Help others help themselves

A group of young students travels to Uganda as part of a mission to improve the humanitarian situation around the world.

Ugandan children (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ugandan children
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While only 18 years old, Haifa high-schooler Shani Tal has an impressive resumé of countries visited. Tal, who is clearly mature beyond her years, hasn’t been using her sporadic school vacations for lying on exotic beaches or partying in hip nightclubs. Rather, she has been dedicating most of her free time to the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (healing the world) – trying to make the world a better place for all people.
Tal, who has volunteered with Jewish organizations to work with youth in Hungary, Ukraine and the United States, was exploring volunteer opportunities to help the children of Africa when she discovered the Tel Aviv-based organization known as Brit Olam – The International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement.
Founded in 2005, the mission of Brit Olam (meaning “world alliance”) according to its executive director Na’ama Shilo, is “to improve the humanitarian situation of populations in need around the world.” Shilo says that the organization “focuses on four specific fields where it tries to advance quality of life for those in need including: medicine, education, art and agriculture.”
One of the organization’s most prominent accomplishments is partnering in the establishment of the Uganda Muse high school in the village of Namulanda, Uganda, located between Entebbe and the capital city of Kampala near the source of the Nile River.
This unique school offers innovative educational and therapeutic activities based on the arts to serve the area’s disadvantaged or orphaned teenagers.
After learning about Uganda Muse, Tal approached Shilo with the idea of sending a group of like-minded Israeli teens to partake in a mission to Uganda to work with the youth at the school to build a sustainable program, which would improve the quality of life for the local population in the village.
SO LAST December, a diverse group of seven high-school female students from all over Israel, along with three Brit Olam counselors, traveled to Uganda on a two-week mission with the hopes of making a difference.
Ilanit Cohen, 24, a first-year law student at Bar-Ilan University who several years ago spent a month and a half volunteering in Uganda with Brit Olam following her army service – working mainly with victims of disease and poverty – jumped at the opportunity to go back, but this time as a counselor and as part of a delegation.
With prior Ugandan experience under her belt, Cohen assisted in recruiting and leading the preparatory sessions for the seven hand-picked high-school volunteers.
She says the group spent weekends together to prepare focusing on the cultural differences they would encounter and discussing the concepts of tolerance as well as tikkun olam.
“The goal of our mission was twofold,” says Cohen. “First, we wanted to work hand in hand with the Ugandan teens to come up with a volunteerbased project they could run on their own, without the influence of Western society.” She explains that “growing up, the teens in Africa are given the message that because they are African and because of the color of their skin, they can’t advance in life. We wanted to show these kids that they can make a difference in society and make a change for the better on their own.
“Secondly,” says Cohen, “we wanted to work with our partners to create a sustainable project. We didn’t want this to be a one-time undertaking [that would fizzle out] once we left. As the old adage says, better to teach a man how to fish instead of giving him a fish – or in other words, we wanted to show them how they can contribute too.”
So during their first week in Uganda the seven Israeli teens along with about 30 Ugandan teens from Muse spent time getting to know each other on both a personal and a cultural level.
The Israelis taught their counterparts about Shabbat and holidays, while the Ugandans introduced them to their villages’ norms and mores.
Then the mixed group got down to business: coming up with a long-term project to benefit lives in their community.
“What we focused on,” says Cohen, “was thinking of a local problem and building the tools to work on possible solutions.”
The greatest accomplishment during that first week, she says, “was seeing how the Ugandan teens developed the confidence to express themselves.” Cohen says that these kids grow up in a society where they are rarely given the opportunity for self-expression. In a school setting for example, they are taught material and are told to “just spit it back.”
After exploring numerous project proposals, the group agreed on implementing a program in which single mothers with very little education and minimal sources of income would come to the school on a regular basis to receive tutoring from the high school students in English, and in several forms of design including fashion design, sewing, and jewelry making.
While certainly not professional teachers, according to Cohen, “the Muse students know English on a highschool level, while some of these mothers don’t even know their ABCs. In addition, the hope was that with the development of new design skills these women could have a better chance of securing a more steady income.”
GABRIELLA RUBIN, a 12th-grader from Tel Aviv who was also on the mission and has spent time as a volunteer working with at-risk youth in Thailand and Vietnam, was proud of the “sustainability” of the project. “When I was in Vietnam we would work on short-term projects that, while beneficial, were only for a few hours. But on this mission, we built something that could make a difference long after we left.”
And it seems that Rubin’s desire to make a long-term impact has borne fruit.
Back in Israel now several months later, Cohen says that she has been updated regularly by her Ugandan counterparts. According to the reports, at least 20 single mothers attend the language and skills sessions at the school twice a week for several hours each time. She believes the fact that this is an ongoing project with regular participation makes their mission a great success.
Shilo feels that while the project greatly benefited the Ugandan single mothers as well as the local teens, the Israeli delegation got a lot out of the mission as well.
“Firstly,” she says, “this was an important lesson for our participants to learn how people from other cultures live. It also taught them a great deal about learning to appreciate and make do with what you have. In addition, by forming a cultural dialogue with Ugandan children who are the same age, together they learned the power of volunteerism.”
Shilo says that there has always been a debate in the non-profit world in Israel about whether the focus of an organization should be on improving the quality of life for those in your own community or reaching out to others in need.
But, she adds, “there are many worthy amutot [non-profit organizations] that do important work, here in Israel on a local level, but not a lot that focus on working toward ‘tikkun olam’ within other communities.” Not only this, she says, “but we see ourselves as ambassadors for Israel, showing the beauty of the Israeli people in countries all over the world.”
Cohen adds that she feels that the strength the Israeli teens gained from this trip while helping those who are so different from them “will translate into the girls’ looking for volunteer opportunities to improve their own communities in Israel as well.”
Tal herself is probably the best example of translating service abroad into service at home, as upon graduation this summer, she plans on spending time volunteering with the Ayalim Association, whose mission is to promote community building and social development in Israel’s periphery, in the Negev and Galilee.
Tal says that she definitely wants to go back to Africa to spend more time volunteering there. She might have that chance, as Shilo says would like to send a group of Brit Olam volunteers on an annual mission to Uganda, thanks to the group’s successful maiden initiative.