A chance to flourish

“I’ve met many children in whom I see myself,” Assiyah says. “I always tell them, ‘Look me in the eyes. If I, as a little girl, succeeded to change things in my life, then anyone can."

June 13, 2019 15:16
A chance to flourish

Merav Ifergan and Ester Assiyah. (photo credit: DAVID SALEM)

In Israel’s geographic and social peripheries, thousands of middle-school children are neglected, abused, or simply living with unaddressed behavioral and emotional problems. In addition to struggling academically, they may have trouble making friends and they often feel hopeless about the future.

The Youth Futures program aims to provide every child with the skills and confidence to succeed. It does so by placing specially trained “Mentors” who work with the children, school staff, parents and community to provide tailored services to the children most in need of help, and guidance for parents to create nurturing home environments.

In her work as a Mentor with Youth Futures, Ester Assiyah feels she is bringing closure to her own difficulties as a child. Now 40, she first left Ethiopia with her parents when she was six years old. Their attempt to walk to Israel through Sudan failed, and instead of enrolling in first grade Assiyah spent several months in a Sudanese prison. The next few years included residency in a refugee camp.

Finally, when she was 12, she was adopted and brought to Israel, where her life remained difficult in many ways. By the time she saw her birth parents again, she says, “I was a very scarred, very vulnerable girl. I was breathing, but I was dead inside. My father told me he no longer recognized me.”

But Assiyah overcame her trauma and dedicates her professional life to helping others do the same. Like all Youth Futures Mentors, she is assigned just 16 middle-school children at a time, for periods of three years each, to help them learn coping skills and improve their confidence levels, study habits, ability to make friends, and ability to manage their anger and hurt. She also makes home visits and collaborates with the children’s teachers, guidance counselors and social workers to create a cohesive network of support for each child.

“I’ve met many children in whom I see myself,” Assiyah says. “I always tell them, ‘Look me in the eyes. If I, as a little girl, succeeded to change things in my life just by the power of my will, then anyone can. Just stay with me and let me help you.’ My work with the children is a healing process for me, too.”

Youth Futures, a subsidiary of The Jewish Agency for Israel, was established in 2006 and now provides comprehensive support services to children and families in 36 cities across all sectors of Israeli society: secular, ultra-Orthodox, Arab, Bedouin, and Druze. More than 12,000 children and their family members receive life-changing guidance from the program each year. 

Faced with a $1.1 million deficit for the 2019 program year – which could mean withdrawing mentoring services from around 1,000 children – Youth Futures will run an intensive 36-hour fundraising campaign in Israel from June 23-24, through the Charidy fundraising platform, with all Mentors and Coordinators, together with program headquarters, the Youth Future’s Board of Directors, and other volunteers working the phones at 32 ad hoc call centers throughout the country.

Any donations made during this 36-hour period will be matched by established donors as long as the call centers succeed in raising at least a million shekels (with matching funds leveraging that amount to 2 million shekels).

“The first thing we do is ask the child what changes they want to make in their lives,” explains Merav Ifergan, a Mentor in Dimona. “We talk with them, not above them, and start from a place where they already feel strong. Everyone has potential. We just help to bring it out.”

In many cases, children see their Youth Futures Mentor as a caring adult to whom they can turn when they don’t trust anyone else. “I had a girl whose life had been very difficult from the moment she was born,” Ifergan remembers. “She admitted that she felt alone even when she was surrounded by people. She wanted to please others to the extent that she ignored her own physical needs.”

“One day, just before Shabbat, I drove from Dimona to Beersheba to look for her at the bus station, because she’d said she was going to hurt herself. I worked with her one on one, with other children and with mental health professionals, and we helped her learn how to trust people. At the end of our three years together, when she left for high school, it was hard to let her go. She’s still an at-risk child. But I’ve given her tools to go on in life, and I can only hope she continues to use them.”

In most cases, the Youth Futures staff work with parents as well, helping them access financial assistance to which they are entitled, teaching them how to manage their finances, time and organizational skills, and often explaining what their children need and how they, as parents, can step up to their responsibilities.

“One of my kids came from an Ethiopian family of seven children and they were being raised by a single mom who suffered from depression,” Assiyah recalls. “The boy would come to school wearing clothes that were inappropriate for the weather, his teeth were black, and his self-image was in tatters. Of course he had no interest in school. I knew that to help him, I first had to uplift his mother. I needed to hold a mirror up to her and make it clear that she needed help – and that if she didn’t get that help, her son was likely to run away.

“At first she recoiled. She couldn’t understand how I, who came from the same culture that she did, could say something like that to her. But eventually it sunk in, and she started taking some initiative. And one day I saw her son smiling. That made everything worth it.”

A formal independent study in 2017 by the Digma Institute showed that children enrolled in Youth Futures undergo long-lasting positive changes, and that the presence of a Mentor in a school benefits the school community in general.

According to the study, 86% percent of teachers seek a Mentor’s help to solve problems, 86% of parents reported increased understanding of their child’s needs, and 98% of alumni, now in high school, still see their Mentor as someone who helped them succeed.

Additionally, 99.5% of alumni graduate from high school, a tremendous increase over those from the same communities who do not participate in the program. Graduates are also more likely to participate in youth movements and enlist in the army, an important factor for their future success in Israel.

“I never give up on a child,” Assiyah says emphatically. “If they close a door, I come in through the window. If they don’t want me, I try to understand what it is about me that isn’t right from their point of view, and what is deterring them. I want to show them that it’s possible to succeed – and it’s always possible. There is no such thing as failure because I have no other choice. To me, every child is a little Ester.”

To make a donation to Youth Futures from Israel go to: https://www.charidy.com/yf; to donate from abroad go to: https://www.charidy.com/youthfutures

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