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Launching dreams from Lod

Honorary PhD recipient Shirin Natour Hafi is building a better future for Arab students



Date: November 11, 2020

A few days before the school year begins, Shirin Natour Hafi, the Principal of ORT School for Science and Engineering in the city of Lod, does a round of introductions with the new seventh graders. The students are sitting in a circle. After she asks for their names and the names of their former schools, she asks them what their dreams are. Some say they want to be doctors, others engineers, and some haven't decided yet. One of the girls says quietly: “I don’t have a dream.” The principal turns to the counselor and says: “That is our mission.”

The first six-year Arab junior high and high school in Lod is located in the city’s “Railway Neighborhood,” known for its low socio-economic profile and high crime rates. For many of the students, the school is a lifeline, but for Shirin, who started the school in 2009 and has been its principal ever since, it’s not enough. She wants them to set their goals high.

She is one of this year’s recipients of Weizmann’s honorary PhD, which she will receive during the International Board, in recognition of her work in the ORT school, the influence she has had on hundreds of students throughout the years, and her role in a special joint program with the Weizmann Institute.

“A child raised in poverty has limited opportunities and plenty of frustration,” she says. “Being part of a minority is also far from easy. But you achieve nothing by pointing your finger at others. I remind the students: if you know who you are, and you study and excel—you will get there.” As a testament to that mantra, photos of Arab intellectuals in the humanities and the sciences decorate the building’s main hall.

A Muslim, Shirin grew up in Lod herself, in a highly educated family; her mother is a music teacher and her father is a lawyer. “I had a privileged childhood in a household that encouraged excellence. I was always told that education establishes social standing and opens doors,” she says.

Shirin attended a Jewish high school. She has a B.A. in literature and Arabic from Bar-Ilan University, and after graduating, she started teaching for the ORT educational network. “There is something magical about teaching,” she says. “When I entered a classroom and taught a poem that made the children think and open their souls, it made me feel like I could change worlds.”

She advanced in her teaching career, aspired to become a principal once the opportunity presented itself, and successfully maneuvered between the two cultures that comprise her reality: Arab and Jewish. But she eventually came to the conclusion that she is a part of a community in which she has the tools to help and that, she says, “I couldn't keep on working at a Jewish school and expect to see a change in Arab society.”

The opportunity soon presented itself to her. The mayor of Ramla stopped accepting students from Lod to the Arab high school in his city, making it necessary to start an Arab high school in Lod. Shirin applied for the principal position, and was hired.

Objections were plentiful. She faced suspicion—and even threats—being a young woman in a traditional, religious society. But Shirin was determined: the more challenging it got, the more resolved she was to succeed. “It made me insist on doing things my way,” she says. So she called the families, visited their homes, made friends—in short, led a campaign for acceptance.

With help from a series of local, national, and quasi-governmental bodies, she obtained a building and the doors opened to thousands of students. Among the first challenges was assisting students whose families couldn’t afford school books.

A safe haven

One of the school’s major collaborations is with Prof. Eran Bouchbinder of the Department of Chemical and Biological Physics. Prof. Bouchbinder met Shirin after giving a lecture to members of the nonprofit organization Bashaar. They immediately saw eye to eye, viewing education as a tool for social mobility and opportunity.

Says Shirin, “When they asked me what I wanted, instead of asking for air conditioners and computers, I asked for help with our science studies. Eran attended one of the meetings, heard my request, and returned with volunteers.” Eran established a volunteer program in which scientists, students, and postdocs both teach lessons and serve as role models. Since then, every Friday for the past 10 years, Weizmann volunteers have come to teach and mentor the students.

Educating is only one aspect of the program; offering social support is essential. “Shirin one told us that before we talk about homework, we need to make sure that every schild has a home, physically and emotionally, “ he says. “Our volunteers put their time and effort into this program, as scientists with a commitment to society.”

Last year the Lod school started sending kids to the Schwartz/Reisman Science Education Center on the Weizmann campus, where they have been able to take physics classes for five matriculation units.

“Shirin told us that when we enter a classroom, we cannot immediately see a child’s burden, and many of them carry heavy burdens. Therefore, we know that the social and interpersonal elements are inseparable from the educational element, which echoes Shirin’s holistic approach to the school as a safe haven,” he says. Ultimately, the science program is about a lot more than science. Says Prof. Bouchbinder: “We try to create a real personal bond with the kids, to educate them, and to allow them to dream.”