A changing of the guard

How the picturesque small town of Usfiya is training its disadvantaged youth to become future leaders.

Usfiya local council head Wageh Kauof (photo credit: Courtesy)
Usfiya local council head Wageh Kauof
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At first glance, Usfiya has all the trappings of a quaint, suburban town. A close inspection, though, reveals something much more vibrant. A first-time visitor will discover a village that is surprisingly cosmopolitan in feel and outlook. There are its coffee shops blaring Western music, its trendy boutiques, its crisp, clean air, and its wondrous, panoramic view of the Haifa Bay. There are theaters, dance clubs and professional sports teams.
Five players in Israel’s top soccer league are from Usfiya, and the town boasts a number of generals and officers in the military’s elite commando units and the police force.
Aside from the accoutrements of modern Israeli life, this Druse enclave that lies surrounded by the luscious greenery of the Carmel Mountain forests and national parks is home to a burgeoning youth movement that looks to change the political calculus in a town where tribal and clan affiliations were a greater indicator of one’s place on the hierarchical totem pole than any merit-based considerations.
Shams Azzam is a 33-year-old activist who graduated from the University of Haifa with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in policy and public administration. Azzam is a tall, strapping man with a dark complexion and a ponytail. He speaks eloquently and forcefully, radiating a presence that commands the attention and respect of those in his immediate surroundings.
It is these qualities that moved him to found “Amant Hakakt” (which is translated from Arabic as “to believe and to realize”), a youth movement that aims to alter how local Usfiyans think about their village.
“We are talking about a political and social movement whose goal is to promote the youth of the village and to educate toward more social involvement in activities in Usfiya,” Azzam says. “Our goal is to bring an ideological change and to alter voting patterns that benefit the clans.”
EVER SINCE the Usfiya Local Council was founded in 1951, control has alternated between the Abu Rukun and the Mansour clans. These two factions were the dominant forces in local politics until just over three years ago, when the Kauofs together with smaller clans that made up the opposition won the chairmanship of the council.
Azzam’s colleagues in the movement, however, say that the generational gap has failed to provide a solution to the plight of young people in the village, who are drawn to alcohol, drugs and crime due to the scarcity of enriching activities.
“The youth of Usfiya has nowhere to go once they get out of school,” says Diana Amasha, a 20-year-old volunteer with Amant Hakakt. “They then end up going to places that aren’t very positive. Instead of wasting hours smoking nargila, they could come here and learn how to contribute and do something useful with their time.
“We are dealing with building character,” Amasha continues.
“I really love volunteering, and I want to teach the younger generation that volunteering is very important.”
The movement, which was founded over a year ago and today has 50 members, most of whom are in their early 20s, conducts social-volunteer programs that benefit the community. Instantly visible by the purple-hooded sweatshirts that have become their official calling card, these ambitious college-aged kids offer tutoring sessions to young pupils, keep the company of lonely elderly men and women, and dispatch units of volunteer fire watchmen.
Aside from the philanthropic aspect of their work, Azzam makes no effort to conceal the overt political nature of his organization and its primary goal: to bolster the clout of young Usfiyans and to have greater say in a town that has long been dominated by the old guard.
“We have a platform,” he says. “We have a vision.
Young people... don’t have representation in the local council.”
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 63 percent of the population of Usfiya by the end of 2010 was under the age of 44. The number of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 44 was just under 50 percent.
Azzam hopes to have a representative of the organization take a seat on the local council when it holds elections later this year.
“Our movement believes that if we aim for solidarity, fraternity and cooperation, we can improve the society as a whole,” he says. “The human capital in the movement is our advantage. Through people who want to take action, we can obtain funding and get the cooperation of businessmen. Everyone can donate his part in any way they see fit.”
AZZAM SAYS the movement’s platform stresses increasing transparency in the local council, demonstrating good governance, and providing services to the local residents.
“We believe that the public representatives should promote the interests of the whole and not just the individual,” he states. “Young people who complete their army service have no jobs to go to afterward. Some people couldn’t complete their studies because they had nobody to support them economically. There’s also inequality when it comes to handing out grants and scholarships.”
Though the movement has been met with a great deal of skepticism from the public that is wary of political trends, Usfiya’s Local Council head, Wageh Kauof, says that he is sympathetic to the plight of the youth in his home village. Yet Kauof insists that budget shortfalls and a lack of government subsidies have plagued its development.
“We need to change the establishment’s attitude toward us, and we also need to change our own attitudes toward ourselves,” he says. “I want the budgets that I deserve not as a Druse, but as a citizen. Whoever thinks they contribute more to this country than I do, let them stand up.
“So I want government assistance not for the sake of equality, but to fulfill our specific needs,” Kauof continues.
“There’s a difference between equality and needs. I think the young people are right: We can’t continue to think with our hearts, but with our heads. When the hierarchy is based on clans, it creates a problem. It’s not family affiliations that make a local council chief. It’s one’s understanding and knowledge of the local problems that transcends clan divisions and tribal considerations.”
Azzam is careful to avoid criticizing Kauof for fear of being perceived as favoring an opposing candidate.
Instead, he says his goal is not to align himself with any particular individual but to gain a foothold in the local council in order to address pinpoint dilemmas that affect the youth of the village.
When asked if he had any designs about one day running for office, Azzam is coy. “I’m more interested in operating organizationally,” he says. “I can’t predict the future, but I’m open to offers.”
Despite the ambitious nature of the project, local political observers say the odds of Azzam’s organization fomenting real change are slim.
“Usfiya is not a village with a high birthrate, at least not in recent years,” says Halbi Hosen, an Internet journalist who has covered the Druse villages of the Galilee and the Golan Heights. “The older population is larger than the younger population, and this will have an impact on the organizational structure in the community.”
“This is an idea whose goal is to foment change from both a political standpoint as well as a social standpoint,” Azzam says. “From a political standpoint, the way to make an impact is to be part of the decision-making process. A voting bloc of 60 percent needs to have its voice heard in the local council, and it needs to be party to change.”