(Read this post first if you haven't yet caught my posts about last month's in-service in Be'er Sheva).
We are traveling by air-conditioned bus, having driven Road 60 out of Be'er Sheva and east onto Road 31, north of Be'er Sheva, toward Arad and the Dead Sea. We have now turned right off the paved main road and I wish we were back on it, since all this bouncing along an exceptionally bumpy dirt road, even at 20 km/h, has made me completely car sick. As I snap photos out the window, I am trying not to throw up all over the vehicle's well-preserved upholstery.
Welcome to the pezura. The word pezura -- פזורה -- is Hebrew for dispersion and refers to approximately half a million dunam (equivalent to about 175,00 acres) of unrecognized land, containing 50,000 unlicensed houses, and many, many more people, spread throughout the desert. Within the Negev there are seven recognized Beduin towns: Rahat, Tel Sheva, Kseifa, Arara, Segev Shalom, Houra and Laqiyya, and half the southern Beduin population lives within these towns (reference here). As for the the other half, they live throughout the Dispersion, where there are no electricity lines, no water pipes or central sewage systems, no garbage collection. With very few exceptions, there are no official schools.
In the middle of all this brown, dusty emptiness is one exception, a literal oasis of a school. Amal is Arabic for hope, and the Amal School is aptly named. Kids from kindergarten through high school arrive here every morning by bus, from all over the pezura. The long, dusty road is literally in the middle of nowhere, and if a child misses the bus, he misses school for the day.
We are welcomed at the entranceway and led across the school's courtyard -- an expansive pebbled area containing trees and a paved central area -- and into the library, where drinks and cookies have been set out for us.
The school principal enters and apologizes for not having met us at the gate. He introduces himself as Khalil Elkorm, now in his twelfth year as school principal, and his twentieth in the Israeli Education ministry.*
His presence fills the room as he launches into an energetic talk about his educational philosophy, the main thrust of which is that schools must find a variety of ways to educate, beyond the traditional frontal teaching style, and that any new educational program, as good as it may sound at first, must be tested and adapted to the needs of the children in system, before it can be thrust upon them.
Over the years, Khalil has helped to establish after-school enrichment programs, hot meal programs, and an on-site medical clinic so that the parents will be involved in their children's education, without compromising all that has been accomplished by the sectarian and tribal conflicts that would work in opposition to Khalil's educational priorities for his 650 pupils. When asked how he deals with the intergenerational conflict that must arise between these modern-educated children and their conservative parents, Khalil described in further detail how he learned the hard way, that the school must guide the parents, and not the opposite, or change will never happen.
Following our talk Khalil brings us to the kindergarten area, fenced off from the rest to give these youngest pupils a chance to have their own safe space before moving up to first grade.
Unlike the camera-savvy grade-school children who have already mobbed us, begging to be photographed, these little ones are still shy and wary of visitors, but after a few minutes their smiles break through and they are happy to have us watch them solve problems in small groups.
Back in the courtyard, Khalil explains that it is election day in the local towns. In honor of this event, a group of older girls are conducting mock elections, standing in two straight lines as they wait to cast their vote the ballot box.
I'm pretty impressed by their ability to stand there patiently, and wonder how much of it has to do with the teachers observing along the sidelines, or whether, as girls, they have just gotten used to being told to wait their turn. I think about the ramifications of what they are doing. How many of these girls will actually get to vote in an election in their lifetimes? They face so many hurdles: As women in a men-dominated society, and as an under-recognized minority living in unrecognized areas.
Khalil is clearly very proud of his school and its accomplishments, and for him this means rejecting his society's status quo. "His" girls are already voting, even if their votes will not influence this year's election.
Keep the balance,
* Khalil gave me his full permission to be featured here.