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Ten years ago, David Zegeye, Rafi Bero and a few others among the thousands of Ethiopian immigrants who settled in Hadera took a few Ethiopian-Israeli children under their wing of an afternoon.
Hunched up in the entrance of one of the drab apartment blocks in Hadera's Pe'er neighborhood, Zegeye, Bero and friends began assisting the kids with their homework, dispensing advice and trying to keep them out of trouble.
The number of children seeking their support, guidance and friendship rapidly grew, forcing them to seek a venue for their in-demand activities.
The 'sittings' on the doorstep gradually moved to a grassy area under some neighborhood trees, but when the numbers grew and shade ran out, a safe place for the kids for a few afternoon hours became top priority for the small band of informal educators.
A derelict air-raid shelter frequented by drug addicts under an eight storey block of apartments housing mostly elderly immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union would hardly seem to fit the bill, but Bero and his visionary friends saw the possibilities.
They formed MAKSAM, a non-profit organization. Maksam, an Amharic term meaning pollination as a bee passes from flower to flower collecting nectar to produce honey, has since become the buzz-word for huge efforts being made to facilitate sweet success for Ethiopian-Israeli kids.
Operated by the Gidon Association of Ethiopian Jews, a non-profit organization committed to improving the future outlook for Hadera's young Ethiopian-Israelis, MAKSAM (www.maksam.org) is unique in that it is supervised by an all-volunteer Ethiopian management committee.
The Ethiopian-Israeli community numbers some 100,000 people, with over 60 percent under the age of 18. Over 75% of Ethiopian immigrants came from environments of subsistence farming, with little or no formal education, and traditional community and family support systems have collapsed since arriving in Israel. According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, only 28% of Ethiopian students pass matriculation exams - less than half the national average, while 6.2%, double the national average - drop out of school between the ages of 14-17.
Nowadays, over a hundred Ethiopian children spend their late afternoon and early evening hours in the class and club rooms in the maze of shelters under the same block of flats. A decade ago, their elder brothers and sisters would have been hanging around with little positive to do.
MAKSAM now runs another four neighborhood centers in Hadera, providing the opportunity of academic reinforcement, youth programs that strengthen social skills and self-esteem, and educational programs that improve the coping skills of their local community. Over 400 Ethiopian-Israeli schoolchildren attend on a daily basis, and a number of parents participate in empowerment projects. The MAKSAM team is also mentoring a small center that recently opened in nearby Pardess Hanna, where many Ethiopian families have settled.
During the recent Sigd, the annual Ethiopian Jewish festival where special prayers are said to renew the covenant between God and the people of Israel and their longing to reach Jerusalem, Metro paid a visit to two of the afternoon centers in Hadera's Yosephtal and Pe'er neighborhoods.
The entrance to the municipal-owned Yosephtal building is decorated with brightly colored works of art. Even before seeing the children who created a rainbow in a narrow unattractive stairwell, one begins to realize that this is a special place.
In several rooms on the second floor, dozens of children from first to sixth grade are either absorbed in their homework - with big brother/sister students from Ruppin College and other volunteer teachers on hand - or preparing artwork depicting the significance of Sigd, their very own special holiday.
An Ethiopian-Israeli student assistant plays a handcrafted string instrument used by the community in their former homes in rural villages throughout Ethiopia. Danny, the student, strums away to a group of wide-eyed, if rather shy, smiling children seated around a table industriously cutting, pasting and arranging collages on cards. They slowly build symbols and scenes depicting Sigd and the central place that Jerusalem holds in the holiday prayers and celebrations.
In another room, other children are busily working on a joint creation under the watchful eye of paid art teacher Olga, herself a new immigrant with only six years in Israel under her artistic belt. The talented former volunteer is still struggling with the Hebrew language, but there's no need for words to see how her young charges feel about their achievements, including the eye-catching artworks in the downstairs entrance.
The Yosephtal center also boasts a computer room with ten computers, a gift from the Partner telecommunications company. The youngsters, sitting on bright orange plastic chairs (also contributed by the company), concentrate on the screens in front of them as two students flit from child to child dispensing advice or a friendly pat on the shoulder.
One of the larger rooms doubles as a dining-room where each child receives a hot meal before returning home. For some of the children this might be their only nourishing meal of a day, such is their families' economic plight.
Volunteer bible and literature teacher Yaron Baumgarten is in the classroom with a few pencil-biting third grade pupils. He shows amazing patience as they struggle to comprehend a page of text, and then slowly begin to smile when another penny of knowledge drops.
Bero and the other volunteers lovingly created the Pe'er neighborhood center from the garbage-filled reeking labyrinth of reinforced rooms in the apartment building basement, which doubles as a bomb-shelter in times of war. "When we initially decided to look what was behind all the rubbish piled up outside, we discovered all these rooms - but they were filthy, full of stuff you wouldn't want to know about - including discarded syringes," explained Bero, a Hadera municipality employee who works with disabled youth and adults in a sheltered workshop.
He was standing in the main room of the labyrinth of various sized rooms that MAKSAM volunteers managed - against all odds - to transform into a warm and welcoming center providing tools for the children to build a better future for themselves and their communities.
Former headmistress Dalia Klipper is the Educational Director of the entire MAKSAM network. She is working with both professional and volunteer staff in dealing with the scores of children and youth who use the center, as well as running projects for adults. More than a hundred children are crowded around their teachers and student activity leaders in the maze of rooms leading off the main area. Despite the large number of youngsters at work or play in the different sections of the large basement complex, there is little noise. "The children are eager to come here. There is a tremendous sense of pride felt by the staff in the achievements of the children and obviously the children themselves and their extended families," explained Klipper, an energetic educator who doesn't seem to sit or stop advising, cajoling or just plain helping out.
Ethnically-themed colorful paintings decorate the corridor walls, the work of groups of children. One work still in progress is the fruit of the labor of a group of MAKSAM graduates - some already after army service - who pop in occasionally to help out and give back a little of the tender loving care they themselves received just a few short years ago.
A dozen or so nine-to-11 year olds are industriously working in front of computer screens, the computers in this particular center a contribution from Rotary. "The children do not have computers at home and without the possibility to use those here they would fall behind other children at school and feel even more disadvantaged," explained Klipper as she directed a grandfather - dressed in a suit with traditional white cloak wrapped around his slim body - to where he could find his grandchild.
Klipper spends six to eight hours a day at the Pe'er center. No daylight enters the rooms - the sealed 'windows' are actually thick steel escape hatches with small ladders painted in fluorescent orange, opened only in times of war.
Doesn't she ever get depressed spending so much time underground? "I might go underground when I come in but I leave every day feeling that I have almost touched the sky," Klipper quickly answered with a broad smile.
It would seem that even the sky holds no limits for MAKSAM's founders, staff and volunteers, so collectively determined to propel the Ethiopian-Israeli community toward a faster track to successful absorption into Israeli society.
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