Bitter Cold Outside for Israel's At-risk Youth

With 40 percent of Israel's teenagers living under the poverty line, at-risk teens need more attention than ever.

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During the recent wave of biting cold that swept through Israel, I sat in my warm home and wondered how Israel’s youth in distress were coping.

While I was volunteering with Elem, a non-profit organization that helps youth at risk in forty Israeli cities, I came face to face with their plight - the scale of which unfortunately remains generally unknown outside Israel: Out of 2.5 million children in the country, an alarming 350,000 children are now at risk.

One of the prime reasons for this is that 40 percent of Israeli children live under the poverty line, roughly double that of most European countries, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The social protest that flared up two years ago has long since dissipated; talk of funneling more funds into the weaker sections of the population has all but stopped. There have been cuts in allocations of money for welfare, rather than increases. As a result, Israel's government continues to rely heavily on the goodwill of several non-profit organizations to do the job in its place.

Just as in the United States, many Israeli teenagers are at risk in terms of drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, and violence. According to the most recent Lancet Report (published last year), around 30 percent of American teenagers aged 15 admit to binge drinking. These figures, among others, suggest that an unprecedented number of children in the U.S. are at risk, despite a variety of welfare programs that target teenagers and that also take into account the 'silent' population of teenagers from illegal immigrant families.

In Israel, the largest demographic groups of teenagers most at risk are also from its recent immigrant populations, those whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. 20 percent of Israel's population is immigrants; but a much higher percentage of all youth in distress in Israel are those from first-generation immigrant families. Their parents may have come the Jewish state seeking a safe-haven, but ask any of the Ethiopian kids on the street how they feel about living here and the answer will probably be the same: We are outsiders, we are discriminated against, we were born in this country but will never belong.

Elem's own statistics cite a 10 percent increase in the use of drugs by youngsters, suggesting that 30 percent of teenagers aged between 12 - 18 have experimented at least once with legal or recreational drugs, often synthetic 'copies' of illegal drugs, that can be readily purchased at kiosks and corner stores. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to forbid the sale of synthetic marijuana and cheap methamphetamines has received much attention in the media but no real measures have been taken to date.

Another sector of the teenage population of Israel at risk relates to those living in security-sensitive areas along the border with Gaza or in the far north of Israel, bordering Lebanon. There are various state-run and private organizations that attempt to deal with the burgeoning sense of insecurity and ensuing side-effects that teenagers living in these vulnerable geographical areas experience. But these do little to stave the overall sense of insecurity that these particular teenagers experience, such as post-traumatic stress and a heightened sense of social isolation.

I volunteered for a year and a half with Elem's outreach street work program, venturing out every Thursday night to meet up with kids from the largely Ethiopian neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. Another group of volunteers centers its street work on the Haredi sector of the city, locating kids from ultra-religious families who have dropped out of school and are facing difficulties finding their place within the strict dictates of this society.

Volunteering, in my experience, is a two-way street: The person who volunteers also gets something out of it, namely the somber awareness that local authorities are not doing enough for the troubled teenagers that have no one else to turn to. Outreach organizations, working hand in hand with local welfare authorities, answer some of these needs, but it is a drop in an ocean of problems that Israel's teenagers face.

Unless more drastic measures are taken, and unless Israel – the state and those Israelis in a position to give without receiving - faces up to this glaring disparity, the situation will only get worse. As a particularly cold 2013 draws to a close, it is high time that Israel takes notice of the youth on its streets.

Joanna Chen is a poet and literary translator whose work has been published in literary journals in Israel and abroad. She blogs at www.joannachen.com. 

A child in an Israeli playground.Credit: Nir Keidar

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