30 years of refuge

Haifa women's shelter was first refuge for battered women in Israel

abuse victim 88 (photo credit: )
abuse victim 88
(photo credit: )
An onstage dialogue between "Roxanne," a tall, graceful basketball player and Nessia Tal-El, head of the Women for Women Haifa Shelter for Battered Women, was the highlight of an event marking 30 years since the haven was established. Roxanne told the story of how she had come to the Haifa shelter, a victim of ongoing abuse from her partner, broken in body and spirit, unable to function or work. "I received love and care there, practical support and regained my dignity," says Roxanne, who preferred to remain anonymous. Leaving a violent home for a shelter is probably one of the greatest life changes a woman can make. "I arrived at the shelter on a Thursday evening," she says. "There were a lot of women and many children, and it was very noisy." Roxanne soon adjusted to the atmosphere and felt as if she were part of a family. "Holy work is being done at the shelter," she says, discussing difficult times and how the staff work professionally and with care to help each woman with her own problems and with her relationships with other residents of the shelter. Today, Roxanne feels free, is playing again for her famous team and works helping children at risk. "After six weeks of care at the shelter, I was able to sleep at night. The nightmares were gone," she relates. Her message to women who decide to leave a violent home and seek refuge: "Move forward, don't look back. Have confidence in yourself and in the people who want to help you." "The shelter helped me to live again," she declares. Aside from Roxanne's story, the audience enjoyed a concert of South American music by the Amaranto group and a monologue by actor-comedian Saleem Daou, who all performed free of charge. The Women for Women Haifa Shelter was founded in November 1977 by a small group of women, the first refuge for battered women in Israel. Without any government support or other sources of funding, the shelter - originally housed in a tiny apartment - was the vision of five feminists: Marcia Friedman, Judy Hill z"l, Holit Bat-Edit, Joyce Livingstone and Barbara Swirsky. It is no coincidence that four of those women and many of the volunteers who came to help were immigrants from English-speaking countries. In the 70s, it was English-speakers who brought feminism to Israel, establishing the women's movement. Many founded organizations dedicated to advocating for women's rights in the workplace, childbirth education and support for breastfeeding. At the beginning of the decade, one of the first shelters in the world had been opened in London by Erin Pizzey, who wrote Don't Scream or the Neighbors Will Hear You. The Haifa shelter was the vision of this small group of women, who were appalled that victims of family violence had no place of refuge. They were even more dismayed by the attitude of Israeli society at that time, which maintained the fiction that "it doesn't happen here." "This, [the] first shelter in Israel, not only gave abused women a choice, a possibility to leave homes that were not safe for them or their children, but also aroused society's consciousness [to the problem]," says Ruthie Hashmonai, chairwoman of the Board of Management of the Haifa shelter. "Today, there are 12 shelters in Israel and they are used by women from every cultural and ethnic origin and from every socioeconomic level," she adds. Hashmonai says she regrets that "there is still not enough awareness, and too many women don't realize that they have a choice." Although the Welfare and Social Services Ministry has budgeted the shelter an annual amount that allows residents an average of six months there, and the premises were supplied by the Haifa Municipality after the shelter expanded and needed to move out of its original apartment, the need for funds remains urgent and ongoing. While it depends to a great extent on volunteers, the shelter can only operate with a permanent team of professionals in place: four full-time housemothers and one half-time, and three social workers. The Haifa shelter can house 11 women and 23 children, but in times of emergency, more stay there. After the Second Lebanon War, the Shusheim Foundation made a major donation, which enabled much-needed renovation and repairs to the old, neglected building. Donations from individuals, companies and fundraising organizations have been used to expand the facilities for children and create a nursery, for many women come to the shelter pregnant or soon after giving birth. "While the older children go to local schools, it's preferable for the pre-schoolers to attend kindergartens on the premises with a trained municipality teacher," says Hashmonai. Shelter director Tal-El, a psychologist, fills many roles in her position, including coordinating professional services and volunteers and working with the day-to-day problems of the women and children living there. "A woman leaving a violent home is a long process, an unparalleled change in her life and that of her children," which includes, explains Tal-El, "the effort of escaping, [as well as the subsequent] shock and recovery take time. "The shelter provides time for that process, offering support, optimism and professional treatment. We show women that they have a choice," she says. Tal-El describes the shelter as more than a place of refuge and talks about the rehabilitation programs provided: career guidance and retraining, parenting guidance to heal the enormous damage caused to children from a violent home, therapy, practical preparation for leaving the shelter and setting up an independent home; as well as legal aid to help the women with custody and alimony issues. While the women are putting their lives together again, the children receive care in an age-appropriate setting, attend school and kindergarten and are helped with homework and guided in enrichment activities by volunteers during the afternoons and during holidays. Tal-El mentions the new Facilitating Garden on the shelter's roof, where women and their children use gardening as a therapeutic experience. Dr. Rivka Yahav, a social worker and wife of Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, backed up Roxanne's feeling that the shelter's work rescuing women from violence and helplessness was indeed blessed work. When asked what changes have taken place in society's attitude toward domestic violence over the last 30 years, Hashmonai replies: "On the positive side, there's more cooperation from the police, who get special training in dealing with domestic violence. There has also been more media exposure, raising awareness. But there is still an attitude that [domestic violence] only happens in poor families from countries of distress, that it's a cultural issue. "The truth is that there is violence in the wealthiest of homes and in kibbutzim, but the women [there] often have other options for refuge and escape," Hashmonai continues. Some women's organizations do run counseling services for victims of abuse who need help but have alternative resources of accommodation for themselves and their children. "However, there are many women who live in societies that cover up the crime of violence and they aren't given access to the support systems. "The shelter provides women at risk with an opportunity to renew their life and work, regain independence and take more responsibility," Hashmonai says. "If their children are rescued from a violent home and [their] exposure to beatings and verbal abuse stops, they [might] also grow up less violent. "This event marking 30 years of the shelter is not a celebration," she laments. "There is more drug and alcohol abuse in Israel [today], and with it an increase in family violence." Women_for_women_@hotmail.com