By AKIN AYAJI
'First and foremost, the Women's Courtyard is a sanctuary: a space for young women in need, a place that they know will always be open to them," Mirit Sidi, who runs the Jaffa-based project for young women, tells me.
It is a weekday afternoon, and we are sitting in the actual courtyard of the project's compound - a pleasant leafy arboretum tucked away behind a derelict building on the southern reaches of the city's Rehov Yefet. We are just meters away from the busy mid-afternoon traffic, but might as well be in a different world altogether. The courtyard exudes tranquility; from a nearby window, music drifts toward us from the compound's hairdressing salon, run weekly by stylists from the upscale chain Shuki Zikri. Beside us, a group of young women are clustered in a circle, talking, laughing, enjoying each other's company. It is a scene far removed from the gritty reality that begins once one crosses back over the threshold into the city.
Despite extensive gentrification and rehabilitation of some areas, normality in Jaffa is far removed from the Bohemian charm that attracts tourists and visitors to the Old City. Its much-touted ethnic diversity diverts from the existential challenges its residents face. Unemployment is above the national average, educational attainment below. Drugs and petty crime are perennial issues. Women - particularly young women - are an invisible minority within an already marginalized community, traditional values and patriarchal mores inhibiting upward mobility and the chance to break an unremitting cycle of poverty and deprivation.
Sidi sums up the challenges pithily: "The world took away the notion of choice for many of these young women a long time ago. It takes time for them to learn that one does indeed have choices."
The Women's Courtyard was established with the aspiration of addressing issues of fragmentation and marginalization in the local community, helping young women to discover and explore options otherwise denied them. Its mission statement is to offer "a safe place and practical solutions for the vastly under-served population" through a synthesis of intensive individual care and group outreach work.
Sidi, a social worker with a background in helping at-risk youth, founded the project with criminologist Leora Kessel in 2003, after noticing a lack of effective support mechanisms for young women in the city.
"Jaffa can seem at times like an endless creator of need, and people in distress," Sidi explains. "The real problem, however, was that the standard support mechanisms were not best placed to help our target community."
This target community is young women across Jaffa between the ages of 13 and 25; the project's clientele is representative of the ethnic diversity of the city itself - Jewish and Arab, sabra and immigrant. Sidi observes that municipal social work teams often lack the range and versatility necessary to engage with this group effectively.
"The problem is that social workers simply do not have enough time and resources to engage with the individuals as individuals," she says. Beyond this, the rigidity of social work practice models means that the approach to clientele is often based on generic, even superficial, classifications.
Gender also plays a significant role in the availability - or not - of welfare services. Sidi points out that there are comparatively few women-only institutions and projects across the country, and none in Jaffa; she also argues that social pressures tend to complicate matters further, even when these are available.
"Girls and young women, on the whole, are less able to take advantage of official sources of help," she notes.
As she expounds on this point, Nora, employed by the Courtyard as a mentor for the young women, weighs in with a compelling justification for the Courtyard's raison d'etre: "A girl can never be herself when there are guys around."
Operationally, the Women's Courtyard works within a framework of three interconnected "pillar" projects, developed to maximize its effectiveness. The first, Open Space, is a forum for professional guidance, positive peer contact and reinforcement, and group support. The second, Active Employment, offers practical tools and guidance to those trying to ease themselves into work from economic dependency and hardship. The third is the Halfway Apartment, a sanctuary providing accommodation for women moving from family to independent living.
While this structure is important, it perhaps does not reflect an unquantifiable aspect of the Courtyard's focus: the overarching intent of encouraging the young women - through their own actions - to become autonomous individuals. Sidi takes great care to explain that the Courtyard does not seek to provide tailor-made solutions; rather, and through its primary objective of providing a safe and reliable sanctuary, it aspires to encourage the women to take the lead in determining what is best for themselves.
"We try to open up the possibilities of individual choice, something alien to many of the women before they came here," she explains.
This focus does not come without its own challenges. Nora tells me that it can be difficult at times to refrain from direct intervention. But she argues that this is necessary if the project is to stay true to its remit, enabling the women to take the lead in changing their own realities. If not, she points out, the project runs the risk of substituting one set of restrictions for another.
"Our real success is when a young person approaches us of their own volition and asks for help, or talks to a friend at the project about needing help," she says. "Our message is that we want to help, and that we will try to help when asked to do so."
Trust is key to the Courtyard's relationship not just with the young women, but also with the wider community, essential to protecting its status without being perceived as a threat to the established order. It was crucial that the Courtyard not be labeled with pejorative associations that would discourage young women from visiting and their families from allowing them to participate.
"It was important to avoid the image of a hangout for delinquents - without anything more besides. It wouldn't do us justice, and it wouldn't do our women justice, either," says Sidi.
That the project is both accepted and appreciated in Jaffa - there are around 600 young women on its books, with 80 "active" participants at any given time - is partly the result of an inventive proposition: establishing a Shuki Zikri hair salon on the premises.
"We met with [Shuki Zikri's brother and business manager] Mike, and explained what we were trying to do," Sidi recalls. "They have been extremely generous to us."
At the small hair salon, open one day a week, the women can have their hair done and receive beauty supplies free of charge. This not only attracts women to the project, but also serves an important psychological function.
"[Going to the hair salon] is pleasurable, but also contributes to building confidence and self-esteem," notes Sidi.
Another area in which the women receive a boost is employment. Rakefet Lapid, responsible for recruiting potential employers to the Active Employment scheme, notes that many of even the most motivated of the young women struggle to find work, not just because of the depressed economic situation, but also because of ingrained presumptions and prejudice. She explains that a lot of energy is invested in recruiting "friendly" employers who are willing to take a chance and who do not allow themselves to be swayed by preconceptions of social and ethnic minorities.
"One must remember that a lot happens in this country through the pathways of social networking," Lapid explains. "Many in Jaffa do not have a social network that can yield dividends in this aspect. What we try to do is to use our own connections and contacts to change their social network."
While speaking with the women at the center, both patrons and employees, I realized that the staff hadn't trotted out statistics about the young women lifted out of poverty, placed in employment or sent into higher education; they didn't seem at all interested in playing the games of targets and figures, something that many of us have been socialized into expecting as benchmarks for success in projects such as this. But clearly it didn't matter. There was a genuine camaraderie among the women at the center, an almost tangible sense that things could be done, that possibilities could become fact.
Do outsiders ever wonder about this comfortable inchoateness and the emphasis away from traditional criteria for success? Nora smiles.
"We do not need pity, we do not need to be patronized. What we want is respect and love, because every person deserves respect," she says. "Admire us, for what we've been through and for what we hope to achieve."
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