Sandrine Amer is one of the caseworkers at the Jerusalem branch of Mehalev, known as Amin and run by British company A4e and Israeli firm Aman.
Smartly dressed and neatly presented, she seems worlds apart from the people she is trying to help. A resident of east Jerusalem, Amer is a lawyer by training and sees the work she does as her duty to help other Arab women empower themselves.
"I want to show support for women in the Arab sector," she says, as she begins to describe how, over the past year, she has been working for Amin to help Arab women find employment.
"It is not easy, there are certain cultural considerations," she points out. "It clashes with traditions in our society and it is never easy for people to accept a new thing."
Amer adds that the welfare-to-work program is a double challenge for Arab women who have never worked outside of the home. "It is a culture shock for many of them," she says, "but as an educated Arab from east Jerusalem, I believe that it empowers women and I am willing to support that."
Usually known as the Wisconsin Plan, the program is currently in a two-year pilot in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hadera and Ashkelon-Sderot. One of the main criticisms of the current model inaugurated here over 18 months ago is that it has shown little regard for cultural beliefs, especially for women from the Muslim or haredi communities. In Jerusalem, this factor is extremely significant as one third of the center's participants are residents of east Jerusalem and more than half are women.
"We know that these people have many hurdles to overcome in order to return to or join the workforce," admits Amin director Roy Newey, acknowledging the problems faced by a large proportion of devout Muslim women older than 55 who have never worked before.
"We are not making a value judgment as to whether women should or not work," he says. "Some women chose to say at home and that is great, but we have a contract with the government that says these people are in receipt of unemployment benefits and they therefore have the responsibility to seek employment."
But finding employment for many of her scarf-clad clients is not so easy, says Amer. "Head coverings are not acceptable in many work placements in west Jerusalem and in east Jerusalem there is the issue of the wages being below the minimum."
Moreover, Amer points out that many of the women have never had the chance to study and for those who do have qualifications, many do not speak adequate Hebrew.
WHILE AMER'S connection to the east Jerusalem community helps her relate to the people who are assigned to her caseload, another of Amin's case managers is a Jewish woman who speaks fluent Arabic and works exclusively with the Arab population.
Miri Kahana says that because she is not directly linked to the community she is able to help people just as effectively as Amer.
"Because I come from the outside of their community, I believe it really helps them speak more freely with me," she says, describing how she found one woman work as a cleaner earning NIS 3,000 a month.
"The hours were extremely suitable for her because she also had to take care of her seven-year-old son," she says. "Having a job helped to make her feel independent."
Also lauding the fact that work can help women feel a sense of worth, is east Jerusalem lawyer Yunis Abu Hamideh, who volunteers at the Amin center as a mediator between his community and the company in charge.
"Ninety-five percent of people in the Arab community are professional," he says. "But there are always some who don't want to work. They chose to stay at home. This is a program that makes people go out to work. Work is part of life. It is the first mitzva of our religion."
And as for the contention that Muslim women should not seek work outside of the home, Hamideh is equally firm: "The wife should go out to work, what is so bad about that? If people don't work, they can't just take the benefits and stay at home."
Originally cynical about the program, Hamideh confesses that he can see how Mehalev can become instrumental in helping his community instead of harming it.
"If people do not work, then they are more likely to seek out a life of crime or indulge in drugs," he says.
"It is a slow process, but we are managing to change perceptions little by little," says Amer, before turning back to the traditionally dressed Arab woman she is counseling. "It is a real confidence booster for women and mothers to go out and bring in money for their families." - R.E.