Employment Centers Open New Doors for Israeli Arabs

March 6, 2012


Yasmin remembers the day her 12-year-old daughter handed her a flyer and said, “Whenever I ask for help in English or on the computer, you say that you don’t understand these things, so why don’t you go and learn?”

A stay-at-home mom to three kids, Yasmin felt embarrassed and overwhelmed. Prior to motherhood she had a few jobs cleaning houses and taking care of the elderly. But in her community—an Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel—mothers were encouraged to stay home and tend to their husbands’ family, not go out to work.

Yasmin is one of tens of thousands of Arab women in Israel—78% of all working-age Israeli Arab women—that do not participate in the workforce. For these women, the challenges to employment are many: Israeli Arabs typically have less educational opportunity, less awareness of the Israeli business context, and are more likely to face discrimination and significant cultural divides. A significant percentage of young Israeli Arab women do not speak or write well in Hebrew, have limited experience using computers, and have never participated in any kind of vocational training.

JDC’s multi-year plan with the Government of Israel is helping Israeli Arabs face these challenges head on through the creation of employment training and placement centers in Arab cities and towns. Through the partnership, 20 employment centers will be built to serve Arab, Bedouin, and Druze communities across Israel. Five of these centers are already up and running and the remainder will be operational by 2015.

These innovative one-stop centers bring a range of activities and services under one roof for men and women of all ages with varying levels of education, skills, and experiences. They offer a multitude of workshops for Israeli Arabs with no workforce experience; professional staff who provide accessible and tailored training, counseling, and mentoring; and placement and retention services.

The centers improve the employability—and upward mobility—of individuals who would otherwise be absent from the workforce by building their soft skills, such as self-confidence and positive self-presentation, teamwork and conflict resolution, and effective communication strategies. In addition, participants can learn skills to manage employment and family life, and to deal with the challenges of managing their time, budgets, and the community’s expectations, which play an important cultural role for many women.

Yasmin inquired about the computers and English courses being offered in her area, and found out there was a women’s empowerment group she could join, too. “I didn’t understand what ‘empowerment’ was and why I should be a part of it. I really preferred what I already knew–cleaning–but I was persuaded to set my sights higher.”

The course taught Yasmin how to prepare a resume, how to behave in a job interview, how to work every day and hold her head high. She learned time management skills—how to balance working an eight-hour day and taking care of the children and the home. “Today I’m a shift supervisor at a cellular phone company, responsible for 23 other employees on my customer service team,” she reports excitedly. “Even my husband is very proud of me. Now he looks after me. As I left for work this morning, he told me, ‘Make me proud!’”

Miriam, an occupational community social worker at a center in Segev understands the confluence of challenges Israeli Arab women face. “There was a cycle of unemployment and helplessness [in my community]. [Change] is not an easy process; you need a lot of patience. It’s not just the husbands or families that pose barriers, it’s also the language, the culture. We can take people out of the cycle of poverty now because we have a willingness to overcome the negatives in our society. We’re not just talking about numbers, we’re talking about social change.”

Miriam works in an Arab community where families still spend their evenings together in tents; they have yet to internalize the concept of living an urban life. Here professionals like Miriam make home visits and work with the whole family unit to prepare them for the participation of the women in the workforce, generating broader support among the extended family and important leaders in the community. They talk to neighbors and religious leaders at imams, distribute educational materials, help program participants pass the required placement exams for personnel firms, promote culturally sensitive testing in local Israeli businesses, and even go into schools to do youth outreach.

That’s how “Alimah” came to learn about the program, too. Seventeen years ago, her health had taken a devastating downward turn. Operations, hospital stays, and a growing list of complications forced her to quit her job as a baker and to stay home and take care of her three children with whatever strength she had left. But when her eldest daughter told her about the program and how she wanted things to be different in their poverty-stricken home, “Alimah” knew she had to try. “I was scared but I decided take the computer workshop and the English course and I found my strength.”

The program helped “Alima” get a coordinator job with a humanitarian organization, which she finds fascinating and incredibly rewarding. “I grew up thinking Yafo was the only place for me, but it’s suffocating here and now I know I can look further. The program has helped me with my children, to teach them be more independent and proud. And we are economically independent now. I’m a success story thanks to you.”

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