ben Gurion University ensure that life goes on as normally as possible, even in the midst of the Gaza-Israel conflict. For over 30 years, Israeli after-school program Perach has been bringing one on one tutoring to kids who need it most. Perach pairs up needy children from underprivileged backgrounds with university students who tutor them in schoolwork, give the child personal attention, and serve as role models. The contribution made by PERACH (an acronym in Hebrew for “tutoring project” that also means “flower”) hasn’t gone unnoticed; it was awarded the Israel Prize last year for a lifetime contribution to the state.

For the student volunteers from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, times have been particularly rough of late – not only were university classes cancelled during the conflict with Gaza when missiles hit the region, but schools as well. Perach volunteers in the Jewish and Arab sectors did what they could to fulfill their four hour a week per child tutoring quota. But in the Bedouin sector, where Perach is organized differently, they’ve had to make special efforts to deal with the special needs of the partially nomadic population, many of whom live in unrecognized towns with no infrastructure, and certainly no bomb shelters to guard against the missiles that have fallen there during the current Israel-Gaza conflict.

Einav Friedman, director of Perach in the southern region, has nine coordinators working in the six recognized Bedouin towns, plus the unrecognized ones, with each coordinator handling about 100 kids. During the war, she tells ISRAEL21c: “We’ve been operating according to the Homefront Command’s directives [to stay indoors], so in the unrecognized towns within the Abu Basma region near Dimona we continued as normal but not in Rahat and Lakiya, which are less than 20km from the border. Two or three missiles have fallen in Rahat, and at least one in Lakiya, so we haven’t been able to work there.”

PERACH volunteers also work with children at Soroka Medical Center outpatient clinics.

The BGU students who work with Bedouin children, she says, are generally Israeli-Arabs, many from the north of the country, “but there are also some Bedouin from here.” Some volunteers from the north – barely out of their teens themselves – went home for the war’s duration. “So we’ve had to work on a scaled-down basis.”

Taking the place of school on Fridays

Unlike the Jewish and Israeli-Arab sector, where counselors visit kids in their homes several times weekly for a total of four hours a week, Friedman explains, Perach’s work in the Bedouin sector devotes all four hours to a single weekly meeting on Fridays. The reason is simple, she says. “There are no studies on Fridays, so we have a niche in informal education, operating the schools from 8:00am to 12:00pm. The children otherwise have no framework.”

In normal times, Fridays are divided into two two-hour time slots. “From 8:00 to 10:00, they have individual tutoring and from 10:00 to12:00 there’s an activity, generally sports. Perach is the lucky beneficiary of a soccer-training program, in cooperation with the HaPoel Tel Aviv Football Club.

The girls don’t like sports as much, Friedman says, who thinks that the traditional garb of pants under long dresses might be cramping their style, but adds that the girls do well with dodge ball and other court games.

One-on-one tutoring in the Bedouin sector also takes religious and cultural sensitivities into account. “We have girls work with girls, and boys with boys. Sometimes we may assign a girl tutor to a young boy. We also found it was hard to do tutoring during the week. The parents didn’t want students coming into the house and the authorities preferred that we fill the gap on Fridays,” says Friedman.

During the war, the Bedouin kids, like their counterparts in the Jewish and Arab-Israeli sector were at home and bouncing off the walls. Perach tried to alleviate some of the pressure with trips to the Havayeda in Rahat, one of nine Perach experiential science education centers for kids, sponsored by pharmaceutical company Teva. It wasn’t easy – the center only had a small bomb shelter and Homefront Command advised against gatherings, but it went well and kids visited the center every day.

“You have to understand. Many of these kids – especially from unrecognized towns – don’t have bomb shelters, don’t have safe rooms; they live in tents,” Friedman explains. “Rahat is another world by comparison, with villas, banks, clinics. The unrecognized villages are the other side of the spectrum: drawing water from the well, using generators for power because they’re not on the electric grid, living in tents, heating by fire. Many times this is out of choice; they want to stick with their tradition; there is a conflict between the desire to become Westernized and the fear of losing identity. Bedouins are, after all, nomads; they go off to herd sheep and we don’t see the children for months.”

How did the children cope with the missiles that landed in their own towns? “They are just as afraid,” says Freidman. “Some have shelters, most don’t.”

“Yes, there’s a war but life goes on”

Throughout the conflict, the organization tried to stay in touch, with coordinators calling the kids twice a week. It hasn’t been easy, says Dalia Altori, a BGU graduate who coordinates Perach in Lakiya. Nine-months pregnant Altori has had to stay put at home in Rahat but kept contact with her team of 50 tutors via ICQ, SMS or phone. “But 10 of them are girls who don’t have phones of their own. I call their parents,” she says.

It’s even harder to reach the kids, many of whom don’t have Internet at home, not always out of economic hardship but because traditional families tend to be wary of Western media. “We asked the tutors to be in contact because the students need them, and we want them to know that they’re still in the picture,” says Altori. “Some kids live near their tutors and can meet to do homework with them, if they check with their parents.”

Mohamed Abu-Salaek, a BGU pharmacology student who serves as the Perach coordinator for two schools in unrecognized towns in the Abu Basma region, has fared better as his area was out of missile range. Friday activities have gone on as usual, although he too worked with a scaled-down staff.

“We’ve been doing special events. We did a day about olives. This coming Friday we’ll do a birthday for anyone born in January. We’re doing the HaPoel Tel Aviv games.” The idea, he adds, is to enrich the children, and to let them know that even in times of war, life goes on as usual.

About Rachel Neiman

A veteran media professional who has lived in Israel since 1984, Rachel has been part of the ISRAEL21c organization since 2008. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Globes Online, the English-language edition of Israel’s leading business daily, and before that, at The Jerusalem Post, as a business reporter, feature writer, and consumer columnist. Rachel began writing about Israeli technology companies at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine and is a professional Hebrew to English translator. In her spare time, she is an active member of the Havurat Tel Aviv congregation, and the Holyland Hash House Harriers, part of an international running and drinking disorganization.