Living on a prayer: The children's needs

Thanks to volunteers, a group of girls have found new direction in otherwise troubling times.

Going from spacious villas to cramped hotel rooms has not been easy on the children evacuated from Gaza. Nor has the adjustment to new schools and acquaintances. But thanks to volunteers, a group of girls have found new direction in otherwise troubling times. "Our children grew up spending every afternoon playing outdoors, with the freedom to run around and let off steam," said Rina Akerman, who represented a group of Gaza mothers before a November 8 Knesset session of the Committee for the Rights of the Child. "Now they are cooped up like monkeys, with no outlet for their energy." When the mothers described this to the committee and asked for afternoon activities, a Sela representative said his organization was already running after school activities in all the hotels. Ackerman disputed that, calling it an "outright lie." "The only people providing activities are kind-hearted volunteers from Ma'aleh Adumim, Har Nof and elsewhere," Akerman said. "Even my son comes from yeshiva on Fridays to give a karate class to the kids... Another young man takes the boys to play basketball at the nearby Jerusalem College of Technology, but when he needed another ball, he had to find the funds himself." Miriam Stern, a Holocaust archivist at Michlalah Jerusalem College who lives in Har Nof, has been volunteering at the Shalom Hotel since the evacuees first arrived there. She said she had "personally provided the Shalom Hotel with volunteers for the activities, so I know they are not coming from Sela. "We have volunteers running a choir, arts classes, drama, animal therapy, and movement therapy," she said, adding that volunteers pay the costs of their transportation and raw materials. "We have recruited volunteer psycho-drama therapists, art therapists and psychologists to work with the adults and the children... We even have women coming to assist the single employee of the day-care center who would otherwise have to care for 18 babies by herself." However, Sela officials said that such activities and "informal education" for children in the hotels are not the organization's responsibility. That "lies with the Ministry of Education," said Daniel Strull, the head of psychological and community services at Sela. "We do not have a budget for these activities; only for those in organized communities such as Yad Binyamin." Dikla Cohen, formerly of Neveh Dekalim, who coordinates the activities for the Shalom Hotel, said the Ministry of Education was providing some manpower and transportation. But she insisted that "everything else," from art supplies to psychological counseling, has to be volunteered, funded or donated by private individuals. "There is an urgent need for psychological counseling for the children and youth - even the Knesset allocated funds for their provision - but despite submitting formal proposals to Sela for a number of different programs, they refuse to fund any of them," she said. "Sela is neither providing services nor funding our services in this hotel and neither will any other government ministry. They all pass the buck elsewhere." However, according to Strull, the problem lies with the families' refusal to ask for help from Sela. He also rejected Cohen's request that Sela provide the funding for programs designed and run by the evacuees themselves. "They are demanding help in their way according to their wishes and that's not the way it works," he said. "We have our own criteria for selecting social workers." Moreover, anyone who needs counseling and is too timid to approach a social worker can call the Ma'anim hotline to receive help, he said, adding the hotline had provided assistance to 70 families since its opening six weeks ago. As the dispute between Sela and the evacuees rages on, the latter continue to take their children's welfare into their own hands. Miriam Stern was instrumental in the launch of a program in which the 6th to 8th grade girls are going to Michlalah's teachers college twice a week. There they receive special tutoring by the math and English students, supplemented by enrichment activities such as theater and computers. "Within four days of my suggesting it, Michlalah had held a full staff meeting, distributed fliers to their students in every department and the entire project was rolling," Stern said. "Everyone is involved at some level." Akerman, whose 8th grade daughter refused to return to her temporary school after Sukkot, expresses her gratitude for the Michlalah program. "Their students have placed a smile back on my daughter's face. She really enjoys the classes and the genuine concern of the students," Akerman said. "She is even encouraging another friend who has also dropped out of school to come with her. "In the present situation, I am very grateful that at least my daughter is studying and has the opportunity to keep up academically with her peers, so that she will be able to enter high school next year at the same level," she said. Akerman added that many of the evacuee children, both in the hotels and in Nitzan, particular those in their teens, are experiencing either learning or discipline problems in school or dropping out completely. "In some cases, students who had some difficulties were able to cope fine while they had a secure home and school environment, but the expulsion exacerbated the problems to a level that now the kids can't cope," she said. "The Michlalah initiative is a wonderful solution." There are now 28 girls who come from the hotel to Michlalah, where they are learning what they would otherwise be studying were they in school - and more. "Beyond helping them in their studies, I see it as very important that we are taking them out of the hotel lobby, showing them we care and providing them with an emotional outlet through the choice of additional activities," said Michlalah Registrar Josiane Paris.