Turning Pain Into Power

An Ethiopian toddler lies on the floor, frozen in anger, attempting to seek shelter under a table; children hold toy pistols to each other's heads; an Ethiopian boy leaps while jabbing his fist in rage; children wander the streets of Umm al-Fahm. These are just a few of the photos currently on display at the "The Girl Through the Lens" exhibition. The exhibit was put together by 10 participants in the Girls for Girls mentoring program," in which rehabilitated girls, who were once troubled, assist girls at risk.

The program, which was launched in 2002 by the Ashelim-Joint Distribution Committee of Israel, trains young women aged 17-21 who overcame adversity in their lives to assist girls and children at risk. The girls take part in a year-long course of theoretical studies, which meets at Tel Aviv University on a weekly basis. Jewish girls, Arab girls wearing headscarves, Ethiopians and immigrants from the former Soviet Union gather in one classroom. The curriculum focuses on feminist issues and identifying possible risks. In addition, a variety of enrichment classes also aim to create bonds between these girls, who come from every sector of society.

The initiative was introduced at a time when Ashelim-JDC is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. In the program's second phase, the participants take on mentoring roles in boarding schools and help centers for girls, where they assist at-risk girls. Their efforts are constantly supervised by program staff.

"The program is a declaration of our belief in the girls' power," says the program's director, Dr. Michal Komem, who is also in charge of Ashelim-JDC's young girls activities department. According to her, it is based on the principle that girls who have overcome difficulty can serve as a model of hope to girls who are still in distress. "This is a revolutionary perspective. As we see it, the fact that a girl is defined as at-risk does not mean she is incapable of instituting change in her life and in the lives of others," she explains. "The life experience of these girls trumps that of many caretakers. Due to their sensitivity, they are able to identify circumstances with which therapists are unfamiliar. Our idea was to turn this capability, derived from personal pain, into knowledge and power."

Komem notes that, "The concept of mentoring appears in the 'Odyssey.' A mentor is a faithful friend, advisor, or guide with a lot of life experience. The expression was born when Odysseus sailed to the Trojan War, leaving his son, Telemachus, in the care of a mentor." According to Komem, the program has been a complete success. About 70 of its graduates are now working with non-profit organizations where they assist at-risk girls.

The program was founded by Komem and Dr. Miriam Golan, also of Ashelim-JDC Israel, in collaboration with Tel Aviv University's School of Social Work, the Welfare Ministry, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and the Bat Ami non-profit organization, which offers high school graduates the opportunity to participate in sherut leumi, Israel's voluntary, national-service alternative to military duty.

Hila Soferman-Harnick, of Bat Ami, says that every year an average of about 15 girls from the mentoring program enroll in sherut leumi. "Sherut leumi is suited to every girl, matching her needs and interests. This allows her to enjoy an additional year of university studies in the field of mentoring and enrichment workshops," she stresses.

Breathtaking pictures

The photography exhibit is on display at the Masa Aher photography school gallery, in Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu neighborhood. The idea of mounting an exhibition was born during one of the enrichment workshops. Photographer Eli Attias delivered a lecture to the sherut leumi girls enrolled in the program, and, in response to their enthusiasm, he initiated a photography workshop for them.

"I saw their energy and wanted to validate their vision of reality," he explains. Attias asked the girls to walk around with pocket cameras, and, according to him, they returned with breathtaking pictures. "I did not believe an exhibition would come of it," he confesses. "But we gradually collected a number of moving photographs. The once shy, bashful girls who were afraid to lift their heads and maintain eye contact, became girls who scrutinize their environment, blessed with a sharp and sensitive eye, girls who make use of the power of the camera. They began to get positive feedback from their environment, which empowered them and made them feel that they were able to see something that evaded others, that their viewpoint challenged the environment, and that it was a source of pride and strength."

Ophir, 19, chose to document her sherut leumi service in a boarding school for at-risk youth. She was sexually molested at age 10, and developed an eating disorder when she was 12. Only when she was 14 and began throwing up in school did her friends notice and tell the principal. Her situation deteriorated and she was hospitalized for a year in the Adolescent Eating Disorder Department at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. "My relations with my friends in school were severed. I hated myself, and, after a year, felt that I no longer wanted to waste my life and that I wanted to change," she says.

Ophir began to stabilize her weight and cooperate with treatment. A social worker referred her to the mentoring program. "I succeeded in overcoming something very difficult and wanted to share my experience with other girls in a similar situation," she recalls. She now assists others, while at the same time undergoing psychological treatment for her own problems.

In conjunction with mentoring studies, Ophir also prepared a presentation about eating disorders and she gives lectures on the topic in different institutions. "The program gave me tools to cope with myself and taught me how to pass on my knowledge to other girls," she says. "It gave me the power to act and boosted my self-esteem, because I help others. I'm slowly discarding the identity of the helpless girl, whom everyone cares for and helps, and becoming a girl with initiative, who can help others change."

The works of R., from Umm al-Fahm, are also on display at the exhibition. R.'s photographs document the environment in which she lives. Her photographic perspective is distant, like that of a bird in flight. "I climbed up to the roof and photographed the children wandering about in my street," she says. R. now volunteers in the Bayit Ham community day treatment center for girls from distressed families, in the Arab town of Fureidis.

Katya, age 19, immigrated to Israel from the Commonwealth of Independent States when she was 12. Her photographs document street culture, break-dance, graffiti and the youth whom she mentors as part of her sherut leumi. "The kids I work with are very talented and wonderful. But there is always that moment in which they lose control and become violent. I know that kind of behavior, from my own experiences, and I overcame it. I feel like I understand them - that I intervene a second before they explode and can give them tools that help them," she says.