The gathering of eight teenagers in a small building in the center of Ashdod last Tuesday looked like any other gathering of adolescents, with the exception of the language they spoke, which was Russian. Lots of laughter, flirting, one teen romance, a forbidden cigarette smoked outside.
For the past year, however, these eight have been tasked with a unique mission: After a one-year preparation course, they are staffing a telephone hotline for immigrant youth, "Olim al Hakav," which began operation a month ago. The name literally means "immigrants on the line," with an added sense of getting onto the right track. It is sponsored by One Plus One, an association devoted to assisting immigrant youth at risk, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.
The new service, which is overseen by social workers, is intended to help with one of the biggest problems faced by Israel's Russian-speaking community - at-risk youth. "Immigrant" for these purposes can also include teens who came here as infants but are still facing absorption difficulties. The problem of youth absorption is significant, remaining after other absorption issues have been solved. Statistics show that immigrant youth are over-represented among school dropouts, drug and alcohol users and people with a police record.
Russian-speaking youth tend to avoid the aid options that they associate with the Israeli establishment. "We've seen that these folks just don't ask for help," One Plus One head Vadim Blumin says. "Thankfully, the Absorption Ministry has enabled us to become part of the solution, not just part of the problem. Immigrant youth find it easier to open up to the Russian-speaking youths at the hotline. Sometimes the fact that the young adviser was once in exactly the same situation as the caller and got out of it is the main message."
In the first month, there have been disappointingly few callers. Most of the callers discuss unfamiliarity with "the Israeli maze." Confused parents and bewildered grandmothers who feel as if they are losing control of their children also call. The children, for their part, feel that they are losing the parents who came here for their sake but are so wearied by their struggle to survive that they have no time for them.
"They need to work and barely see [their children]," Samion, 19, says. "Of course their kids are mad at them. They wait for them at home with a question and there's no one to talk to. So you withdraw into yourself, you feel alone."
Dima, 17, adds, "It contributes a lot to the problems of immigrant youths. You become violent in order to draw attention, you turn to drugs and alcohol."
The same themes come up in the messages from the more than 500 users of the project's Web site. The eight hotline staffers themselves had similar problems. Although they claim to have overcome them, they seem little different from the callers. Some have criminal records and came to make reparations for their misdeeds. Some are being raised by a single parent facing great difficulties. Those who are not considered Jewish according to religious law face particularly serious social difficulties.
A lot of anger and frustration was expressed in the group meeting: at home and family; at Israeli society, which they divide into "Russians," "Ethiopians" and "Moroccans" (everyone else); at the establishment, which they view as treacherous; and at the state, which invited them here but does not know how to absorb them.
"Our main problem is that we're different" claims Genia, 16. According to Dima, "There are Moroccans and Iraqis who speak the same language, and there are Russians. It seems there is hate and jealousy. It's understandable. The immigrants brought education and success. We take their daughters and their jobs."
Alexei, 17, talks about domestic violence. "Friends tell me about such cases, where the father beats the mother over money, or the father buys vodka instead of shoes for his wife. They get out their frustrations by hitting."
Oksana, 16, tells the story of a girl who cried in school when classmates, during a lesson about the World Jewish Congress, ended up talking about "those Russians who speak Russian on the bus and annoy everyone."
While Dima accuses the state of ignoring the immigrants, Genia demurs: "The state succeeded, it is society that didn't."
Paulina chooses to end on a positive note. "That's what we're here for, to fix the situation. We take the place of the state."
It seems that these eight teens are indeed succeeding. One hundred applicants have already applied for the second counseling course; 64 of them are currently taking a preparation course that seeks to fill the big gaps left by the state.
The number of the hotline is 1-700-707-987.
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