Honor Mishcon (England, AC 07-09)
On my summer holiday travels in the Middle East, I venture up to a curious place, an almost ‘forgotten city’ in the far north of Israel, close to the Lebanese border.
Akko or Acre or Acco, or whatever, has many different names; since it has been ruled by many different kingdoms and people, one hardly knows how to refer to it. Its history spans back 5000 years and it has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Crusaders, Turks and, of course, one must not forget the British. The city held certain significance as one of the most important trading centres in the world. As a result, spanning across the millennia into modern times, we have a relic of a city, a World Heritage Site (since 2002) with a mish-mash of people and ancient architecture.
Post 1948, we enter a culture-torn Israel with three main groups that continue to segregate themselves: the Arabs, the Jews and the Russians.
Within this old city, 60% of the population live below the poverty line, while the other 40% percent are not far from it. Considering the vast and mixed community, this is one of the perfect places to start an outreach centre to try and bring communities together.
This is being done by the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community centre and the project is being led by its director, Mohammed Faheli and its director of development, Carol Brauner. Faheli is an Arab Muslim, who grew up in the old city and has always been passionate about improving the current situation by attempting to bring the communities together in a learning and play-orientated co-existence. This will hopefully lead to partnership and peace in this troubled region. Meanwhile, Carol Brauner is a North-West London Jewish woman, who tired of her ‘city job’ and longed to do something more meaningful and significant. She found this here, in Akko (as it is most commonly known now) and, since moving to Israel, has dedicated her life to helping this particular community reach its full potential.
This centre differs from others in the area and country as it supplies equal opportunities to Arabs and Jews alike; other places only cater for Hebrew speakers. It offers programs to babies from three months to elderly people of eighty years and over. This is a much-needed establishment as there is much inequality in the area. Although the Arabs make up one third of the population they only have one high school and two elementary schools and have to share a single gymnasium (that is 3000 students sharing one sports facility and classes with more than 40 pupils in each), whereas, the Jewish community has seven high schools and ten elementary schools, each with it’s own gymnasium.
When I was in this wonderful establishment, I had the opportunity to see some of the work that takes place within its walls. Teaching is a huge part of the programme, whether preparing children with slight learning disabilities for first grade or teaching 4th graders to speak English. I was astounded by the level of English that these ten year olds had reached and felt embarrassed that I could only reciprocate with either a ‘shalom’ or ‘salaam’. The centre also offers dance and music lessons to children and adults alike and I watched a Russian folk dance lesson for teenagers. It also teaches Hebrew to Russian immigrants, English and computer lessons to all ages. However, the aspect of the outreach program that had the biggest impact on me was the women’s club. This was run by an incredible lady called Karam. As a Muslim woman, she has the ability to reach out to young women in the Arab community and give them a space to speak and learn in a safe environment. Being trained in social work, she teaches a vast range of knowledge, important to life, including decision making, sex education and the rights women hold as individuals. In this particular session, I had a glimpse of Arab women who were around my age and in the same place in life. What I found wonderful was that they were really trying to set up a dialogue between themselves and me and I wished I could have stayed and joined in the discussion.
Along with these class-like settings, every summer this centre has a mixed camp where they take the kids away to a different setting and allow the children to be children and have fun and share experiences, as opposed to forcing them into discussion about the conflict.
Another aspect of the programmes that interested me was who the centre was targeting to bring about change. I expected the main emphasis to be on young children (which it is) and teenagers. However, Carol told me that this was almost impossible as there was a lot of resistance with teenagers, in terms of trying to get communities to inter-mix. This has led to the centre concentrating on women (especially young women) as not only does this help them, it provides the chance of having an impact on the next generation.
A new enterprise that is being established is an after-school football programme, with coaches who can speech both Hebrew and Arabic, as a constant problem between the groups is the language barrier. This is a prominent problem in Akko, as the three main languages spoken (Arab, Hebrew and Russian), have limited each community to itself, thereby preventing full integration. This makes the work of the Sir Charles Community Centre all the more important but, simultaneously, limits it as there is no way to start a dialogue between new immigrants and existing residents of the city.
“Empowerment and education are both the key and the goal”. I truly felt that this centre with all its endemic problems is attempting to make a difference to this complex, conflict-divided country and, as the centre advocates, “if you do nothing, there will be no result…”
– United World College Student Magazine –