How UK funding transforms the lives of troubled girls


When 16-year-old Olivia moved from America nine years ago to join her father in Israel, she spoke no Hebrew. 

A troublesome child, she found it difficult settling into Israeli society and was learning little.

Now, sitting in a classroom at the Ironi Career High School in Tel Aviv, she tells a Wizo UK delegation how her life has been turned around.

“Here, it doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or where you come from,” she declares. “They make you feel at home and they help you to work at what you are good at.”

Shy and retiring, Olivia is one of 90 ethnically diverse students who attend the school for young people from disadvantaged and often traumatic backgrounds.

In the adjoining cookery classroom, Shlomi, 15, is pounding homemade pizza dough while his Muslim classmate Ahmed prepares the topping.

“I love learning with Ahmed,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if he is Muslim, or his family come from Ramallah. It doesn’t matter that I am Jewish. So what? Big deal.”

The school is one of 800-plus social welfare projects supported by Wizo’s international groups, and tour leader Michele Pollock is keen to show the impact of funding to some younger Wizo members.

“It is so important for younger women to see for themselves how Wizo is an integral part of all areas of Israeli society,” she points out. “And how different groups of people work together to make it a better place.”

Wizo UK was founded almost a century ago with a focus on inclusivity, something its leadership is eager to stress in a world where Israel is attacked for an “apartheid” mentality.

Its UK PR Maureen Fisher put together the itinerary, which included visiting projects designed to get Bedouin women into work and improving their status in their own community and Israeli society as a whole.

“Israel’s greatest resource is its people and its people are not just Jewish,” Ms Fisher says. “It is something a lot of people forget.

“If we don’t support everyone to empower themselves, we are not supporting Israel.” Students at the Ironi school are taught vocational skills and a team of professionals attend to their psychological and emotional needs.

Olivia says it is the first time she has had the opportunity to study things she enjoys and is good at. “I’m learning hairdressing, beauty and photography, alongside my regular subjects to get my A-level qualifications.

“I hated school before. I did not feel good at it. I felt lost in classes that were too big and with work I could not do.”

Dorit Simor, Ironi’s director, agrees that its students could not cope in the mainstream system.

“They have all kinds of problems with functioning. This place is their last chance.

“Everyone is accepted here and they start a programme that is specific to them and what they can manage.”

Tour group member Kim Blackman, 47 — who travelled with her friend Paula Lent, 46 —wanted to see how Wizo improves the lives of the disadvantaged.

Ms Blackman, who works in property, admits she had no conception of the scope of Wizo’s welfare work.

“People do think of it as a sort of Jewish Women’s Institute, where they all sit round, have tea and raise money. I’ve been so surprised.”

She was most affected by a visit to the Adi centre for “at risk” girls in the south of the country. “It takes them from the streets and puts them back on track.

“Being able to hear at first-hand the psychological and emotional support they get, as well as help with employment, was incredibly moving.”

Run in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Welfare, Adi offers therapy and rehabilitation services.

Revital Liraz, the former centre manager, tells the visiting group: “Since we opened, we have treated 800 young girls and women.

“A girl tells us what she has been going through and we say ‘this is the worst story we’ve ever heard’. Then two days later we say the same thing [after hearing about another traumatic experience].

“Their stories are so terrible and unjust. You cannot imagine the things they have to deal with.”

The centre operates a morning and an afternoon educational programme for students living in poverty, experiencing violence or abuse in the family and, in some cases, have been driven into prostitution. “We are a place that will accept them with no conditions, and no terms,” Mrs Liraz explains. “They can just come and knock on our door.

“We try to make them feel they are in a safe and supported environment. They can have a hot shower, hot meals, clothes, and get hygiene products.”

The delegation is told that Wizo UK contributes towards facilities enabling the girls to complete their schooling, as well as helping with dental care and food.

At the Gruss Community Centre, located in ethnically mixed Afula, the group learns how Wizo helps immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, alongside Arab and Jewish women.

Sheila Dvore-Casdi, the centre’s art teacher, explains that the Olive Tree art project for Arab and Jewish women has produced an exhibition of work that has toured Europe.

The idea was for women in the community to come together by drawing a tree.

“The olive tree means something to both Jewish and Arab women and we found it brought together people who might not normally meet or speak,” Ms Dvore-Casdi says.

“The women’s canvases are now being exhibited around Europe and have inspired cross-cultural dialogue.”

Paula Lent, an art- studio director, is impressed by the venture. “It is amazing how such a simple project can bring people together.

“People have this idea that we can’t get along but you look at the work they have created and think it is wonderful. It has inspired me to get back into my own art.”

For Wizo veteran Shirley Levinson, 88, the highlight of the tour was meeting a Jewish and Arab women’s choir in Jaffa.

Founded by Mika Danny, Rana comprises 20 Christian, Muslim and Jewish women ranging in age from 30 to 60. They have remained united through times of conflict.

“In 2008, just a few months after the choir was created, we experienced the war in Gaza together,” Ms Danny recalls.

“During a rehearsal, we had a conversation where all the women chose not to discuss politics or talk about who is to blame, but talked about the pain, the waste of lives, and the frustration they felt.

“We all cried at one point or another and the feeling of shared destiny was stronger than anything else.”

By performing in both Arabic and Hebrew, the women learn to listen to one another, explains Ms Danny:

“It helps break stigmas and prejudices. I always look for similarities in musical motifs and in the texts and combine them.

“Even if people have different political opinions and come from different backgrounds, a genuine dialogue, and even love, like we have in the choir, can be achieved by having a common passion for something.”

The UK delegation was not entirely female; it included Joe Burchell, husband of Marilyn, the Bromley Wizo chair.

“You don’t have to be a woman to support what Wizo do,” he says. “My wife has been involved for 45 years. Over time, I have seen first-hand how it supports equally all classes, religions, adults and children.” He is pleased Wizo’s work draws attention to Israel’s diverse society, suggesting: “It would be better [for the government] to promote the diversity, the technology, the medical research, which very few people worldwide know about.”

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