Bridging the Gap – Aiding the Integration of Kavkazi Youth in Beersheva
To reach Nahal Beka, one has to travel several kilometers, seemingly out of Beersheva. But Nahal Beka is actually a neighborhood of the city, located at a distance which makes it difficult for residents to access any of the city's facilities. Although there is a bus servicing the area, the locale seems neglected by the municipal authorities, bereft of an accessible grocery store or health facilities.
The municipality has plans to enhance the area through the construction of the Negev's largest park, making Nahal Beka a more attractive and visited location. However, these blueprints will take years to be made tangible and in the meantime, UJA-Federation of New York, together with the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and other partners, has stepped into the gap to assist the youth of Nahal Beka.
Beersheva, the seventh-largest Israeli city with a population of just under 200,000, is heavily populated by immigrants. The Kavkazi population, mostly Nahal Beka residents, constitutes 10% of the city’s inhabitants and 20% of the total Kavkazi Israeli community, making it the largest Kavkazi community in Israel. The Kavkazi Jews, who originate from the Eastern Caucasus and came to Israel in the 1990s, are often forgotten in the focus given to the much larger aliya from the Former Soviet Union and as result have had less success integrating.
The Kavkazi population has a 25% high school drop-out rate and a disproportionately high percentage of youth at risk: 1 out of every 4 youths at risk in Israel is of Kavkazi origin. Moreover, in comparison with other immigrant groups, Kavkazi youth have the highest incidence of encountering complex and varied problems which require social intervention, as well as experiencing the breakdown of productive communication in their family units.
UJA-Federation of New York and the JDC's 'Kavkazim: Excellence, Learning, Integration and Mainstreaming' (Kelim) program are helping the Kavkazi youth of Beersheva. The Kelim L’Hatzlacha, (‘Tools for Success') program, established in 2007, campaigns to strengthen Kavkazi-Israel youth and encourage their general integration. Nahal Beka Youth Club is a prime example of this work.
Shlomi Cohen, JDC coordinator claims, ‘Our Kelim project is one of the most impressive and beautiful projects in Beersheva. Our constant endeavor is the narrowing of social gaps and integration of the Kavkazi into wider society: the center has proven to be a keystone for all that we do. We're equipping youths with social skills, enabling them to maneuver the contradictions inherent in the merging of Kavkazi and modern-Israeli society.'
The center has become a haven for the youth of the area and created a sense of community which the Nahal Beka residents had long craved. Tami, 28 years old, used to volunteer at the club. ‘After a set of murders in Nahal Beka, we had to work out together how we would deal with the social problems in our community.' Tal, 16, has been going to the center for three years. ‘Before I came to the center, I didn’t know what to do with myself. We were all like that, getting into trouble, hanging around the neighborhood. Now, at the center, I feel I have support.’ Yavi, a sixth grader, seconds this sentiment, ‘It’s true; we all used to hang out in gangs. Now we’re all together, there’s no rivalry’. The positive feelings of the clubhouse seem to have the desired ripple effect across the neighborhood.
The traditional Kavkazi household is highly gender-based with males encouraged to find employment as early on as possible and females encouraged to stay inside the home and focus less on their education. Ilana Malka, a local Beersheva teacher who had helped a Kavkazi girl complete her high school graduation examinations, remarked how unfortunately this was an unusual opportunity. Most Kavkazi girls are societally pressured to cut short their education before they have attained adequate skills for the work place. ‘Often', says Malka, 'we find that Kavkazi children learn to hate school because they see it as an irrelevance. They don’t understand why should they be there and it’s a massive challenge to engage them.’
Gila was one girl who didn’t want to come to the center initially but after being persuaded was quickly won over by the warmth. ‘I really felt – and feel – like we’re one united group here, we go through everything together. I thought I’d take the path that all the other Kavkazi immigrants seemed to have taken – academic failure. Learning that there was another option available, seeing those only a few years older than me in a place of success, was liberating.'
The center offers mother and daughter groups for women to negotiate the conflict of cultural pressures around them in a sympathetic and supportive environment. A significant fraction of local teachers' time is spent persuading families that it’s essential for their children to continue with their education. 'As a result of this campaign,' boasts Malka, 'most of our students now finish 12th grade.'
These discordances between Kavkazi expectations and Israeli social norms can be troubling and isolating, with youths not knowing how to bridge these living contradictions.
Aleksandra, 26, a volunteer helper at the club, relates to this; ‘There is a massive gap between our home culture and Israeli culture which makes it seem near impossible to integrate. The clubhouse functions as a bridge to close the gap.’ When asked why she had chosen to volunteer, Aleksandra explained; ‘I’d always felt different, an outsider; I didn’t want those younger than me also to make the journey alone’. Now, from the perspective of an observer, Aleksandra has the opportunity to see how those younger than her have blossomed; 'It’s like there are two different generations, the stark difference in attitude.'
The wizardry responsible for the project’s success lies in the selection of the staff. The staff at the center is made up from youths from the same background as the participants themselves. Zivur, 24, who has, unlike many other Kavkazi, completed his army service, now works as a supervisor in the clubhouse. He is keen to show himself as a personal role model for the children, constantly aware that his behavior is used as a model for those looking on. ‘This is my way of effecting change, by being the change I want these boys to make.' Speaking of the struggle to bridge the gap between the culture of school and home, Zivur asserts, ‘There’s a need to meet in the middle. No one can jump to the other extreme; they need to be shown there’s a compromise; that we understand where they’re coming from.’
|Nahal Beka Youth Club|
|Nahal Beka Youth Club facilities|
|Meeting members of the Kavkazi community together with JDC partner|
|Teachers from Beersheva speak of challenges Kavkazi students can face and solutions provided|
|Tal speaks of his experiences at the club|