Seif, an eight-year-old pupil, had no trouble admitting that he had abused animals. “I used to treat cats like toys,” he said. “Toss them around and hurt them.”
This is not an uncommon occurrence, as countless of his peers also expressed disdain for animals.
“But I’ve changed,” Seif said, and his classmates echoed, thanks to a program run by nonprofit organization Hakol CHAI (Concern for Helping Animals in Israel), which gives pupils in the Arab education system the chance to interact with animals and teaches them about the importance of caring for them.
Seif is one of hundreds of pupils in 4th through 6th grades across 10 schools in Northern Israel currently taking part in the 12-session program called “Expanding the Circles of Compassion.”
“There is a need, in general, for work with animals and raising awareness of animals,” Muna Shaheen, DVM, Hakol CHAI’s director of Arab Education in Israel, recently told The Jerusalem Post
. “The situation is not very good right now in Israel, be it for pets or wild animals. They are suffering.”
While this is a widespread problem impacting all sectors of Israeli society, Shaheen said it is particularly visible in the Arab sector, where there is a “lack of awareness of how to be with animals and how to treat them.”
The program was originally initiated in 2012, following a conference on “Humane Education” geared toward Arab educators and sponsored by Hakol CHAI in collaboration with the Education Ministry.
According to Shaheen, a veterinarian who also has a background in social work, the innovative program is based on evidence demonstrating a linkage between violence toward animals and toward other people.
“According to research, once you work 40 hours with children about compassion, then something changes in them to become more compassionate,” she said.
Shaheen, who also teaches in the program, said that animals are often treated as an “it,” as children lack the awareness that animals also have feelings.
“Children have a natural love for animals and you just have to go and wake that up and help them see,” she said. “In the program, we talk a lot about what the experience of the animal is. It is a language that they don’t understand. We are so busy with surviving that we don’t pay attention to animals.”
As such, the initiative develops and fosters empathy in children through a connection to animals and by exploring their connection to nature around them.
“We talk about pets and then farm animals,” Shaheen said. “And once they are familiar, we talk about the environment, we talk about leadership and violence – and all kinds of added values that are connected to the topic itself.”
Additionally, children are given the chance to interact directly with the animals, both pets and farm animals, and learn how to care for them.
“The results speak for themselves. The children change right before your eyes,” she said.
Principals of the participating schools have given video testimony and explained how the program has helped reduce violence, not only toward animals, but among the pupils themselves.
Gassan Grifat, a principal in one of the schools participating in the program, said: “The students internalized that any violence we commit toward animals, any animal – be it cat or dog, homeless animal or other – will make it easier for them to use violence toward human beings when they grow up.”
“We helped students internalize that they cannot commit any kind of violence toward animals or humans,” he said.
The initiative has become very successful in curbing violence, Shaheen said, and there is currently a long waiting list of additional schools that would like to incorporate the program in the coming year.
“The program was meant to help animals but it turns out it is helping reduce violence in general,” she said. “The interaction with animals is helping children develop compassion and this helps to create a less violent society in the future.”
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