A cutting success

Its Sunday morning at the Jerusalem branch of the humanitarian aid network Hazon Yeshaya and in one of the small classrooms 18 women stand in a semicircle around hairdressing teacher Regina Suissa as she explains the steps needed to create an "up-do" on a body-less mannequin. "First spray with hair spray and then brush it back like this," she says, working her comb through the coarse black hair. "Normal hair is not usually this difficult; it's a different texture." The women nod their heads in understanding and continue watching carefully, some taking notes, as Suissa begins to twist and pin the long black hair into the beginnings of a smart style. In the final stages of their course, the students have already learned the basics of cutting, coloring and styling - enough to set up their own salons or find employment with an already existing establishment - and are now learning how to prepare a bride or bat mitzva girl for her special day. "She's an excellent teacher," emphasizes one woman. "She repeats all her instructions until she is sure that everyone knows what they are doing. It really gives us all a lot of confidence." While building up confidence is usually part of any professional training program, for this mix of haredi, modern Orthodox, traditional and secular women it is even more essential, because most of their lives have reached rock bottom and they are in desperate need of a sensitive, nurturing and practical lifeline to pull themselves back up again. "These women live in such deep poverty, all they want is the opportunity to build a new life," explains Limore Levy, director of professional development for Hazon Yeshaya, whose principal work is the distribution of hot meals and food aid to thousands of needy people countrywide. "Many of the women here have gone through traumatic experiences, some have been battered or abused by their husbands, others are the only hope for supporting their families. This type of course gives them the tools and confidence to put their lives back on track." Developed four years ago by Hazon Yeshaya's founder and director Avraham Israel, the goal is to provide those who are in need with a more proactive approach to improving their situation. To date, the organization runs 13 professional courses, including hairdressing, certain aspects of beauty training and, most recently, basic computer skills. Most of the courses are aimed at women, though there is a computer course for men. All are completely free for those deemed the lowest grade of poverty by the social welfare services. "Many of those who come here for courses also receive a free meal, and we try to make the teaching hours as accessible as possible," points out Levy, adding that even though it costs nothing, participants still receive a recognized diploma and many begin working in their new-found career before the course is even completed. One such student is Keren Lulu, 33, who is already earning a small amount from her hairdressing skills. "I've done a few highlights and some blow drying for friends and relatives," says the bubbly mother of three, admitting that this is first time she has felt compelled to seek a career. "Where I grew up, we were not allowed to dream," says Lulu, a native of the capital's Katamonim neighborhood. "Our main goal growing up was simply to survive." According to Lulu, she and her husband - who was laid off from his minimum-wage job late last year - have always relied on outside assistance, either in the form of government benefits or in charitable aid such as food baskets and vouchers. "It's always been impossible for us to live without such help, but I think that seeing other people helping me is what eventually propelled me to get up and do something with my life," she says, adding that the sudden end to her husband's income meant "I could no longer sit around the house. I told social workers that I had to get out and change my life around; they recommended I come here." Five months later, with her professional hairdressing certificate in sight, Lulu says she has not been disappointed and for the first time in her life is finally excited about what the future may hold. "If the situation allows me to then perhaps I will open up a small business," she says smiling. "If not I'll just try to work in another salon. Whatever happens, this experience has opened the door for me to a new life and I'm proud to be setting an example for my children."