Nonprofit Breaks Arab Workers Into Mainstream High-tech Israel

Tsofen says aims to change statistics showing Arabs as totally excluded from Israel's high-tech industry.

It didn't help Shehadeh Salman, 35, from the Galilee village of Iblin, that he earned a degree in computer sciences at Bar-Ilan University with a grade average of 94, nor that he is a certified software engineer. Before he studied, during his studies and after, he continued to be a metal worker. "Jobs were all over the country, from the north to the south. I remember I saw how the Jews who studied with me found work while I, at most, was only invited to job interviews." But he wasn't hired.

For about a year Salman has been working in the profession he studied, as an employee of MITSoft in the Nazareth industrial zone. Work in high-tech is unusual among Arab university graduates; in his hometown of about 11,000 inhabitants, he says, there are only four other high-tech workers. "We know one another and the entire community knows us, because it's so unique."

Mohammed Zahalka, 40, from Kafr Kara, who is the director of MITSoft, says that "in Nazareth, a city of about 70,000, there are currently four high-tech companies. That's a figure that illustrates the disparity and the sense of a missed opportunity. It's a loss for these young people and a net loss to the country's economy. There are too many graduates of computer sciences here who aren't working in the profession; today an Arab graduate has to be special to be hired by the industry. From my experience, people who come from a different background actually add a different way of thinking, color, motivation, not to mention that the country invested a great deal of money in every such graduate, which is wasted or is transferred abroad."

Zahalka is convinced that "integrating Arab university graduates into high-tech is a logical step. Sometimes I understand the fears about hiring an Arab worker. He's different from what they're used to, but you don't build a future from fears. Can anyone understand the level of frustration of someone who finished the Technion with good grades and doesn't find work?

"It's true, people don't like to hire someone who's different, someone who didn't serve in the same army unit, didn't eat from the same mess tin and didn't live in the same community and grow up in the same youth movement. But that has to change."

A pioneer generation

In the nonprofit organization Tsofen-High Technology Centers, whose goal is to dramatically increase the number of Arab engineers in the high-tech industry, they believe that stories like that of Salman, a Tsofen graduate, will become increasingly common; after the "pioneer generation" of Salman him and his few colleagues, approximately 1,000 Arab high-tech workers will join the industry.

Yossi Coten, the director of Tsofen's development and training center in Nazareth, says today there are only about 500 Arabs among the 84,000 engineers in high-tech. "That's a harsh statistic. The Arab population is totally excluded from high-tech, though about 2,500 Arab university graduates have studied the exact sciences in the past 10 years." Coten says another 3,000 or so Arab graduates are working in the exact sciences.

Coten, Smadar Naheb (the CEO of Tsofen) and accountant Sami Saadi, who is in charge of its community relations, decided almost three years ago to establish the organization as people who came from high-tech, had a social services background and had been active in organizations operating as Jewish-Arab partnerships. Coten sums up their vision: "Let's be the ones who try to overcome the inequality in employment."

Thus, dozens of graduates in the exact sciences have, for two years now, been doing a preparatory course for employment in their desired profession in Nazareth's neglected industrial zone, in a building that once housed a sewing factory and where the state Employment Service operates on the first floor. To date, about 90 of them have found work in various companies, 85 percent of Tsofen's graduates.

"In the medical profession," says Naheb, "it has already been shown that when you allow individual talent to be expressed, the glass ceiling can be broken. We want the rules of the marketplace to play their part."

Amar Yihye, 28, from Kafr Kara, a graduate in electrical engineering from Tel Aviv University, is taking part in Tsofen's preparatory course. For a long time he couldn't find work in high-tech and started working as a math teacher, not uncommon among Arab graduates, he says. "Among my friends there are hardware engineers and people with degrees in physics who work as teachers. Another friend, with a degree in chemical engineering from the Technion, emigrated to Italy and succeeded there. I almost fell into that net, too; in the end I took a chance, left my job and came to Tsofen. It's no small matter, to leave a regular job and take this step."

The training gives him new knowledge about software and a lot of practical work. Another advantage is the lecturers who come from the industry. "We get workshops about interviews. I behaved naturally at interviews, now I understand that I have to emphasize my strong points, not be modest. In our society it's more common to be modest, to respect the person who is older and experienced. In an interview you have to know how to sell yourself," says Yihye.

Dua Khatib, 25. from Yafia, has a degree in biomedical engineering, says the interview workshops taught her that "I have to tell what I did study, not what I didn't study, not undersell myself."

A geographic separation

Nehab enumerates reasons for Arabs being excluded from high-tech, beginning with it's an industry that tends to be homogeneous. Then you add the Arab-Jewish gap. "They simply don't know each other," she says. "There is also a difficult geographic separation. It's hard for an Arab to live in cities in the center of the country, beginning with the problem of the children's education, as well as other reasons. Therefore, until this separation is a thing of the past, we have to establish the industry close to the residential areas of the Arab population in the north."

Saadi describes the graduates' problem this way: "They teach the young people to fish, but when they return home, they see there's no sea." Industry doesn't exist in the Arab communities, he says. "Now they are beginning to develop it in Nazareth - you can see the existing potential."

So Tsofen also encourages industry to reach the Arab population centers in the north, where it can help obtain government benefits, coordination with the local council, find suitable real estate, etc. The Amdocs development center in Sderot illustrates it can be done. A center planned to employ 50-60 people now has 500 people working. When young people saw there was a horizon, the number of computer sciences students in the Sderot area doubled, says Saadi. "Why shouldn't that happen in Nazareth, too?"

MITSoft is an example of a company established in a small industrial center in Nazareth. Zahalka asks: "Why should companies outsource jobs abroad? We're only an hour from the center of the country, we speak the same language and the cultural differences are not so great. As someone who has been working in the industry for years and who lectures at a high-tech college, I can say without hesitation that the abilities of the guys here are just as good as those of the guys in Herzliya. I believe we are just the beginning.

"True, it should have happened long ago. But I see more companies on the way. That will bring changes with it - the young people will have a horizon, there will be hope, the number of students will increase, there will be entrepreneurship. That will force the city to improve in terms of infrastructure. Local pride will develop."