Angels on the streets

Israel's first Guardian Angels branch already making difference with disillusioned youth in Rehovot.

Guardian Angels 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Guardian Angels 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Temperatures are heating up in Rehovot's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. A simmering feud between two rival groups of youth has landed one youngster in the hospital, the first major flare-up since 17-year-old Adama Toreku was stabbed to death a couple of years ago. "The summer is a balagan (mess), with kids on the street day and night," says Shaul Tzaghon, the director of Israel's first Guardian Angels Project. "We have to cope with it." Since Tzaghon and his team of Angels have been patrolling the streets, they have not only succeeded in preventing violence and deterring crime, they have also encouraged the neighborhood residents to clean up and paint their buildings, and aspire to improve themselves, as well. The year-old Angels Project is a joint project of the Guardian Angels International Organization, which focuses on neighborhood safety, and ELEM, Israel's leading outreach organization for youth at risk. Kiryat Moshe's socioeconomic profile could easily make it a breeding ground for crime and violence. Fifty-six percent of the families living in Kiryat Moshe are Ethiopian; the remaining are immigrants from the former CIS and France, and old-timers from Morocco. Many families comprised of eight or nine people are squeezed into three-room apartments. But according to the latest police reports, the Angels/ELEM project is helping reduce crime in the neighborhood. "Actually, only a very small number of youth in Kiryat Moshe are trouble-makers," comments Tzaghon. "The people here are very sensitive about their image and sick and tired of seeing only bad news in the papers. "Crime festers on feelings of negativism and frustration. We're trying to cause a switch in attitude," says the Angels director. He and his team of 22 young volunteers from the neighborhood have a clear message: Don't wait for someone else to fix your problems. Their motto? "You can do it." Wearing bright red jackets in cooler weather, and red-and-white T-shirts on warm days, the Kiryat Moshe Angels patrol the streets on Sunday nights, but are active all week long. "The youth know we really care about them, and are not just there to break up fights," says Tzaghon. "There is a theory that crime moves in when there is a broken window," Jill Shames, a martial arts pro who was called in to teach self-defense to girls in the neighborhood in 2005, explains. "A broken window, graffiti, gangs of troublemakers hanging around, abandoned cars - cause people to think of themselves as neglected. They become apathetic." Shames contacted Curtis Sliwa, founder and director of the Guardian Angels, an organization that began with unarmed volunteers patrolling the subways of New York in the high-crime late '70s. In recent years, Guardian Angels has also introduced programs against bullying in schools and founded a CyberAngels wing to protect kids against cyber abuse, which won the President's Service Award in 1998. GA is active in 13 countries and hundreds of cities throughout the world. "Jill is a whirling dervish of action," Sliwa commented in a recent e-mail. Shames, who holds degrees in public relations and social work, serves as the pro bono liaison of the GA in Israel. "Our mission - the Angels/ELEM model - is to make the youth part of the solution, instead of part of the problem," Shames declares. "Adolescence is a very difficult stage," said Zion Gabay, National Director of ELEM. "It's natural for young people to feel alienated, to feel that they don't belong. In the Ethiopian community, it's especially difficult because there have been role reversals." "Ethiopians who came to Israel in the last 15 years have had to cope with many problems," Tzaghon points out. Cultural identity is a big issue. Lacking technical knowledge, language, and job skills, the traditionally large families (with five to seven children) often live in crowded housing. Many exist on the brink of poverty. "There is a gap between the parents and children. A 56-year-old man can't help his fourth-grade son with homework. When a classmate says 'my mom helped me,' the Ethiopian boy feels despair." "This is not a neighborhood like Ramle, parts of Jaffa, or Beersheba, where drugs and crime are big problems," says Tzaghon defensively. "Violence occurs either out of frustration or after too much alcohol." Nargileh (water pipe) use is another problem, he adds. One evening, on a tour of the neighborhood with the Angels' director and Shames, both clad in highly visible Guardian Angels red jackets, Tzaghon demonstrates his method of building connections and inspiring trust. "How are you? What's happening?" he asks three girls hanging out on a bench in the park. He stops to chat with them. Two boys ride by on bicycles, but when they recognize him, stop. "Are you still going to the Youth Center?" he asks. Meeting another, older, teenager, he pats him on the back, and asks: "When are you going to go into the army?" At a children's playground, two young men on leave from the army complain about the poor equipment and safety. "I wouldn't let my three-year-old niece play here," said one. "Do you think we can do something about it?" On a pre-launch trip to Israel, Curtis Sliwa saw Tzaghon in action. "Walking with him through the streets of Rehovot, you could feel the love and respect he generated." Recently, he commented: "In the Who's Who of community organizers, there will be a picture of Barack Obama and Shaul Tzaghon. Shaul is tireless and self-less." Tzaghon, an Ethiopian immigrant who came to Israel at the age of 9, is one of nine children. His father was a teacher and a judge in Gonda. After high school, he studied practical engineering. Before being drafted, he volunteered as a counselor for new immigrants from Yemen. In the army, Tzaghon was trained as an officer in the Ordnance Corps. After completing his service, he looked for a job where he could have an impact on the community. Speaking to the local youth, as insiders, the neighborhood Angels - all of whom, except Jill and Shaul, hail from Kiryat Moshe - are more credible than outsiders. Tzaghon meets with two volunteers, Israel Rado, 23, and Merav Vobo, 21, in the Angels' simply decorated conference room in the Absorption Ministry facility in Kiryat Moshe. Both Rado and Vobo lead teams that go out to patrol and meet the young people on the street. The volunteers meet with the director for an hour before and after patrols to exchange impressions of particular problems that may surface and plan activities. Rado - born in Israel, like more than one-third of 120,000 Israeli-Ethiopians - lives with his parents and seven siblings in Kiryat Moshe. Rado says he had to figure out his own direction before giving advice to others. He sings and plays the masenko, an Ethiopian single-stringed lute with a bow, and hopes to study music at university, "to learn to be a composer." "I'd like to have two careers, one in high tech, and another in music," he says. To that end, he began a computer programming course. "Sometimes people don't realize that even though they made mistakes in their past, they can change. I try to encourage Ethiopian youth to go to the army," says Rado. "I urge them to think about careers and not to waste opportunities. Many youth look for short-term pleasures over long-term." Vobo, who came to Israel at age three from Gondar in Ethiopia, is one of four young women Angels. "We felt a distance when we approached groups the first two months. Now, they wait for us," she says. Vobo is studying criminology in Ashkelon and, since she worked to earn money while attending high school, likes to give advice on finding a job. Vobo and Rado are helping seek new recruits for the Angels program. Six are already in training. "My goal is to have a total of 70 Angels within a year," says Tzaghon. "If each one meets with three people, they would have an influence on 210 people, almost all of the 650 families." To reach more youngsters, he is also kicking off an Angels Youth program, for youths aged 16-18 to learn self-defense and patrol the streets two afternoons a week. "My dream is to introduce the Angels program throughout Israel," he says, pointing to the manual he wrote. "The high quality of the volunteers, and the fact that they come from the neighborhood, is key to the program's success," notes Gabai. He would like to introduce the Guardian Angels program to other cities, and mentions Beit Shemesh, Bat Yam, Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Gat as possibilities. He also thinks it would be a success in Arab communities. The volunteer-driven Angels Project is low-cost (Tzaghon is the only salaried employee). For it to expand, another part-time professional staffer is required. Uniforms and training are provided by the Guardian Angels. A couple of months ago, Charl Viljoen, the director of GA in Capetown, came to Israel to provide advanced training. "Viljoen pushed us two degrees higher in our skills," says Tzaghon. "We learned skills for dealing with a dangerous person- some techniques we knew from the army - and I learned a lot about organizing." After the 2007 stabbing, the Angels' toughest job was dealing with the anger, desire for revenge, and daily physical attacks. For four months, Tzaghon and his Angels worked daily to reduce tension. Finally, the enemies agreed to a sulha, a truce. "For the most part, it has held. There may be fights every once in a while, but not the same fear," says Tzaghon. "The Angels hear about a problem, and immediately try to defuse it." One of the most dramatic changes has been in the Guardian Angels themselves. When they first started, only four volunteers were students in colleges or other professional training courses; now, at least 70% are students. The Ethiopian National Project (ENP) views education as the key to advancement for the young people. Its after-school SPACE program has successfully boosted thousands of Ethiopian students in high school to excel in math and English and gain self-confidence. As much as the neighborhood benefits from the Angels' work, the volunteers benefit at least as much. "It's all a matter of making a mental switch from 'Why even try?' to 'I can do it,'" says Tzaghon. According to Shames, "What really made it happen was that Shaul saw it as a way for the whole community to take charge of its own destiny."