Picking Up the Pieces – Yemin Orde Five Months After the Carmel Fire
If you happen to visit the office of Benny Fisher, the director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, you will see at least 16 flags lined up along the top of one wall. These flags represent the various birthplaces of the village’s 500 students.
Established in 1953 by the British Friends of Youth Aliyah in order to accommodate Holocaust orphans and immigrant children during the that period, today most of the children at Yemin Orde are from the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Brazil. Some students are refugees from North African countries such as Sudan, while others are native born Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds. For the fifty percent of the student population who are from highly dysfunctional homes and for the twenty percent without parents at all, Yemin Orde is their only true home.
In December 2010, the students and staff at Yemin Orde had their lives turned upside-down by raging fires in the Carmel Forest region. The village’s location in the Carmel mountain ranges put it directly in the fire’s path. Following a difficult and emotionally-charged emergency evacuation, fires reached the village. Twenty two buildings were destroyed, including the boy’s dormitories, the library, 12 staff houses, 3 children’s homes, the health center, and a day center for younger children.
With the support of Jewish Federations, the youth village has been slowly putting the pieces back together. Through JFNA’s partner organizations JAFI and JDC, federations have been providing funding for rebuilding not only in a structural sense, but emotionally as well.
Coming to terms with their loss has been a long and arduous journey for staff and students. On the day the fire broke out, Yemin Orde was hosting a visiting day for students’ families and friends. Luckily, due to that event, buses were on hand at the site, and were used to evacuate the entire site within thirty minutes. “We were in the hall conducting a farewell ceremony, when one of the staff came and grabbed the microphone and said ‘We have to leave now,’” guidance counselor Evyatar Cohen said. “We had to evacuate 700 people. It could have been a complete balagan (mess).”
Cohen was one of the 12 staff members who lost his entire home in the fire. When he, his wife and five children returned to Yemin Orde and saw their ruined house, it reminded them of a war zone. All that was left were pieces of roof tiles,” he said. “You stand there and say ‘this was our house?’”
Fisher talks about the recovery process at Yemin Orde. “Upon our return to the village, the first step was to build temporary housing for the staff. The second step, which we are in the process of doing right now, is to build permanent buildings, improve paths, and to make buildings earthquake proof, more modern, and better equipped for the future,” he said.
“We learnt a lot about what unity and team work really meant, when so many people volunteered time and money to help clean up and fix Yemin Orde. In a strange sort of way, the Carmel fires were the finest hours of Israel. Complete strangers were donating clothes, toys, money and food.”
The most important aim for the staff was to keep the students in a routine to the extent possible, and encourage them to remain strong, upbeat and optimistic.
“We kept reminding them that all that was lost were trees and stones, and how lucky we were that no one was injured,” said Fisher.
The students of Yemin Orde worked alongside other volunteers, cleaning and carrying away debris. “Among the volunteers were hundreds of Yemin Orde graduates, who not only helped put out the fire, but were there for the village in the weeks and months afterwards,” says Susan Weijel, Yemin Orde’s director of Outreach and Development. “It was such an overflow of love. In addition, over 1,900 Israelis from all walks of life came to volunteer in cleaning up activities. It was unbelievable.”
“I cannot emphasize enough how much of a support the Federation movement has been, financially, and also emotionally,” said Fisher. “I tell the students that ‘donors support this school because they believe in you, and because of this, you must believe in yourselves’.”
Baruch Tashlitzky, a social worker at Yemin Orde, who coordinates the village’s therapy center, talks about the students’ recovery process.
“The immediate aftermath of the fire was extremely difficult for the students to deal with,” he says. “Some of the children had regressed to unhealthy behavior patterns, or were having trouble sleeping.”
In some students, the fires reawakened traumatic ordeals that they had suffered before their arrival at Yemin Orde.
One particular case in point is ‘D’, a 16 year-old orphan girl from the Ukraine who, as a young child, had watched her house and family burn in a fire. On her return to the village, she suffered significant regression. She was having angry outburst in class, and fighting with her peers. She cried a lot, and felt neglected and misunderstood. Her grades suffered. She is now in psychiatric care twice a week, and undergoing art therapy, which has been highly effective. “D is in a far better position now,” says Tashlitzky. “Her grades have improved, and she has more self-control. If she gets angry in class, it’s not as intense and aggressive as before. Her relationships with other kids have improved as well.”
Roughly 10% of the students are now receiving individual and group therapy. The federation-funded experiential therapy is a particularly important tool in getting through to the children at Yemin Orde. Because of the unique cultural backgrounds of most of the students, many of them are wary of traditional therapy methods, where people simply talk about how they are feeling. “Ethiopians have a culture of self-restraint,” says Tashlitzky, “and Russians are generally very practical and solution oriented. There is not much place for feelings in discussion.”
Students who have difficulty expressing themselves with words have the opportunity to express how themselves through art, dance and biblio (writing an autobiography) therapy.
Yemin Orde, which had initially looked like a blackened wasteland five months ago, is now the picture of rebirth and renewal. All around, there are green lawns, flowers and newly painted buildings. Neat clusters of temporary housing stand next to empty lots, which originally held dormitories and staff housing. The empty lots are leveled to the ground and fenced off, ready for rebuilding.
“All in all, the fires helped us learn what is truly important in life: human connection and physical health, as a pose to material possessions,” says Fisher. “We have seen stronger connections between children and their parents, who realized what they almost lost.”
With the assistance of the Federation movement, Yemin Orde will be adding therapy in music and in movement, and will also be able to provide therapy for additional children.
As for now, many of the students are moving on, and happily, they are currently absorbed in issues that kids their age are supposed to be involved in; succeeding in their matriculation exams and relationships.
“The Federations are a relatively new connection,” says Fisher. “It’s a genuine relationship which has stayed real not just in catastrophes but at all times. We want to keep it strong.”
By Devorah Nutovics
A walk in the Yemin Orde Youth Village
Burnt out buildings at Yemin Orde