May 11, 2003, Updated September 12, 2012

An Israeli volunteer and a young resident of Wadi Na’am work on the construction of the mother and baby clinic. (Photo: Alon Abu)The Bedouins of the Negev desert in southern Israel are a society in transition, struggling to reconcile a semi-nomadic lifestyle with modern realities. A group of Israeli and foreign volunteers recently helped villagers in a small settlement on their winding path work towards achieving that delicate balance.

The group, together with the villagers, joined forces to construct a solar-powered medical clinic for mothers and babies using the traditional Bedouin building materials of straw and mud.

A rambling collection of cinder block-and-tin shacks accessible via dirt tracks, the shanty settlement of Wadi Na’am is a kilometer downwind from the Ramat Hovav hazardous waste dump, sandwiched between a military fire-zone, an electric plant and an oil-drilling site.

Wadi Na’am’s approximately 4,000 residents (including about 1,400 schoolchildren) suffer numerous health problems such as skin cancer, respiratory ailments, asthma in children under age 6, eye infections and miscarriages. Yet they had no on-site medical services – until the approximately 60 volunteers, under the auspices of Bustan, a grassroots non-profit organization that promotes social and environmental justice, organized the building project.

“This clinic will help solve a massive problem,” said Wadi Na’am resident Yunis El-Masadin, 38, who worked for seven years at Ramat Hovav before being laid off last year. “I suffer from hemorrhaging in the urinary tract, my wife has head and stomach aches, and my children have respiratory problems. I can’t afford to take them to hospital every time.”

“I’m happy and surprised,” added his neighbor Jamal Jarabiyah, 24. “I didn’t think such things could happen to our tribe. The situation here is critical – there’s no work and many people are sick. We need this clinic.”

The total Bedouin population in Israel currently numbers 170,000, with some 110,000 in the Negev. Most of the Negev Bedouins hold Israeli citizenship, and the males serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

“The practice of adobe/straw building has a history in Bedouin tradition, and this project reintroduces these sustainable, low-budget techniques – hopefully with far-reaching implications. We’re helping the Bedouins to help themselves,” said Bustan member Devorah Brous, an energetic American immigrant to Israel, who was instrumental in moving the project forward. “The clinic will be administered by villagers, and staffed by volunteers from the Galil Association in Beersheva and trainee doctors.”

The 9 meters by 7 meters clinic includes an examination room, waiting room and washing/ bathroom facilities, built in accordance with Israeli Health Ministry directives. An outer enclosure wall – built from adobe-covered tires filled with gravel and garbage – protects the clinic from the Sharqia, or eastern desert wind.
Participants in the five-day work camp toiled from 8 am to 5 pm, helped by the Bedouins.

“We want to empower them,” said Alex Cicelsky, 42, a volunteer from Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava desert that specializes in environmentally friendly technologies.

“Over a hundred years ago, American settlers arrived in areas similar to this and built their houses this way,” Cicelsky, who emigrated from upstate New York, 22 years ago, explained to a local high school class of Bedouin students in the village.

He held aloft a ubiquitous cinder block. “This substance pollutes the earth. It is inefficient and expensive. Mud and straw can protect you from cold, rain, winds and sun. You have excellent soil for construction, and straw from your fields – it’s all around you!”

Soon the teenagers pitched in, willingly carrying buckets of dirt and pouring them into the tires.

Michal Vital, 40, an interior designer from Karkur, helped draw up the plans with the villagers. “We originally wanted three separate buildings, but had to cut back due to budgetary constraints. I’ve taken the week away from my family because I want to feel involved and get my hands dirty.”

“This is a humanitarian activity,” said Laurence Knecht, 27, from France, as she presses another layer of mud onto the straw bale wall. “It’s hard work, but very rewarding.”

“We came to help bring on a social change and to get involved with a little-known aspect of Israeli society,” said Carol Glass, a Reform Rabbi from Boston who volunteered together with her husband and two boys.

“The kids here are very friendly and open, but I wouldn’t like to learn in a school like theirs – it’s too crowded with only one classroom,” added Barak Glass, 8, before returning to a soccer game with his new playmates.

“It took 30 of us six hours to construct three two-meter high walls,” said an exhausted Cicelsky, as the sun set red over the desert. Later that evening, the volunteers heard a guest lecturer talk about Bedouin culture, and shared campfire stories.

“This is a blessed project. It makes us feel that somebody cares about us,” said project coordinator Najib Jarabiyah, 33, an unemployed father of five with a BA in media studies from Israel’s Open University.

“The whole village has woken up this week. More people are stepping forward to help every day. It will change our daily reality. Maybe we’ll all build like this in the future.”

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