The story of G is the first thing that Kess introduces us to. “I asked G, a widow who lost her husband due to murder in the Arab society, to read it here.” G participates with her children at the Hamaniot Center in Jaffa. “Two years ago, the father of my three children was murdered. Following the murder, my eldest son, who was 11, started talking about death. He said he wanted to go up to the sky to live with his father. My children stopped believing in people, constantly living in fear, the fear of abandonment. They asked me how long we will live in fear. These should not be the worries of children. That is how my children were before they started going to the Hamaniot Center, but today they are in a different place. They talk about their father, and they understand that he won’t return. They feel like any other kid in the group, and my son talks less about death and wanting to live with his father.”
Kess tells us that “This is the story of hundreds of Arab-Israeli women who lost their children’s father to a gunshot, hundreds of fatherless orphaned children, hundreds of children suffering from fears and anxieties, who are afraid to go out and play with their friends, fearing they may never return home. These children, left unseen in the eyes of the state, both because they are Arab citizens and because they are orphans, do not receive recognition nor appropriate treatment.
“Let us not be mistaken,” she emphasizes, “the absence of treatment in this matter ultimately leads to an endless cycle of cruel acts of revenge, which erode the fabric of Israeli society as a whole.”
Kess’s story begins with the loss of her own father at the age of 14. She says, “I was the only one in my class without a father. When I turned to the school counselor and the welfare department, they said they couldn’t help me. I found myself seeking help in the wrong places. At the age of 16, I joined an organization for leadership development, and there I founded Hamaniot. It was born out of the desire and need for a supportive and preventive framework that I didn’t have.”
Prior to that, Kess noticed a significant lack of research and knowledge about civilian orphans in Israel. Therefore, she created the Israeli Orphanhood Report in collaboration with Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, and the Ministry of Welfare. The report was widely covered in the Israeli media and was the first to shed light on the distressing situation. Today, approximately 35,000 civilian orphaned children, up to age 18, who have lost one or both parents due to non-military circumstances, live in Israel. Without support, orphaned children may suffer devastating consequences during their adolescent years. They are four times more likely to be arrested, ten times more likely to be defined as at-risk youth, thirteen times more likely to drop out of school, and fifteen times more likely to suffer from eating disorders. These immediate consequences are further compounded by long-term effects, such as a drug and alcohol addiction rate eight times higher than the norm and a twenty-five times higher likelihood of engaging in prostitution. Unfortunately, civilian orphaned children currently lack government support and resources, with 40% living in poverty and relying on the lowest allowance given in Israel.
Kess wipes away a tear as she tells us about the hundreds of families and children she saves. “Hamaniot is the only organization in Israel dedicated to civilian orphanhood. Our main activity is providing preventive support to orphans through risk-reduction programs for orphans aged 4-18, in 22 municipalities across Israel, supporting approximately 750 families each year. Additionally, the organization has an awareness, education, and policy array aimed at shifting social attitudes and creating societal change in the field of civilian orphanhood.”
Today, Kess faces a new project: establishing an array of activity within Arab society. She explains: “About 35% of the orphans in Israel come from Arab society, and in 90% of the cases, these are children who have lost their fathers - many of them due to murder. By the midpoint of 2023, there were already more than 100 reported cases of murder, while the rate of violence against women and mothers in Arab society continues to rise each year. All this is without addressing other cases of civilian orphanhood, including deaths from accidents, diseases, and suicides. Widows and orphans in Arab society suffer not only emotionally but also financially, in a reality where only 37% of the women are employed, 67% of the families live in the lowest income brackets, and poverty is prevalent.
“For all of these challenges, there is a severe shortage of educational and welfare services (with an average gap of around NIS 4,500 compared to Jewish citizens) and a lack of non-profit organizations in the Arab sector. Additionally, 50% of Arab orphans end up living with their grandparents, experiencing a double sense of abandonment. The combination of fatherless lives, poverty, the vulnerability of Arab women within society, and a lack of educational, welfare, and third-sector services, create a reality where a significant number of Arab children and adolescents are at risk every day.”
Despite her young age, Kess is not afraid to set ambitious goals. Together with the center’s team, she has developed a five-year strategic plan to achieve success for the center’s initiative within Arab society. One of the ambitious goals of the plan is that within the next five years, 35% of all beneficiaries of the association will come from Arab society, including the Bedouin community.
“After five years of experience in implementing risk-reduction support, proactive efforts in collaboration with dozens of local authorities and the Ministry of Education, we are now moving towards establishing a support array within the Arab society. For the past year, we have been working on the development of an operational model for our programs within the Arab community, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the Ministry of Welfare, the Ministry of Education, civil society organizations operating within the Arab society, and philanthropists who focus their efforts in this field.”
Kess summarizes with her hope for more organizations and philanthropists to join and connect with Hamaniot in the center’s initiative within Arab society. She states, “This is a life-saving project. The harsh reality in Arab society leaves many orphans without any support or assistance. It is our duty to help these orphans, to remove them from the endless cycle of violence, and to transform their lives from lives of risk into lives full of opportunities and growth, for their sake and for the sake of the entire society.”