At the Hod Special Education School in Haifa, some 20 students are gathered on the ground floor and laughing. Guy Erez (19), Irina Porchuk (19) and Aya Datinkaya (20), emergency situation counselors for the Home Front Command, mimic the up-and-down sounds of the air raid siren. "Should you be afraid when you hear the siren?" asks Porchuk. "No, no," says Assaf, 26, who has Down syndrome. "You don't have to panic. It reminds us to go into the shelter."
Bits of information about the war are even trickling down these days into the sheltered world of students suffering from various types of retardation and the emergency situation counselors have been called on to teach them how to protect themselves during an air raid warning.
"What did we learn from the soldiers?" asks the director of the institution, Chana Pless.
"Not to be afraid," everyone answers.
Raya, 26, adds: "We learned that you have to be happy." In recent years, the Home Front Command has been training soldiers whose job is to offer guidance to civilian populations during emergency situations and teach them to protect themselves in times of war and disasters, such as earthquakes and fires.
"During normal times," explains Re'ut Smerkowitz, a guidance and information officer with the northern district of the Home Front Command, "soldiers lecture to students in schools and to adult groups such as teaching staff and factory workers. During times of war, they travel to institutions and public shelters, answers citizens' questions, provide information on protective measures and, primarily, alleviate the tension, bring down the level of fear and provide support to those sitting in shelters and play games with the children there."
The IDF has around 80 soldiers working as emergency situation guidance counselors. With the start of the war in the north, Erez, Porchuk and Datinkaya were transferred from the Sderot region to the north. "The residents of Sderot are already used to emergencies, so our job there was to provide support and play with the children," says Porchuk.
"In the north, there is great concern," all agree. "There are cities that are not used to Katyusha barrages, and it's a new reality for them."
When the students leave the boarding school in the afternoon, Haifa seems to have holed up inside. There is little traffic and no one on the streets. A white streak in the sky draws the attention of the Home Front Command counselors. They watch the sky for some long and tense moments. A plane appears and the tenseness dissipates.
"We're also afraid," they admit. "But we can't let it show," says Datinkaya. "We were in Kiryat Shmona and missiles fell and it was frightening," acknowledges Porchuk, "but when we come to speak to people, we immediately forget the fear and worry. The information we relay appears in all the information brochures and on television, but the meeting with people in uniform, who explain things face-to-face to the people and encourage them, gives them strength, especially young children who receive it with a lot of love."
In the Hadar neighborhood, in an inner room of a shelter located in the ultra-Orthodox Torat Emet School, Carmella Dvir, 40, an ultra-Orthodox woman and her four daughters crowd together next to Lital Sharvit, 19, a single mother, and her infant daughter and her mother. "We live here in the neighborhood, we know each other only from the shelter," they say.
It's hard not to notice their fear and feeling of helplessness. They have been in the shelter since 10 A.M., without food or water, and are afraid to go outside. "There aren't shelters and protected areas in the Hadar neighborhood, and no one cares," says Sharvit despairingly. "It's impossible to shower here, and I'm afraid to go out and go back home. Even the siren scares me."
Haim Wilanger, a member of the city council and resident of the neighborhood, joins the conversation. "There was a lot of confusion over the issue of opening the city's shelters," he says. "The municipality and the Home Front Command issued conflicting instructions. The municipality said to stay in the shelters and the Home Front Command said to go to reinforced rooms. The shelters in some places were locked and were opened very late. We're not used to shelters."
"Even in the shelter we don't feel safe," notes Sharvit. "Drunk men come here and we're afraid they'll hit us." As if to illustrate what she was saying, a man with blazing eyes, full of anger enters the shelter and starts to curse and shout at Wilanger that the shelter was full of stuff and in the morning his wife, who had sought refuge there with her baby girl, was told that there was no room. Wilanger tries to calm things down, unsuccessfully.
The team of Home Front Command counselors listens to the criticisms quietly. They let the women speak and identify with their situation and empathize with them. They recommend that the women in the shelter contact the police if they feel threatened by any of the people in the shelter, suggest equipping themselves with food and water, listening to the Home Front Command's bulletins and finally even write down their phone number so they can help.
"Until you came, we felt abandoned. All day we felt we were alone, that no one knows we're here," says Dvir to the counselors before they leave. "I feel that you have revived us."
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