Haifa university
Students participating in the Haifa University preparatory program. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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At age 15, the apartment Y. shared with her partner at the time, a drug user and criminal, was raided by the police.

"I grew up in a tough neighborhood and would often finds myself in trouble with the law," the Haifa woman, now 24, says. "Not because I wanted to. I never really committed a crime, but I hung out with criminals, people you see in the news these days. Some of them are in prison, some are dead. It was mostly for the money. I wanted money to get clothes and food."

After the police raid Y. was sent to "Tsofia," an institution for girls at risk. Leaving two months later, she was determined to fix her life, but found herself sliding back to where she was.

"I didn't know what to do with myself. My friends disowned me, so I got back to the old circle, and this time I hit it hard. I felt like I had nothing to lose," she says.

Y. dropped out of school, and got dragged into the drugs and violent lifestyle of her new friends.

"There would be days I'd be on the street needing someone to pity me and give me something to eat, make sure I get through the day in one piece," she says. "You can't be normal after a life like that."

But recently, Y. has been proving that she can. She is about to graduate from the "Bogrim Lebagrut" program at Haifa University, with a full matriculation certificate and a diploma from a pre-academic preparatory program, which together open the door to higher education for her.

The program is meant for young people who completed only 10 years of education. Some come with a harsh history of locked down institutions and drug problems, and others dropped out to work and support their families. Still others lack a matriculation certificate simply because they didn't want to study at the time.

Despite the educational and emotional support from the staff, however, only half of the 35 students who joined the program remain in it. The rest dropped out, unable to afford the time to study while working to support their family and themselves. The program itself is short on money and at risk of closure.

"We're trying to find sponsors who would support bursaries for the students," says Orly Binyamin, a social worker with the program. "Some of them don't have money to eat, so they drop out of the program and find jobs."

Binyamin says that for the program to sustain itself, it needs to recruit 25 more students who can afford the two years of studies without worrying about their income.

"This program saves them and saves society," she says. "Instead of becoming a burden, they are becoming supporting and contributing citizens." Only four young people have registered for the third class, and the staff is working the clock to find more students and donors for the program.

The program is a shared project between Haifa University and Haifa municipality, and the student recruitment process is not easy. "We approached city hall with the initiatives, and told them, you know the streets and we have the manpower to help," says Binyamin. "You have to have connections actually working the field when your target population isn't the newspaper-reading type."

Community workers Yaakov Broder and Larias Engert took up the challenge and began searching for candidates. "I built a network of contacts from every municipal therapy program, compiled a list of young people who went through their programs five years ago, and set to work," says Engert. "The problem was most young people leave these programs once they are 18, and move out of the city or change phone numbers."

Engert sent 600 letters with information on the program. "About 20 showed up," she says. "Some of them didn't know there was a university, and those who did couldn't see themselves as students. We need to court them, empower them and support them all long the way just to get them to be interviewed."

Having gone through the program, Y. is thinking about getting a degree in literature, a field she discovered through her studies. She also wants to write a novel about what she'd been through.

"I realized I could succeed, that I'm not just anyone but a talented girl," she says of the program. "My mother can finally be pleased with me. She stopped crying."