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Finding the Widows Center in the Arab-Israeli village of Kafr Reina is not an easy task. Located high on the hillside overlooking Nazareth, one is meant to take a sharp right turn on a steep, narrow and unmarked road to reach it, but without signposts or street names we speed right past the turnoff.
Putting the car in reverse and then turning the wheel as far right as it will go, we manage to turn around and are finally driving bumpily through the potholed streets of this Galilee village.
It does not take us long to spot the center, even though manager Israa Zarura stands outside waving excitedly. The parade of scarf-clad women arriving en masse and armed with colorful pots of aromatic Middle Eastern foods gives away any chance of the center's anonymity.
As we follow the people inside, the carefree chatter and excited voices are little indication to the somber history that has brought these women of all ages together under one roof and united in one goal.
"The life of an Arab widow is very hard," says Zarura, a trained social worker, as she shows me around the humble center with its computer-filled classroom and activity room for the widows' children, and large meeting room complete, of course, with the essential kitchen.
"Widows sit on the sidelines of our community," she explains. "Not only has the woman lost her husband and the person who can support the family, but her life is suddenly placed under a microscope and she is not allowed any independence by her own family and the family of her dead husband."
According to Zarura, the Widows Center in Kafr Reina is the only such club in Israel aimed at Arab-Israeli women - Muslim and Christian - whose husbands have died.
"Our main goal is to offer them friendship and support," states Zarura, adding that the women are encouraged to try to change the status quo, even if only on a personal level.
"Arab society is very traditional and if a widowed woman decides to go out and work, it is often frowned upon, even if she is doing it to support her family. We are trying to make changes and we approach the widows and encourage them to come; it's not easy but it's slowly changing."
As well as the professional training courses in sewing and jewelry making that are run out of the center, the women also enjoy empowering workshops in topics such as financial management and obtaining legal advice. In addition, there is an emotional support group and a range of activities for the children, especially in the afternoons and during school vacations, so that the mothers have time to pursue employment or follow any of their other dreams.
"We started five years ago as a simple support group," says Zarura, who managed to secure the backing of the local municipality's Social Services Department, which helps to refer widows to the center. "At first it was just a communal breakfast for the women to get out of the house and to get together to discuss their problems, but now it has grown into more of a community center, a safe place for the women to come and be together."
Thanks to financial support from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), a nonprofit organization that provides millions of dollars to Israel's most underprivileged sectors, the Widows Center now caters to some 125 women from Kafr Reina and nearby Kafr Mashad.
"These women have almost nothing, just a little financial assistance from the National Insurance Institute and that's it. They are the weakest of the weak and no one else was helping them," comments Dvora Ganani-Elad, IFCJ chairwoman.
The organization, which relies on donations from Christian supporters of Israel abroad, donates roughly 7 percent of its $60 million Israel-based budget to projects for minority populations.
"The IFCJ is committed to strengthening all segments of Israeli society, which of course includes Arab, Druse, Beduin and other minorities," points out Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the IFCJ. "We have had much success in working with these citizens of Israel and remain committed to supporting their efforts now and in the future."
"Our main goal is to give projects initial assistance," Ganani-Elad explains, "and then see them become independent, either because the local authority takes on the responsibility or because those involved create a way to become financially independent."
However, she adds, that the Kafr Reina Widows Center will likely "never gain such independence" because there are too many barriers to its success. Despite that, the organization hopes to use the center as a model for other Israeli Arab localities. Three proposals are already in the process of being developed.
BACK AT the center, the women sit in a circle waiting patiently to tell me some of their personal experiences. As they together take care of their children, it is clear that even though these women share pain and loss, they also draw strength from each other and are determined to make a change in their society.
"I have been a widow for eight years," says one of the older women, clad in traditional Arab dress. "I have suffered so much. After my husband died, I was left alone with the children and I had to take care of my parents and his parents.
"I'm a hairdresser and it was my dream to open a salon, but never had the support before. Since I started coming to this center two years ago, I have started working again. We all help each other and give each other the strength to carry on."
"I have learned so much from coming here," joins in Horeya Abo Gohar, 42, whose husband died 13 years ago, leaving her to raise five children alone. "It has taken me a long time but I have finally realized that whatever a man does I can do too... this center gave me the strength to understand that."
"In the beginning I thought I would not be able to do anything with my life," she continues, admitting that her newfound independence is sometimes frowned upon by her extended family. "There were so many barriers, but last year I found the strength to open my own business as a childminder, and now I take care of other women's children so that they can go out to work."
Bassoul Gadah, whose intricate jewelry designs are proudly displayed in the center's tiny office, tells a similar story.
"I've been a widow for 16 years," she says. "At first I went into shock. I could not take care of my three children and my siblings had to come from abroad to help me. My youngest son was only a newborn and someone else had to feed him because I just could not. My husband had been supporting us financially and then suddenly he was gone. I had no idea what we would do."
At first Gadah was forced to rely on her husband's family for support but soon the strain of her loss became too much, and in 2000, at only 31, she had a heart attack.
"The doctors said it had been caused by the stress of my husband dying so suddenly, but it made me realize that I had to pull myself together for sake of my children," she recalls. "I realized that if something happened to me too, there would be no one left to take care of them."
It was a life-altering moment for Gadah, who says she had no option but to go against the will of her husband's family and start studying to become a kindergarten teacher.
"I could not stay at home any longer, I had to go out and find a way to support my family myself," she says, adding that the initial learning spurred her to go on to study architecture and engineering at a nearby technical college.
EVEN THOUGH she does not work full-time today because of her medical condition, Gadah says that the experience has empowered her and brought her to the Widows Center three years ago to inspire other widows to make their own choices.
Today, in her spare time, she makes and sells jewelry to friends.
"It's not easy for a woman in my situation to assert independence," she observes. "But I don't care anymore, I want to be a good example to my children and show them that I can take care of them too."
More and more women come forward to tell their stories. Each shares a similar thread and each is very proud of all she has achieved with the help of the center and the friends she has made there. One woman has already opened a successful bakery in the village, while another has learned to sew and uses the center's equipment to make simple garments for her friends and family.
After each one shares her personal story we sit down together for the highlight of the day - the home-cooked food. Breads covered with za'atar and other spices, grape leaves stuffed with rice, lentils of all colors and shapes and cakes and knafe for dessert fill the oversized kitchen table. Each woman comes forward with her creation and demands that it be tasted and commented on.
"You should open a restaurant," I muse.
"Inshallah, one day, perhaps we we'll have the support to do just that," agrees Zarura. "We've come so far already, anything is possible."
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