January 17, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Local hero: Jamal Alkirnawi is helping Bedouin students at Ben Gurion University face the challenges of studying in a western environment.There are about 170,000 Bedouins living in Israel, and more than two-thirds call the Negev Desert home. They can be seen in ramshackle “unrecognized” shanty villages, without water and electricity. Most live below the poverty line.

This unique once-nomadic culture, is trying to adjust to the pressures of western life. Easing them through the transition is one of their own: Jamal Alkirnawi, a local hero from the Bedouin town of Rahat.

As an academic counselor for Arab students at Ben Gurion University (BGU), Alkirnawi is giving a voice to Bedouin and Arab minority students in Israel, who are aiming for higher education, against the odds.

University students in most Israeli communities are used to the western way of life. But the traditional Arab minority that collects at BGU is not, and faces its own unique challenges.

“These students carry the social problems of their community on their shoulders,” Alkirnawi tells ISRAEL21c. “One student in engineering, for example, just came to me with the news that his mother, and four siblings have moved into his little apartment.

“His parents are divorced, and now he has become a second father to these children, dividing his time between being a student, and taking care of his family,” explains Alkirnawi. “I am not sure if he can deal with this issue.”

This is just one of over 250 cases that Alkirnawi has seen this year alone. Although Bedouin and Arab student enrollment in higher education is growing, important social problems need to be addressed.

They need help with languages, and filling out forms. They want to know how the current university strike will affect their future. Alkirnawi becomes their confidante and mentor.

“We actually reduce the culture shock of being on a western campus,” he says. “I listen to them, and advocate on their behalf.”

And Alkirnawi knows exactly where the students are coming from. The town Rahat where he grew up, “suffers from the highest rates of unemployment, poverty and overcrowding in the country,” he says.

At a young age, Alkirnawi decided to take action, and against his teacher’s and family’s advice, built a student council at his school. He went on to become a social activist and student at BGU, and later studied social work at McGill University in Canada.

He is now working on his own research, which involves the use of storytelling to help reconcile local Jews and Arabs.

“My chances in life are different to the ones my father’s generation was able to take,” says Alkirnawi. “These kinds of changes shook my society, in positive and negative ways.”

He does feel that the situation of his community is improving. Proof of some change is a small shift in academic focus at BGU’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development.

Thanks to Robert H. Arnow, a former New York real estate executive, the center now in his name, will conduct more in-depth research on the Bedouin culture.

Also due to his financial help, and counsellors like Alkirnawi, more than 500 Bedouin students are now pursuing degrees at BGU. “The Bedouins are citizens of Israel, and the only hope for them to become contributing members of society is through education,” says Arnow.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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