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Bedouin Women Attending University Hope to Lift Up Their Community

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Every morning, Hana’a Abokaf leaves her village on the slopes of the Negev Desert, where electricity is powered by a generator, and camels and goats graze near cinderblock and tin houses.

Abokaf, 20, rides the bus to the university where she is a first-year medical student.

Just by attending a university, Abokaf is part of a revolution of sorts in her deeply conservative Bedouin community: She is among some 250 Bedouin female students now enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In recent years the school has made attracting and retaining Bedouin students, many of them female, a top priority.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” a smiling Abokaf says, her lavender and black headscarf fastened tightly over her hair.

It’s a bold statement, as Bedouin women usually stay at home to raise children. They often are not encouraged to complete their schooling; more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate.

Growing up, Abokaf says, she noted the need for Bedouin doctors in her community when her grandmother became ill and found it difficult to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking doctors, who were from a different culture.

Other gaps, some striking, exist between the Bedouin and the rest of Israeli society.

Bedouin families tend to be large 10 children is not uncommon and are among the country’s poorest and most-neglected populations. In their gradual transition from a nomadic to a more urban lifestyle, they have faced major challenges.

Their communities have high rates of crime and unemployment. They have considerably worse health and education services than their fellow Israelis. And their infrastructure can be appalling or even nonexistent, especially in “unrecognized villages” such as the one where Abokaf lives.

Unrecognized villages is the term used for Bedouin areas that Israeli authorities do not officially acknowledge. Israel does not provi! de these areas with basic services. Authorities hope the families in these communities will agree to move to one of the “recognized” Bedouin villages and towns in the Negev.

A friend of Abokaf, Siham Elmour, also studies medicine. Elmour, 19, considers herself fortunate because her family has supported her decision, despite the years of training.

“My father knows my life will be one of study, but the family also knows it is something that will be helpful in the world,” says Elmour, one of 11 children.

Her family also hopes she will close some of the gaps between Bedouin society and the rest of Israel. Elmour and three of her sisters also students at Ben-Gurion are among the new wave of confident and educated young Bedouin women.

Elmour says she believes that growing up under difficult circumstances may foster the urge to make a difference.

“We are going to try to solve the problems because we come from within the culture,” she says.

The Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion helps to coordinate the university experience for the Bedouin students. The center is charged with advancing higher education among the Bedouin and provides scholarships, counseling and special university preparation programs for high school students and graduates.

Established a decade ago with the help of Robert Arnow, a New York City real estate developer and former chairman of the university’s board, the center also aims to promote academic research about the Bedouins.

With a population of 200,000, the Bedouins comprise one-quarter of the total Negev population.

“For an American Jew to be identified with Bedouins in the Negev is very important,” Arnow said at a ceremony this month marking the institute’s 10th birthday. “It has to do with values, Jewish values.”

The university has gone from having almost no Bedouin students two decades ago to 420 male and female Bedouin students today. Before 1990 there was only one female graduate student. Since 2000, many more have gone on to do graduate work.

The university is especially proud of its first female Bedouin student to graduate as a medical doctor. Dr. Rania Okabi graduated last year and is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, hoping to increase the presence of Bedouin women in the health field.

Most female Bedouin students focus on the humanities and social sciences, though the school is trying to interest male and female students in studying science and technology.

As Bedouin society becomes more integrated into the modern Israeli market, more Bedouin students need to learn scientific fields, said Ismael Abu-Saad, director of the university’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development.

The center also strives to increase the number of Bedouin students preparing for such professions as nursing, physical therapy and social work, much-needed services in Bedouin communities.

Schools in Bedouin areas can be substandard, creating a challenge for students who seek university admission. To help such students, Ben-Gurion University has created yearlong preparatory programs in fields including medicine and social work.

Abokaf says of the preparatory program: “It helped us prove ourselves.”

She and many of her Bedouin peers are often found at the university’s main library using the books and computers electricity can be scarce in their villages. Some students described having to study by candlelight at home and being asked to help with younger siblings instead of focusing on their studies.

Saffa Algaar, 23, is one of just two female Bedouin students in the geography department. Families have been reluctant to let their daughters major in the subject because it involves field trips, some of them overnight, to various parts of the country.

Algaar says family members have backed her academic choice, though when she travels they remind her that they are only as far as her cellular phone.

“They let me go but they don’t stop calling, asking, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? When will you be coming home?’ ” she says.

Yet in talking about her family’s economic plight a! nd the w ork her mother has done to help fund her studies, Algaar says, “When our economic situation improves, everything else will also improve.”

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