Israel Refuses to Fund School Transport for Visually Impaired Arab Girl

Fidaa, a third-grade student, has been learning to read Braille in Hebrew only. The Education Ministry refuses to fund her ride to school on the grounds that there is one closer, but it only teaches in Arabic

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Fidaa Abu Afash at her home in Wadi al-Na'am, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, November 30, 2020.
Fidaa Abu Afash at her home in Wadi al-Na'am, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, November 30, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Israel has stopped providing transportation for a nine-year-old Beduin girl to her school in Be’er Sheva, which has caused her to only go to class two or three days a week for the past year or so.

Fidaa Abu Afash of the Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am has been enrolled at the bilingual Degania School since kindergarten. Money was donated on her behalf to the school but not enough to pay the daily transportation costs, so she gets to school only when the family is able to pay someone the 150 shekel ($45.6) cost of driving her there. Her mom, Nasreen, does not have a driver’s license.

The Naveh Midbar Regional Council funded her rides to school for two years, adding her to a vehicle that drove another child from the same community to a kindergarten for visually-impaired children. But they stopped the funding a year ago, when Abu Afash was in the second grade, claiming they had asked the Education Ministry why the money was halted and discovered that the ministry feels she should attend a school that is closer, in the Segev Shalom area.

However, Abu Afash was learning how to read Hebrew Braille at the Degania school, and she does not read Arabic, which is the language taught at the school in Segev Shalom where the ministry wants to place her.

“Learning reading and writing skills in Braille is a very complicated process,” Yael Weiss-Reind, the director of Horizon for Our Children, an organization that helps parents of the visually impaired, said. “For Abu Afash the process began at an early age in Hebrew.”

Fidaa Abu Afash at her home in Wadi al-Na'am, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, November 30, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Sigal Tobabin, a teacher at Degania said Abu Afash hasn’t been to school regularly for a while “and her Hebrew has been slipping accordingly.” She says Abu Afash had integrated well into the classroom and “is very popular here. On breaks and outings the children all focus on her, they want to help her, sit near her. If we set the educational aspect aside, the children here are her friends and she wants the connection with them.”

The Be’er Sheva municipality had apparently placed Abu Afash in the Degania School as the most appropriate setting, where her needs are taken into account, the teacher says.

Abu Afash lives about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the school, about a 20 minute drive. The Elnor school where the ministry wants her to go and which is also accessible for the visually impaired is about 15 minutes from her home, and a distance of 13 kilometers away. The ministry said in their response that the distance from her home to the Elnor School is four kilometers, ignoring the fact that there is no direct road to the school, and the drive is much longer than the actual distance.

The ministry told Haaretz that it has never paid for school transport to Be’er Sheva and that the local council, in an act of goodwill – because a boy at the community had a legally mandatory ride – were paying for that and she was able to join. A special needs child is entitled to ministry funding to get to a school with a special education program. Abu Afash’s mother decided to enroll her in a regular school based on a professional recommendation and therefore she was not entitled to have the government pay for transportation to that school, which is further away.

Hanan Afuta, director-general of the Neveh Midbar Council told Haaretz that “the moment a parent wants to take their child to a regular school setting, and not special education, the child must go to the school that is closest to their home. The moment the mother decided to enroll the girl in the bilingual school it was clear to her she would have to drive the girl there. We have hundreds of buses available for the regular school leaving all the communities on a daily basis but in this case there is a need for private transport, which costs about 300 shekels a day.”

Fidaa Abu Afash at her home in Wadi al-Na'am, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, November 30, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Nasreen, the mother, says the council only checked on whether she was entitled to transportation assistance after she complained that the drivers were always late. This happened in October, when Abu Afash had already begun her third year at the school. “I said, ‘you’re only noticing this now? Now you remember to say stop’?”

“It was all because I made a fuss and complained about the tardiness,” the girl’s mother said.

In recent months Nasreen has approached the ministry also through the Horizon for Our Children group and attorney Haran Reichman of the legal education clinic at the University of Haifa. Lihi Solomon, the official responsible for school transport in the southern district, responded again and again that “according to instructions, a pupil who is in a regular school has to go to the one closest to their home.”

Weiss-Reind says “the bureaucratic claim is particularly jarring since Abu Afash is entitled to transportation simply because she is bind, and to so blatantly ignore her special needs is a difficult blow, educationally, emotionally and socially. The decision is inexplicable, to force her to return to learning Braille in Arabic at the kindergarten level.”

Reichman and the Horizons for Our Children group filed an administrative appeal against the Education ministry and the local council demanding they continue to provide her with transportation to the school.

“The basis for the Education Ministry’s decision not to organize and budget her transportation to the Degania School … is based on an assumption that Abu Afash has a proper alternative, a school that’s nearby and accessible in her own regional council but that’s not the case,” the appeal says.

The Education Ministry said in response: “The ministry takes care to provide the pupil with all her educational and emotional needs. In the past year as well the pupil was placed in a school near her place of residence. This framework is appropriate to her personal needs and she receives all required care.”

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