November 12, 2018

House of Wheels: Helping those with impaired mobility integrate

With her black skin; jeans and T-shirt; and long, wiry, black hair not covered by a hijab, it was hard to tell that Shariyan Alkmlat, 22, is Bedouin, unlike the staffers around her clad in Bedouin robes. She later admitted she is often mistaken for an Ethiopian Israeli, but it became clear, as she handed out pictures of traditional Bedouin dress to Jews and Bedouins sitting in wheelchairs in the activity room of the House of Wheels (Beit HaGalgalim), that she is a proud member of the Bedouin community. 

“Today, we’re much more modern,” the resident of the Bedouin city of Rahat told the group, going on to explain how Bedouin weddings follow traditional customs, but also take advantage of modern flourishes such as DJs and social media. 

Alkmlat’s turn for show-and-tell came after a young Jewish woman cheerfully led a re-enactment of the ancient Israelite musical matchmaking custom that inspired the Jewish Valentine’s Day, Tu b’Av. In their wheelchairs, Bedouin youth happily banged on tambourines and drums to connect to Jewish tradition.

It was a special day at the Bedouin House, the fifth branch of House of Wheels, an organization dedicated to providing pathways toward social integration, personal fulfillment and independence for children, teenagers and young adults with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other diseases that impair mobility. The Herzliya branch had asked to visit for a summer field trip, and both branches seized the opportunity to deepen their coexistence.

The Bedouin House is a bridge not only between Bedouin and mainstream Israeli society, but also between disabled Bedouins and their own communities.

According to Yosef Alamor, founding director of the Bedouin branch, no activities and services were available, in an organized fashion, for physically disabled Bedouins until it opened its doors in 2008 as an offshoot of the Beersheeba branch to serve some 210,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev.

“My specialty is special education, and I saw the suffering of these kids, the lack of frameworks they have — informal education, services, how to integrate. It pushed me in this direction,” Alamor told the Journal, speaking in Hebrew from his office at the 1-year-old dedicated campus. 

House of Wheels first opened in 1979, the brainchild of a school teacher who noticed that children with special needs lacked extracurricular activities. The program started with weekend sleepovers and expanded to a full array of after-school activities, run mostly by volunteers. 

The House of Hope, as it is called in Arabic, is a revolutionary idea for the Bedouin community, which is behind the curve when it comes to services for the disabled. Having children with disabilities is often seen as a stigma, even while Bedouins have a higher rate of genetic disease than do other sectors, in part because of sanctioned intermarriage among cousins. Raising a special-needs child is an enormous expense for low-income families. A large portion of the nonprofit’s $2.6 million annual budget goes toward handicap-accessible shuttles to and from the houses.

The Bedouin House, Alamor observed, uplifts the entire Bedouin family. Often, siblings join members for workshops that offer what are luxuries to some Bedouin households — photography, computers, art and music. Five-day summer camps take kids rappelling, kayaking and hiking. The disabled emerge as inspirations, not social outcasts. 

Although most of the special-needs participants are high-functioning, their speech is often impaired, as reflected in interviews with the participants. When we met, Walla Abubadir, 20, from Lakia, couldn’t stop smiling, even as she struggled to speak because of her cerebral palsy and the fact that Hebrew is her second language. Clad in a traditional Bedouin dress as part of the day’s show-and-tell, she said her favorite program is Rolling Forward, which empowers members toward independent living, including integration into the job market. She finished her matriculation exams last year and hopes to study psychology. 

“I get out of the house, a new atmosphere,” she said, via Alamor’s translation. “I see new people; I learn from the volunteers.”

Najwa Abosbetin, 18, comes from a family of 22 in the village of Tel Sheva — her father has two wives, as polygamy is still common among the Bedouin. Suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spinal cord, she counts a very tangible achievement from her eight years at the house: She can now insert a catheter independently, enabling her to use a bathroom on her own and hence travel more freely. With increased self-confidence, she hopes to become a secretary. 

“I learned things I didn’t know about,” she said via translation. 

House of Wheels has been transformative for volunteers, too. Alkmlat never encountered disabled children prior to volunteering, and today the Bedouin House is like her second home.  

“Beit HaGalgalim changed me completely,” she said. “I’m not she same Shariyan that came at age 17. My thoughts completely changed, my personality too, my self-confidence, and I see that I do give and I want to continue.” Talks like the one she gave that day have cured her stage fright, preparing her for her new job as a guide at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

“We want to show that the Bedouin community can take care of itself,”Alamor said. “Give them an opportunity, and they can manage on their own.”