Setting the example

HAMED AMER, currently the sole Druse MK, saw a need in his community of Shfaram for an after-school program – and launched the nationwide Druse Youth Movement in Israel to help children develop important social values and leadership skills.

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May 16, 2013 14:11
HAMED AMER

HAMED AMER 370. (photo credit: courtesy)

 
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The displays lining the walls inside the activities hall of the youth center give the impression that this is just a typical branch of one of Israel’s many Zionist youth group movements.

A framed replica of the 1948 signed Declaration of Independence hangs prominently, next to an encased copy of the “Hatikva.” Portraits of local IDF soldiers whose lives were cut short hang nearby – killed defending the country in its many wars and military operations, or in terror attacks.

But something about this youth center seems a little different, perhaps unique in the eyes of an outsider. A perfect example is that alongside a painted blue-and-white Israeli flag on one of the walls, is another flag – painted in the five colors of red, yellow, green, blue, and white.

That multicolored flag is a religious symbol of the Druse, a somewhat secretive monotheistic religion numbering over 120,000 Arabic-speaking members in Israel, whose villages in the Upper Galilee are raising the next generation of their children to be both upstanding members of the Druse faith and proud contributing citizens of the State of Israel.

This center is located in Peki’in – a predominantly Druse village of over 5,200 loyal Israeli citizens in the Upper Galilee, which along with the other 15 Druse villages in the area, is busy shaping the lives of its youth by providing them with meaningful after-school programming.

Known as the Druse Youth Movement in Israel, over 12,000 school-aged children in 19 branches meet nearly every day with their high school-aged counselors and adult supervisors, and become instilled with knowledge and appreciation of their Druse heritage, while at the same time developing a sense of national Israeli pride.

The individual responsible for founding the movement in 2001 is Yisrael Beytenu MK – currently the sole Druse MK – Hamed Amer. Twelve years ago, Amer saw a need in his community of Shfaram for an after-school program to keep Druse children busy and out of trouble, and enable them to connect to their roots and develop important social values and leadership skills.



While the 47-year-old Amer is currently in his second Knesset term and his fifth year as an MK, during an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post over cups of strong black Turkish coffee and chocolate in an office at the Peki’in Youth Center, Amer says the children are aware that he is the head of the youth movement first, and an MK second.

“I know almost all 12,000 kids throughout the 19 branches by name,” Amer says. “And most know who I am.”

The respect that the youth have for Amer is evident as each group of children, busy at work on art projects, all stop what they are doing when he walks by and stand up to shake his hand.

Amer, who is married and has three children of his own, says that “when I want to clear my head [from work], this is where I come. Since I don’t have set hours and can be somewhat flexible, I try to be with these kids for activities and on trips whenever I can.”

According to Salman Fadul, an 18-yearold high school student and counselor at the center, a group of 100 Peki’in youth are busy there, preparing for an upcoming educational and fun outing to the Golan the following week.

Fadul – who spends a great deal of his time mentoring the 13 to 17-year-old junior counselors – says that he feels fulfilled volunteering at the center three times a week, because it gives him the opportunity “to help pass on the Druse traditions, since if they [the younger kids] don’t learn about the traditions or the culture, they will be lost.” Fadul plans on continuing his studies before serving in the IDF and then pursuing a career in medicine, and says he wants to instill in the youth a sense of “how to live as a contributing member of a community, with meaningful priorities.” His own father is a career soldier who has been serving in various roles in the IDF for over 26 years.

According to Amer, nearly 100 percent of the kids and counselors who are a part of his movement go on to serve as soldiers in the IDF. “Not only do they serve, but our graduates are represented in the elite IDF units more than any population in this country,” he says with great pride. Amer adds that overall, 84% of the Druse community in Israel is drafted into the IDF, making them the largest group, percentagewise, to be drafted annually.

Amer serves on the Knesset Finance Committee, and says he is very active in encouraging the implementation of environmentally friendly green energy.

He adds that he is extremely committed to improving road safety throughout the country.

More than anything, though, Amer says that as the only Druse MK, he feels he must do what he can to improve the lives of his fellow Druse countrymen.

“Over 90% of the Druse people live under the poverty line,” he says with disappointment.

Despite those numbers, Amer isn’t looking for handouts. “I believe, as does my party, that when you contribute to society and the society benefits, then you will reap the benefits as well.”

The Yisrael Beytenu MK maintains that “it is an honor to give back to this country, which also leads to a sense of personal security. I also believe that the party can be a warm home for many other minority groups in Israel as well .”

Amer explains that more than any other, it is the philosophy of “one who knows how to give, will get” which he hopes to instill in the children at his youth centers. “While our own kids might be in need themselves, we teach them to help others who might be even worse off,” he says, adding that the youth centers distribute 3,000 sealed food packages a month to impoverished families.

Moreover, Amer says, “Our branches always keep food in their refrigerators and provide hot meals. Some kids who can’t afford food arrive hungry after school. I want them to feel that this is their house and feel the warmth, like we are their parents.”

Another example of reaching out to help those in need is cited by Ameer Ali, a parliamentary assistant in the Knesset and vice chairman of the Druse Youth Movement. He says that during the Second Lebanon War, while the Druse villages in the North were themselves under missile fire, “the children would gather at the various branches for activities, to stay busy during that difficult time. But they would also put together 200 care packages a day for the IDF soldiers on the border, which included food, warm socks and other items, to do their part in assisting in the war effort.”

Amer adds that during Israel’s most recent operation in Gaza – Pillar of Defense – the Druse Youth Movement reached out to other Jewish groups in the South and invited them for “fun days” in the North, to give them a breather from the rocket bombardments.

In addition, Amer expresses great pride that the movement has special programs which cater towards disabled children within the community, as well as orphans who lost a parent defending the country. He points out that the Peki’in center has a special room where activities are held for the hearing and visually impaired.

Munira Ali is a 19-year-old Druse woman who is carrying out her posthigh school national service at the center, serving as a counselor for children with vision impairments. Ali is legally blind herself, which aids in her work with the children, allowing her to and share from her own experiences.

“I work with around 20 kids with eyesight problems, twice a week,” she says. “This center – where I myself started as a youth, before becoming a counselor and giving back by carrying out my national service – is an extremely warm place that always gave me a sense of connection to my community.”

Amer, who started his career as a practicing lawyer and is also chairman of the Israeli Martial Arts Association, himself a fifth-degree black belt and clearly in top physical shape, says that he would like to dedicate more of his time as an MK toward spreading the truth about the realities in Israel to people abroad.

He is currently being tutored in English, and hopes to get to a point where he can travel as a representative of the state and speak in various communities on Israel’s behalf. “I want to be involved with Israel’s hasbara [public diplomacy] efforts, so people can learn the truth about this country,” he says.

Amer feels that speaking as a Druse and spreading a positive message about Israel could go a long way in helping to change perceptions about life here.

When asked how he developed such a strong passion for the State of Israel despite not being Jewish, Amer says: “Our [the Druse] love for this land came from the home. This is something that started even before the establishment of the state.”

In addition to the Druse heritage, it’s his passion for Israel that Amer hopes to pass on through the youth movement.

“When we go out on trips, the Israeli flag goes out with us – everywhere,” he says. “That flag is a part of them, and we are all part of the same family.”

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