Israeli village brings hope for ‘lost’ youth

Israeli village brings hope for ‘lost’ youth

By Raffi Berg – BBC News, Hof HaCarmel, northern Israel

When Adam arrived at Yemin Orde Youth Village as a frightened and bewildered 17-year-old, in June 2006, it was the end of one long journey and the start of another. His odyssey began four years earlier when Janjaweed militiamen attacked his village in Darfur, Sudan, sending him fleeing for his life. Alone and separated from his family, Adam trekked from one village to another, eluding rebels, sleeping rough and spending time in jail, before escaping to Egypt.

One night, in Sinai, he says, he saw the twinkling lights of Israel and simply walked across the border. He was arrested, jailed again, then sent to live on a kibbutz.While there, his plight came to the attention of Dr Chaim Peri, the 66-year-old director of Yemin Orde, who arranged his transfer to the village.

Just one year on, Adam, a Muslim, is a happy, well-adjusted student, who has excelled in the study of robotics. “The children who come here are not necessarily Jewish, but we believe all children who reach the shores of Israel are our business,” says Dr Peri, who, as a baby, was himself placed in a children’s home.

For the past 54 years, the business of Yemin Orde has been to provide a home and a future to abandoned and at-risk children from around the world. At present there are some 500 residents in the village from about 20 countries as diverse as Sudan, Guinea and China, each with a story like Adam’s.

‘Family for life’
Situated on a peak on the Carmel mountain range, the 77-acre village is an oasis of tranquillity, a vital ingredient in the healing of children scarred by years of conflict and abuse.

Named after Orde Charles Wingate, the controversial British army officer who trained Jewish underground forces in the 1930s, the centre provides a safe refuge, education and life skills for destitute children from the age of five, through adolescence and up to the age of 19, and, in some cases, beyond.

“We don’t expel kids from here. Period,” says Dr Peri. “While only one in 10 graduates stay on, those who leave know that we’re always here for them, like a normal family.” It is an ethos which resonates with those who have passed through Yemin Orde’s doors. Some return to get married here, while others stop by to visit or stay to mentor newcomers.

In the village dining hall – which doubles as the venue for community weddings – the sound of chatter and hubbub fills the air. Here the village’s multicultural character is most visible, as children of all races and religions sit together and eat. “It’s as international a community as there can be,” says Dr Peri. “It epitomizes Israel.” It is a policy which Dr Peri supports.

“We embrace Muslim kids here, wherever they come from, but I cannot come up with any positive state- ment in terms of the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees,” he says.”It’s a new reality now and refugees have resettled all over the world. We are in the business of survival.”

Hard times
Outside, the midday sun beats down on the verdant grounds, where the children live in some 20 whitewashed, red-roofed homes – the boys on one side, the girls on another. The living quarters are named after historical figures, such as Aristotle, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.

“Our mission is to take kids from the margins of society and take them to the margins of leadership,” says Susan Weijel, a village official. “Our only expectation from them is that they give back to society.” The village, which depends financially on benefactors from around the world, is well-equipped, with two schools, science and computer laboratories, a swimming pool, gymnasium and a synagogue.There is also a small shop, but the children are free to come and go to the shopping centers of Haifa, just 10 minutes’ drive away. In the summer of 2006, however, Yemin Orde’s proximity to Israel’s main northern city was far from convenient, when Israel went to war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

“Two weeks before the war, a family of brothers and sisters from the former Soviet Union arrived at Yemin Orde. They kept having to run to the shelter in a place where we’d told them they’d be safe,” says Ms Weijel.
“Most of our staff and hundreds of our graduates were fighting in Lebanon,” she adds. “Two former Ethiopian students from here were killed.” With tensions rising over the northern border again, this time with Syria, the complex has stepped up its emergency drills. As we walk, an air raid siren wails as part of a practice, sending hundreds of children streaming through the grounds. “We try to give them a sense of security, but the reality of Israel is creeping in all the time,” says Ms Weijel. Despite such uncertainties at home, Yemin Orde’s reputation has begun to spread beyond Israel’s borders.

A sister village, modeled on Yemin Orde, is already being built in Rwanda, where some 15% of the population were orphaned by the genocide in 1994.
“When I think of all those who perished I think of what they could only have given to the world,” says Dr Peri. “That is why we are sending our Ethiopian kids as delegates to Rwanda, to instill in those children the belief that they can change the world, that they are destined for greatness.”