On the first floor of a mosque in the Bedouin Arab village of Hura, 30 women with headphones over their brightly colored headscarves are providing customer service to clients of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecom.

Zainab, 21, smiles and gently caresses her pregnant belly as she prepares to handle the next call in Hebrew or Arabic, just as any other Bezeq customer rep would do. The customer would never guess she is working inside a Muslim house of worship in the Negev.

Zainab and her coworkers wouldn’t be here if not for Bezeq’s cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Economy’s unique employment service for Arab, Bedouin, Druze and Circassian citizens. When she finished high school, Zainab did not know Hebrew or computers and had few employment opportunities. Here, she tells ISRAEL, she has room for advancement and earns enough money to attend weekend college classes.

Bedouin women traditionally tend house and children, resulting in high unemployment and poverty. Though the Israeli government is investing billions of shekels in employment initiatives for the general Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sectors – those least represented in the Israeli workforce – extra attention is focused on Arab women since they have the lowest employment rate of all Israeli populations.

The Economy Ministry partnered with the Joint Distribution Committee-Israel (JDC) to open Arab-run Rayan Employment Centers in the northern and southern peripheries beginning in 2012. The coaching, training and job-placement centers will number 21 by year’s end, serving 63 municipalities.

Bedouin women working in the call center inside a mosque. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Bedouin women working in the call center inside a mosque. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

The existing 19 centers have received about 17,000 clients, more than half of them women, and have placed 9,100 clients as call-center operators, clerks, cashiers, farm or factory workers, childcare providers, receptionists and secretaries. Others have gotten assistance starting businesses or qualifying for college admission. About 1,000 Arab women have become entrepreneurs with the help of the Israel Small and Medium Business Agency and micro-financing programs.

“Many [Bedouin] women need to have local employment solutions, so we help them start small businesses such as cosmetics, catering and family daycare,” says Mahmud Alamour, Rayan South Director General.

At the eight Rayan centers in the South, 1,478 people have sought guidance and training so far this year, and 824 of them have found jobs. Some of these clients have professional degrees but need help finding work in their chosen field.

A positive change

Ella Eyal Bar-David, special projects coordinator for the Economy Ministry, explains that women’s employment barriers include meager public transportation from the periphery; lack of childcare facilities; entry-level wages too low to offset lost welfare benefits; the demand for math, Hebrew and English skills; little access to social networking; and Bedouin mores that strictly limit their movement and activities.

“Even when they go to work, often someone from their extended family has to escort them,” she says.

The ministries of economy and transportation are working to add new bus lines and extend service on existing lines to serve these communities. The Economy Ministry is building scores of daycare and afterschool centers and offering tuition subsidies for children up to age three.

The Rayan centers address the remaining barriers in an effort to reach the government’s target of having 300,000 Israeli Arabs – one-third of them female — in the workforce by 2020. Of about 220,000 Bedouins in the Negev, 43,000 are women of working age.

 Future engineers learning Hebrew at the Rahat center. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Future engineers learning Hebrew at the Rahat center. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

 “When we started with pilot centers in Hura and Segev Shalom, every Bedouin mayor in the Negev came to us and said, ‘I want our town to have the next Rayan Center,’ because they understood these centers make a positive change,” Bar-David tells ISRAEL21c.

“This is the first time the management of an initiative for Bedouins has been put in the hands of Bedouins,” Alamour notes with pride. Out the window of the conference room in which he is speaking in the Rayan Employment Center in Rahat near Beersheva, one can see the new industrial park that will provide many jobs at factories such as SodaStream.

In the next room of the spacious facility, young Bedouin men and women (one with her child along) learn math, computer and Hebrew skills prior to pursuing higher education. Four men, ages 20 to 23, told ISRAEL21c that they hope to go into construction or electrical engineering.

Mariam Abu Hamad, director of Rayan Segev Shalom, says that in her municipality more women than men are going to college. This is a sure sign of changing times.

“The economic realities are that parents raising large families need two incomes,” she says. “But it’s not easy; I have four children and three different childcare arrangements.”

Mariam Abu Hamad, director of the Rayan Employment Center in Segev Shalom. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Mariam Abu Hamad, director of the Rayan Employment Center in Segev Shalom. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

 All Rayan employment counselors and managers have bachelor’s degrees “and they know the families in the communities they serve,” emphasizes Bar-David. “They identify clients’ skills, their education and their dreams of what they want to do.”

The government provides financial incentives to companies like Bezeq to take a chance on Bedouin workers.

“Bezeq invested a lot of money and went the extra mile to find a unique employment solution,” says Ali Abu Agag, Rayan South employee relations manager. “Some of the women who were our first call-center representatives are now managing the team. It’s a very successful project.”

Moti Vaknin, manager of the country’s seven Bezeq call centers, worked with Abu Agag and Hura Mayor Mahmud el-Nabari to tailor the workplace for the needs of this Bedouin town of 15,000. El-Nabari suggested the location and had a separate entrance built for the women. The call center opened four years ago and eventually will employ 50.

“In no other place in the world can you find a call center inside a mosque,” says Vaknin. “These women feel safe to come to a place that gives them the atmosphere they need in order to get permission from their husbands or fathers to come to work. They can now progress, not only in their marketable skills but also in their self-image and their standing within the family and community. It changes the whole picture.”

Zainab at her desk in the Bezeq call center in Hura. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Zainab at her desk in the Bezeq call center in Hura. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

The women gain basic skills at Rayan in Hura and then complete a six-month training program, longer than Bezeq’s usual service-rep training. And though most call centers operate around the clock, this one closes at 10pm because Bedouin women are not permitted to be out at night.

“Even if we have to give them more training, we see the results are good for us and for them,” agrees Gal Politzer, general manager of the facility. “They are happy because we listen to their needs and we listen to theirs. I want this place to be like a second home, so we do a lot of social activities outside of work; it’s not all about numbers and callers.”

Politzer must get husbands’ or fathers’ permission to be present in the all-female work environment, and they often call him with concerns related to their wives’ or daughters’ employment. “We also stay in touch with Rayan to help us address bigger problems,” he says.

Service with a smile

And problems do crop up.

Ibrahim Mashhadawi, head of the fast-growing Al-Mashhadawi Group’s King Store supermarket chain that is Israel’s first such enterprise under Arab ownership, makes a point of employing clients of Rayan centers in the Galilee and Negev.

The nine-month-old King Store in Beersheva currently has 186 employees, 120 of them referred by Rayan and 80% of them female.

Mashhadawi revealed that many Negev Bedouin women he hires don’t succeed because their cloistered upbringing makes it difficult for them to provide the level of customer service he expects.

“These women probably couldn’t work in any other supermarket because it’s their first time in the workforce and many of them are from a very traditional culture and have a hard time learning how to deal with the public,” Mashhadawi says. “But I feel an obligation to the Bedouin community, so we keep trying.”

Unlike the women in the Hura call center, many of the Bedouin women wearing red King Stores smocks did not want their photograph taken – but they refused with a smile and in Hebrew, evidence of their newly learned skills.