Invisible children

They carry our packages and load the vegetable carts, but who pays attention to the 'handcart kids' in Mahaneh Yehuda?

Sa'id was eight years old when he stopped going to school and started folding boxes in the Mahaneh Yehuda market. He was too little to push the dollies and handcarts like the eleven- and twelve-year-old boys do every day and too little to unload heavy sacks of potatoes from the backs of delivery trucks like the 13-year olds, so he did what he could. Each day, he brought home the little money he made and was proud to be contributing to his family. But Sa'id was different from most of the other "handcart children" in the shuk those dozens of children, almost all Palestinian, who do not attend school and, in violation of Israel's compulsory education legislation, work in the shuk, hoping to bringing home some badly-needed cash. Social worker Jawad Siyam works together with Uri Amedi, Director of Jerusalem's Lev Ha'Ir Community Center, to try and get these children off the streets of the shuk and back into a classroom, where they belong. Siyam was eventually able to get Sa'id to go back to school because he wasn't in the shuk at the behest of his parents, unlike many of the other children, explains Siyam. "Sa'id had stopped going to school because he had gotten into trouble with a teacher and he was afraid that if his father found out he would beat him to death." It took time for Sa'id to start coming to the program that Siyam runs every Sunday in the bomb shelter of the community center together with a teacher, "and even more time until he confided in me," recalls Siyam. But eventually Siyam learned that Sa'id lived in a-Ram and that he smuggled past all the checkpoints each day to come to the shuk and earn some money in the hope that the cash would call his father's attention away from the fact that he had stopped attending school. "I was finally able to contact Sa'id's father and ask him to join me for a cup of coffee." Siyam told him why his son had stopped attending school and how afraid he was of his father. "After breaking down in tears, his father understood that Sa'id needed help." Today Sa'id is back in school and off the streets. He is one of the lucky few. THE PLIGHT of the "handcart children," as he calls them, has troubled Uri Amedi since he took on the job of head of the Lev Ha'ir Community Center, named appropriately for its location, in the very heart of the city in the area opposite the Mahane Yehuda marketplace. From his small office in the basement of the community center, Amedi, 56, explains why. "I believe that Jerusalem is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in this country. If a problem exists anywhere in Israel, it exists here. And the shuk is a microcosm of Jerusalem. If you could solve all the problems in the shuk, you could solve every problem afflicting this country." When he won the Jerusalem Foundation's Marthe Prize for Tolerance and Democratic Values in 1998 as a result of his work in Mahaneh Yehuda and its surrounding areas, Amedi decided to devote the $12,000 prize to the "handcart children" project. "All I know is that before I started working with these children, they were invisible. People would come and shop in the shuk and see the children unloading the trucks and pushing carts around the shuk and even get a child to help them load their groceries into their car. Then those same people would go home and turn on the television and say, 'Look what's going on in Gaza! ' and shake their heads. But it's not just going on in Gaza. It's going on in Jerusalem, and it's going on in the shuk. "I felt that something had to be done for these children. As a Jew and as a human being, I felt a responsibility towards them." Amedi hired a Palestinian social worker, who was once a shuk child himself, to gain the children's trust, a position that Siyam has held for the past five years. Then he wrote a letter to the children and their parents and the social worker passed it out to every child that he found in the alleyways of the shuk. "That was my first mistake," Amedi recalls. "None of them can read and when they took the letters home to their parents many of them were beaten. The parents thought the letter came from the police." Amedi realized he had to have the social worker target each child individually. "Once we gained the child's trust, we had a hope of trying to gain the parents' trust," he says. Though the program has helped over 40 boys since its inception, Siyam who coolly sports a hip pair of black jeans, a tight black T-shirt and fashionable sunglasses says that "it's still not easy getting the boys to trust me. Since what they do is illegal, they automatically assume that I am trying to get them in trouble." In the community center's bomb shelter, once a week for a few hours, Amedi and Siyam provide the children with a place where they can learn Hebrew and get help with subjects that may have caused them to leave school, such as math. But mainly, that bomb shelter functions as a place where the kids can just be kids. And as kids especially kids who ought to be in school the last thing they want to do is talk to a reporter. There are pool and ping-pong tables, a chalkboard, games, a television and a stereo system. "Most of these children lose their childhoods in the alleyways of the shuk," explains Amedi. "We offer them a chance to get it back for one day a week, and hope that by showing them we care, we may have a chance to get them off the streets and back to school." While Amedi has met with a lot of praise for the work he does, he has also met with tremendous criticism and with the exception of the Jerusalem Foundation, no individual or institution has been willing to offer him financial or any other kind of help. Not all of the merchants in the shuk appreciate Amedi's efforts, either. For some, opposition to the project is a way to voice political opposition to Amedi. Others, although they may deny employing minors, are obviously not happy that Amedi is taking the children away from their low-paid "jobs" for a few hours a week and drawing attention to the fact that the merchants do employ these children, which is illegal in Israel. And for others, the "handcart kids" are just one more arena in which to battle out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Said one of the merchants, who would not allow his name or the name of his store to be mentioned, "Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel. Jewish children are out on the streets. Why do we need to waste our time and money taking care of these kids when what they are doing is illegal anyway. Let a truancy officer or the police crack down and get rid of them once and for all." As he fills a customer's order, he continues, "Amedi could be doing something to benefit the Jewish children who live in this neighborhood. He is wasting time and money." Even his own family, Amedi says, isn't always supportive. "One day I came home with a photo of one of the boys we helped. My 17-year-old son took one look at the photo and started to yell at me. He said, 'Abba you are raising the next generation of terrorists.' I turned to him, and I said, 'Maybe I am. But maybe I'm not.'" Amedi and Siyam have hope. "One of the boys I helped go back to school is currently in University training to be a social worker," boasts Siyam proudly. "We hope to get him to come and volunteer or intern with us here next year." Others claim that it's the responsibility of the Education Ministry and the Municipality to deal with the phenomenon, which exists all over Jerusalem, not just in the shuk. Young Palestinian children peddle wares at intersections such as French Hill, and roam the alleyways of the Old City searching for work or food. "There's a compulsory education law in this country, and a law prohibiting the employment of minors," says another shuk merchant, who also would not be named. "Why is this Uri's responsibility? When asked to identify a merchant who employs these children, Siyam pointed to a nut merchant on the shuk's Etz Hayim Street. But when asked about Amedi's project and his feelings about the program as an employer, he denied employing children, even when assured that his name and his store name would not appear in print. However, he praised Amedi for his efforts, saying, "It's about time that someone deals with these hooligans. They run around the shuk cursing, riding on carts, and making trouble. My only issue with what he does is that he helps Palestinian children who smuggle past checkpoints into Jerusalem from West Bank villages. It would be one thing if he was helping the children who live in the Old City, which most of these boys do, but why does he need to help the others who don't belong in Jerusalem anyway." A few years ago, Amedi relates, during a tense period and on a day when yet another terrorist attack had shaken the shuk, a Palestinian woman knocked on his office door. "Shocked, and a bit shaken by the day's events, I invited her in. She immediately broke down in tears and thanked me for saving her son, who was now back in school. "When I first started working in the shuk 20 years ago, this place was a jungle," reminisces Amedi. "I'm trying to bring a little order to this place. And what I have here is an opportunity to create hope." Amedi has been active in the shuk and its politics for over two decades. Since taking on the position of director, Amedi has broadened the Lev Ha'ir Community Center's jurisdiction to include the shuk, the nearby Mekor Baruch neighborhood, Jaffa Road and the surrounding areas nearly the entire inner city. Within the shuk, he has established a democratically elected merchant's council to coordinate the 500 or so vendors in the marketplace and create order where there was none. Then he moved on to the Nahlaot neighborhood in attempt to bring it back from the edge. He is credited with many of the shuk's most significant achievements, but not surprisingly, he has also gained many political opponents. Though he currently directs projects all around Jerusalem, from creating autonomous self-rule among the merchants in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, to sponsoring free cultural activities at elementary schools in underprivileged neighborhoods, some say Amedi's latest scheme is his most ambitious yet. But he says that "while lots of people pat me on the back and applaud the work I'm doing, few actually volunteer to help. "A few years ago we made a 7-minute film about the handcart children and our project. The film went to a European film festival and won first place. Israel's Education Minister at that time was at the award ceremony. After congratulating me, she asked that I send her a proposal for the haandcart kids program. That was the last I heard from her. Lots of people think that what I'm doing is great, but nobody wants to touch it with a ten-foot pole." In response, the Municipality stated: "This project is an independent project initiated by Mr. Uri Amedi. The municipal welfare department will be happy to assist this project when necessary. It should be noted that many of these children are residents of the Palestinian Authority and do not live in Jerusalem." But Siyam is optimistic. "Sometimes you have to start small," he says. "I think it's enough that every day Uri and I can be seen walking around the shuk together, working together as a team. That's clearly something that's good for the Jews, good for the Arabs and good for the shuk."