Heftziba’s children

When ESRA student volunteers moved into a severely deprived Ethiopian neighborhood in Netanya, they started to make a big difference in the lives of its kids.

Rafi Ingida, Ethiopian boy (photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
Rafi Ingida, Ethiopian boy
(photo credit: JOANNA PARASZCZUK)
In Heftziba, a crowded Ethiopian neighborhood on the eastern edge of Netanya, residents are busy preparing for the coming Succot holiday. On this warm evening, the whole neighborhood has congregated in the central courtyard between Heftziba’s prefab apartment blocks.
Groups of men construct succot, while others chop branches off nearby trees for the roof covering. Children run everywhere. Anywhere else in Israel, this patch of concrete would be a car park. In Heftziba, it’s a playground and community meeting space.
One of Netanya’s two Ethiopian immigrant neighborhoods, Heftziba is entirely mono-ethnic. It’s not that a lot or even most people living here are Ethiopian – everyone here is Ethiopian.
Out of 396 apartments, 392 are inhabited by Ethiopian families. The other four have been rented by ESRA – the English Speaking Residents Association – as part of an innovative social project to mentor Heftziba’s most vulnerable residents: its children.
Called Students Build a Neighborhood, ESRA’s project developed out of a grassroots-led revolution that in the space of a few years, has transformed Heftziba from a drug-infested ghetto riddled with crime and gang violence into a peaceful and clean place to live.
When Netanya absorbed 11,500 Ethiopian immigrants in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the municipality decided to house the newcomers all together in two small clusters rather than disperse them throughout the city.
The results were disastrous. Rampant poverty and unemployment, social segregation and racism, coupled with extreme culture shock, quickly transformed Heftziba into a ghetto full of drugs, alcohol, delinquent teens and racial tensions. Disaffected, angry and discriminated against, Heftziba’s youth dropped out of school, formed gangs and clashed – West Side Story-style – with white teens from neighboring Kiryat Rabin.
Then, several years ago, a group of Heftziba residents decided enough was enough and cleaned up the place themselves – literally, with brooms – and asked for help from the municipality and local organizations. That’s when ESRA got involved, says Nina Zuck, the organization’s co-chairman.
Three years ago, the Netanya municipality contacted ESRA and asked for help with a project in Heftziba.
“We said that if the municipality would partner us, we would get on board,” says Zuck. The municipality agreed. ESRA’s Students Build a Neighborhood project was born.
“We rented apartments in Heftziba and offered them rent-free to students from Netanya Academic College,” explains Zuck. “In return, the students volunteer in the community for eight hours each week.”
The students are each assigned four local children, whom they mentor over the course of the academic year. Six of the eight volunteer hours are spent mentoring, and the remaining two hours are given in community services.
“At first the students help the kids with homework,” says Zuck. “As the kids gradually start to trust them, they start to work on social skills and other problems.”
Rafi Ingida, 29, is one of ESRA’s student mentors. Born in Ethiopia, he came to Israel with his parents at the age of three. He is the eldest of seven children; his siblings were all born in Israel. Ingida knows Heftziba well: He grew up here. His parents still live in the neighborhood.
What are the major problems for kids growing up in Heftziba?
“There’s an enormous gap between these kids and their parents,” Ingida replies. “A major issue is communication. For example, lots of parents don’t speak Hebrew at home. And the kids don’t speak Amharic.”
Parents the world over occasionally stumble into the generation gap between them and their offspring, but the problem is far harder for Ethiopian families.
These parents grew up in rural, agrarian communities in a developing country. The majority left Ethiopia functionally illiterate in their native Amharic, having never gone to school. How can they understand what life is like for their kids in hi-tech, fast-paced Israel? Ingida says another problem is Heftziba’s large families.
For parents trying to cope with five or more children, sometimes a child’s school or social problems get overlooked, especially when the parents themselves are struggling.
“IT’S DIFFICULT for me to say this,” confesses Ingida.
“But sometimes kids don’t get enough support at home. It’s hard for the parents. Sometimes they can’t control their kids, so the kids go wrong. We want to give all Heftziba’s children individual care.”
One of the first students to get on board when the project started three years ago, Ingida has been involved ever since. His apartment – which he shares with another student volunteer – is on the top floor of one of the four- and five-story apartment blocks encircling Heftziba’s central courtyard. Ingida is lucky; his block is the only one in Heftziba with an elevator. Everywhere else, you have to take the stairs.
Twice a week in this spotless and homely flat, Ingida and his roommate mentor lively nine-, 10- and 11-year-olds.
“We teach the kids how to sit still and study,” says Ingida. “We teach them how to cope.”
Ingida and his fellow student volunteers – not all of whom are Ethiopian – are excellent role models for these young children, adds Zuck.
“The kids get to see how an Israeli student lives,” she explains. “And thanks to people like Rafi [Ingida], they see that Ethiopian kids can go on to study in college, that they can be successful Israelis.”
If it’s role models that Heftziba needs, Ingida fits the bill. He served three years in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and still does reserve duty (he fought in the Second Lebanon War – an experience he describes as “very, very tough”). Now entering his final year as a student of logistics and economics at Bar-Ilan University, he is thinking about his future.
“I’d love to work for a company with international connections,” he says. In addition to his volunteering and studying commitments, Ingida adds, as an afterthought, that he works at a paying job, too. The only thing he doesn’t have time for is a girlfriend, he jokes.
Modest and easygoing, with an infectious smile, Ingida is a well-known and respected figure for many of Heftziba’s children. As we stroll between the apartment blocks, two bright-eyed preteen girls, clad in the modest-yet-trendy denim skirt and bright T-shirt ensemble beloved of Israeli girls everywhere, run up to say hi and ask the time, giggling at their own hutzpa.
Across the street at the Heftziba Community Center, a gaggle of teenage boys are hanging out. A few years ago, they might have ended up in a street gang. Now they are playing ping-pong.
Inside the center, the Heftziba Ethiopian Youth Choir – another ESRA project – is rehearsing. Twelve and 13-year-old girls sit demurely in a circle and pay close attention as choir director Eva De-Mayo gives them instructions. Then the girls burst into song, in beautifully enunciated English.
It’s easy to see why the Youth Choir is the apple of Heftziba’s collective eye. “It’s lifted the whole neigh-borhood,” smiles Zuck.
Right now, these girls are busy rehearsing for a fund-raising concert at Tel Aviv’s Opera House, where they will perform with singer Achinoam Nini. Neither the girls nor their parents have ever been to the Opera House before, and everybody is excited. It’s incredible to think how far these people have come.
Ingida, his parents and hundreds of thousands of other Ethiopian Jews endured a perilous journey on foot, all for the chance to make Israel their home. They still feel the tremors of the enormous culture shock that hit them when they first arrived in Israel. Yet despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties, here in this tiny Netanya neighborhood, people are determined that their kids will have a good future.
A long, hard journey still lies ahead, but Zuck is convinced that Heftziba’s children can make it.
“These people, they’re survivors,” she says.
Heftziba’s Ethiopian Youth Choir will sing with Achinoam Nini in ESRA’s Gala Benefit at the Opera House, Tel Aviv on October 17.

For tickets call (09) 955-0657 or (09) 748-0541. All proceeds will go to ESRA community projects.