Letter from Ketura: From Culture Shock to Empowerment
A new class of environmental scholars, including many Arab women, is graduating from Kibbutz Ketura’s Arava institute with career expertise—and a dream of coexistence.
Dima Halawani, suitcase in hand, tentatively stepped onto the bus with the sign “Arava Institute” written in Hebrew, Arabic and English in its window.
“The first person I saw on board was an Israeli Jew with masses of dyed hair in a huge halo around his head,” she recalls. “I’d barely been mastering my nerves, and I almost burst into full panic. I didn’t know anyone like that, and I was going to be living with him and people like him for the next four months. Then I realized he was looking at my hijab and probably thinking the same about me.”
It was 2004 and Israeli-born Halawani had lived all her 24 years within her Muslim Arab community in Wadi Joz, a suburb of East Jerusalem, studying at the Palestinian Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Now, family permission extracted with the help of her university professor, she was on her way to a semester at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev.
Halawani was the first hijab-wearing student ever to enter either the institute or the kibbutz. Ketura, founded in 1973 by Young Judaea alumni and situated a few hundred yards from the Israeli-Jordanian border, created the Arava institute in 1996, the brainchild of its then-member environmentalist Alon Tal. Inspired by the new peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, Tal envisioned a center for environmental cooperation and leadership. He believed that bringing together Israeli, Arab and other international students to study, research and lobby for issues transcending national boundaries—air quality, desalination, water management, river restoration, desertification, sustainable agriculture—would advance not only sustainable development but also coexistence at regional and even global levels.
Students have indeed come to Arava from around the world, according to Sharon Benheim, a former Young Judaean who moved to Israel from Silver Spring, Maryland, and directs the institute’s public relations and alumni affairs.
“In its 12 years,” she says, “the institute has taught almost 500 graduates and undergraduates—Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Europeans and North Americans.”
This diverse student body learns about sustainable development, water management, environmental law, economic policy and environmental science. They come for single semesters, yearlong programs accredited through Tel Aviv University, master’s programs (and eco-focused master’s of business administration and environmental desert studies) granted by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev or for transboundary research projects in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. For all students, there are compulsory seminars in peace-building and environmental leadership as well as facilitated forums where views on race, religion, identity and politics are aired and debated.
The institute has reached out to Middle Eastern students from the beginning, granting them full scholarships and, since 2004, advertising in Jordanian newspapers. Although both men and women enroll, says institute Executive Director David Lehrer, bringing Arab women to the institute is a special focus.
“Women tend to be concerned about environmental issues,” he says. “They see the effects of polluted air and water on their children, and are often first to speak out about it. In Arab societies, however, social and economic control is with the men. The institute empowers the women by giving them the knowledge and tools to become environmental professionals and activists.”
This policy is beginning to bear fruit as a number of remarkable Arab women graduate, motivated and equipped to become environmental movers and shakers. Still, many had to plead, wheedle and even connive for family permission to attend.
“My parents are relatively open-minded, but I didn’t even ask them when I first heard about the institute,” says Halawani. “I knew what their answer would be. I was 23 and unmarried. How could they let me go away alone for four months? It was only a year later, with my Al-Quds professor beside me, that I convinced my parents how special an opportunity it was.”
Samah Sultan from Aqaba in Jordan was engaged to be married, so she sought permission from her fiancé. They both had law degrees, and he understood it was a unique opportunity for Sultan to learn about environmental law and policy making. He agreed to her attending for a semester, allowed her to stay on for a second and then to work toward a master’s degree. She returned to marry him after that, and the couple now has a 6-month-old baby.
Occasionally, however, the family is more liberal than the student. Sawsan Issa, 24, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Jordan’s University of Science and Technology, was working in an Amman art gallery when she saw an environmental scholarship outside Jordan advertised.
“I was thrilled and followed it up, but when I heard it was in Israel, dismissed it at once,” Issa recounts. “I was shocked when my parents thought it sounded ‘interesting’ and ‘a good multicultural experience’ for me. I reluctantly came for a semester, but then did another, and I have stayed for an M.A. course on the economics of solar water-heating systems in Jordanian homes.”
While Arab families and students are happy to acquire environmental expertise, they are often less aware about the coexistence and peace offerings at the institute.
For hadeel majeed, 28, who grew up in Akko and did her undergraduate studies at Haifa University, “the connection between people from different backgrounds blew me away.” she says. “At Haifa, we Arab students rarely mixed with Jews. At Arava, everyone mixes. It is small, you are thrown together, you talk politics. I found it awkward at first, but the longer I was there, the more I liked it.”
Halawani, too, at first found the openness and mixing uncomfortable. Today, however, she says with pride that several Jewish students later told her that she changed the way they think about Arabs.
Dana Rassas, 27, was born in Kuwait, grew up in Amman and studied for her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University in Utah. For her, the social and political shake up she experienced at the institute was profound and life changing.
“I was working on water projects and extension services for Jordan’s Ministry of Planning when I saw an ad in an Amman newspaper for post-graduate environmental study,” she recalls. “The ad didn’t say where the course was taught, but it was about water management and sustainable development, and that sold me. A single ad and my life changed trajectory!”
Coming from a deeply conservative home, Rassas’s first surprise was the relaxed interaction—particularly the gender interaction—between students at the institute. Second was the political world into which she stepped.
“As a family, we keep our heads well down,” she says. “We were in Israel when the last intifada began and immediately packed our bags for Amman. But the very first week I was at Arava, a bunch of people going out to protest new settlements grabbed hold of me and said, ‘Come along!’ And there I was at a road junction with Israelis—I had never met a Jew before interviewing for Arava—and waving a protest sign, when I had never in my life held a sign for anything!”
Change is visible in the Arab women who study at the institute, say fellow students. “They arrive shy, homesick, taciturn and with preconceived ideas about us Israelis,” says Dafna Dgani, 27, from Petah Tikva, now in her second semester. “Then they begin opening up and reveal themselves as compassionate women with wisdom and knowledge.”
All still in their twenties, Arab women graduates are steadily climbing the environmental ladder in their home communities. Rassas went on to earn a master’s degree in desalinization. Today, she is cultural affairs assistant at the United States Consulate in Jerusalem with responsibility for environmental programming. Halawani, now married and a mother of two, has served as a field coordinator in the Israeli-Palestinian Streams Restoration Project and as an intern in the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s French Creek Project. She currently coordinates science teaching for outstanding students at AlQuds University and has applied to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a doctorate in science education in the Palestinian territories. Sultan, in legal practice with her husband in Aqaba, specializes in environmental cases.
Contact and friendships made at the institute are maintained after graduation by phone, e-mail, blogs and through APEN, the Arava Peace and Environmental Network. APEN holds annual conferences—in 2007 it was in Aqaba, this year outside Jerusalem—to help all institute graduates remain in touch.
“Three quarters of our alumni stay in the environmental field, and they’re out there in the world in growing numbers, impacting the way their communities and regions address environmental issues,” says Benheim. “The conferences are their professional forum, where they share experiences, advice and support one another.”
Joseph Major, an Israeli who graduated two years ago, was among 70 alumni at this year’s conference. “I’ve been a peace activist since I was 18,” he said on its final day. “I dream of what peace can mean. During the three days of this conference, I’ve finally lived my dream of peace.”
For many Arab alumnae, membership in this network is a critically important support for women stepping beyond conventional social and cultural boundaries.
“I’ve always been a strong person, but I’ve reached a point where my strength is a little frightening for my culture,” says Majeed. “I’m too independent. It scares my family and it scares men. How, they ask, can I travel alone, do things alone?”
“Strength and independence” is a common refrain among Arab women graduates. Halawani has become more outspoken about what she thinks and believes. Issa has been energized by hearing other opinions, attitudes and histories.
“I’m no longer a prisoner of my culture,” she explains. “I am able to look at it and select what I want.”
“Yes, of course there is a big cultural clash,” says Rassas. “My community calls me a feminist because I won’t allow anyone to step on me-even though I’m a homebody and all for the old-fashioned lady-gentleman stuff. But it’s also true that I’m an independent woman who sees the world open to me. Watch out: Ten years down the line, I may be Israel’s minister of environment!”