“In one of the first winters when asylum seekers started arriving in Israel, around 2007 or 2008, I filled a bag with my daughter’s old clothes, she was around 7 years old then, and drove to the Central Bus Station. I stopped the car by the side of the road to ask where there was a shelter in the area. Before I could get any words out, hordes of desperate people surrounded my car and grabbed everything I had to give. I saw grown men taking children’s toys and baby clothes. It was a very traumatic experience for me. As far as I was concerned, I was experiencing masses of black people charging at me, I felt attacked and it took me a long time to digest what happened there. Only a few weeks later I began asking myself why a 30 year-old man would pounce on baby’s clothing when he doesn’t even have children. I understood that this outburst, which I had interpreted as violent, was a testimony to the magnitude of their distress and helplessness.
Slowly, as I became more interested and read more, I started to develop a great shame. As someone who loves the Israeli language and culture, as someone who believes with all her heart in the traditional Israeli values, I found myself reading and feeling ashamed, again and again. My grandfather and grandmother entered Israel as ‘infiltrators’ from Lebanon during the British Mandate. They entered with fake documents and it saved their lives. If they had stayed in Germany, they wouldn’t have survived. I simply know from the people closest to me what it looks like when you reach such extreme states.
I decided to volunteer and I started looking for a place to do it. I wanted to volunteer with children in the afternoon, and then I heard about ASSAF. When they told me about the club I thought it wouldn’t be right for me. I have children that age, and from what I know, they usually prefer not to have adults around. I didn’t really understand what they meant by ‘club’. My first time there I immediately fell in love with the place and from that moment I dove into a journey that continues to this day. When I’m asked about the club, I say it’s more like being in touch with your neighbor’s son when his parents are away, or when they need help. You feed him, sometimes help him with his homework, and sometimes play or talk with him. It’s very simple, and that’s what’s beautiful about it. This club is based on the most fundamental of human relationships. We’re just a bunch of well-meaning adults that are there for them in a constant space is there when they need it. They’re helpless in this country, and we’re here to listen to them, keep them company and help with what we can. Like any friendship in life, there comes a moment when you realize that you’re committed and that this friendship is for life.
This club is an anchor in the lives of these youths. It softens their reality. Although at first glance they give the impression of being completely normal Israeli kids, at some point you realize that they’re experiencing a very complex childhood. Most if not all of them come from a very difficult family and financial background. They’re dealing with the classic immigrant experiences, trying to adjust and fit in, but with the addition of hopelessness for their future. Almost nothing about their lives is a typical characteristic of adolescence. These are 13-18 year-old children, this should be the most colorful, happy and free time of their lives. They should have no reasons to worry at this age. However, they experience this time being the ones who have to keep the family together, whether financially or simply because they’re the only ones who speak the local language and know Israeli culture. When they grow up, they discover they have no status in Israel and will have to go to prison when they turn 18.
The least we can do is to be there for them twice a week, prepare them a hot meal, play games with them, listen to what they have to say and try to create hope together.”
Aviva Levinson was a journalist for “City Mouse” and “Time Out” magazines, and “Ma’ariv” and “Ha’aretz”, two of Israel’s leading newspapers. Eight years ago she initiated the “Houses from the Inside” festival, and has been running it ever since. The festival is an urban architectural and design festival that takes place every year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem together with 30 other cities across the world. For the past two years she has also been volunteering at Assaf’s youth club.