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Thursday, November 18, 1999

We're Here to Help You, Unless You're arab

A cafe for youth in distress run by the Jerusalem municipality has a clear admission policy: No Arabs allowed

By Baruch Kra, Ha'aretz

Five youths stood outside a downtown Jerusalem cafe, as they do every day. While smoking cigarettes and casually flirting with passing women, they spotted two figures approaching. "Here come the Border Police again," says 16-year-old F. of Ramallah. "No kidding," answered 18-year-old R. of Wadi Joz. When F. asked "How much do you wanna bet?," the policemen were close by, and the youths, for the fourth time that evening, automatically reached into their back pockets and pulled out their identity cards.The Border Policeman and his colleague, a civilian policeman, checked the identity cards one by one. None of the youths actually lives at the addresses listed on the identity card. Most have run away or been kicked out of those addresses. Since then, they have been hanging out on the streets and in public parks in western Jerusalem, some in a gang and others alone.

Finally M.'s turn came. "Where are you from?" the Border Policeman asked. "Pisgat Ze'ev," the boy answered. The policeman looked at him suspiciously. He checked the identity card. That was what it said. Apart from the boy's accent, it was impossible to tell that he, unlike most of the boys sitting that night on the steps beside the cafe, was Jewish. He was not the only Jewish boy who hangs out with the Arab boys. Sometimes other Jewish boys came out of the cafe and joined the group on the steps. Occasionally the Arab boys asked the Jewish boys to go into the cafe and buy them a cup of coffee or a sandwich because they are not allowed to go in.

Once they were allowed to sit at Koreh b'Cafeh - a coffee shop in an alley off the Nahalat Shiva pedestrian mall but that policy has changed. Hardly an ordinary cafe, Koreh b'Cafeh belongs to the Jerusalem municipality and is a project run by the youth welfare assistance department.

It opened around a year ago when the department, which used to send social workers and counselors to points where alienated youth would congregate, decided to change its tack: Instead of investing energies and resources in attempts to find youths in pubs, clubs, on the streets and in public parks, it decided to open an alternative place to hang out with subsidized prices. The managers of this cafe would be trained youth counselors and social workers. The plan worked; every night youths in need of care arrive there. The seven staff members attempt to direct the boys, who are separated in varying degrees from their families, to places that can help them: hostels, professional counseling, educational institutions and others.

Until four months ago, Arab boys could also benefit from the initiative. But after a few months of activity, the youth welfare department, which is headed by Shabtai Amedi, decided to ban entry of Arabs. Why? At a certain point, Amedi said, "it became clear that some youths were coming, who weren't the age the cafe caters to, and they were not in need of care; their main interest was that there were young (Jewish - B.K.) women in distress there."

"We started noticing," said Jocelyn Vaknin, the department's supervisor for the city center, "that (Jewish - B.K.) young women were hitchhiking rides to Ramallah, 15- and 16-year-old girls and even 14-year-olds."

"They (the Arabs - B.K.) told me in all seriousness," Amedi relates, "that the cafe is the only place where they can pick up Jewish girls. They also brought drugs into the place." Has Amedi as a professional not encountered young Jewish criminals who use or push drugs? "Yes," responds Amedi, "but you have to understand that the Arabs operate as a gang. Therefore, we considered the matter and thought that it might be better to close the cafe. We reached the point where we feared the cafe would cause more harm than good. We were afraid we would find young women in the Arab villages."

At that point, the youth welfare department temporarily closed the cafe. After a month, a solution was found: a membership card. The department decided that only a population that was "therapeutically suited" to the cafe would be eligible for membership cards. The Arab population, it was decided, was not appropriate. Amedi notes: "Of course, it was all done politely and without being offensive."

This is how the polite step seemed to R., of Wadi Joz: "After they told us that a membership card is necessary, we came to Salameh (the caseworker for the Arab sector at the time in the youth welfare office - B.K.) and said 'okay, we also want membership cards.' He said to us 'come back in a week.' Every time, Salameh said, 'soon, soon, until one day, he just disappeared. We asked the counselors if we could go in and they told us 'No, the Arabs can't come in.'" The departure of the department's veteran Arab sector welfare counselor eliminated any possibility of the Arab youth being again permitted to enter the cafe.

"It's racism, simply apartheid," says Samia Shibli, a social worker from the Arab sector and a volunteer at Elem, the organization for distressed youth. "There's no other way to explain it. And what hurts the most is that this is racism coming from the welfare system. They aren't barring the youngsters from entering because they did something, but because they're Arabs."

The message the youth get, Shibli argues, is a very dangerous one in terms of the formation of their identity. "It gives them permission to do anything," says Faras Abu Shamaa, a social worker at Elem and Avi (the International Children's Rights organization). "These boys have lost their trust in everyone and now they've also lost their trust in the social welfare system."

"The Arab population that came here," Amedi insists, "was not looking for an answer. They mostly saw the place as a drug hangout. They didn't want any kind of care."

And youths seeking to do drugs are not distressed youth?

"We reached the conclusion that we couldn't meet their care requirements. We also decided the ultra-Orthodox aren't appropriate for this kind of care." That is Amedi's proof that his motives are purely professional.

"I wouldn't want to take responsibility for the fact that women are showing up in villages around Ramallah," Vaknin says. But the young men and women continue to meet in Zion Square, in Independence Park, the Mahaneh Yehuda market and also in front of the cafe. "Inside the cafe," says Shibli, "it might actually have been possible to establish a different type of connection between the young men and women that is not based on exploitation." The minute the young women leave the cafe, they meet the Arab boys on the streets directly, without counselors and social workers. "As far as I understand it, a welfare department should solve problems, not ignore them," Shibli says. "The Jewish boys also take advantage of the girls, so will they kick them out of the cafe too?"

Amedi claims that while the cafe was open to Arab patrons, "80-90 percent of the Jewish boys stopped coming." The Jewish boys describe it slightly differently: "We would sit together with them like brothers, it was great," says 16-year-old S. "I don't understand why they took them out." There were violent incidents, he acknowledges, but those also happened among the Jews themselves and among the Arabs themselves. "I took a cup of coffee out for my friend," says 17-year-old B., "so they kicked me out. They told me they don't want the Arabs to come here."

"When I see them sitting outside," says 16-year-old N., who is formerly religious (another distressed segment that hangs out in these parts of Jerusalem), "it hurts me."

It is a unique population. Some of the alienated Arab youth roam around the eastern section of the city, but these - around 40 known ones - run to the western part. Some come from broken homes, some have run away from abusive parents, some have emotional problems, most have dropped out of school. They want to be as far away as possible from their families. Therefore Amedi should not be surprised when the boys rejected his idea of compensating them with a parallel cafe in the eastern part of the city.

N., a 17-year-old, is desperate. A week ago he ran away from home again. At night, he usually rotates among the public parks. "I stay awake all night and only in the morning go to sleep," he says, "I'm afraid I'll be raped." He ran away from his father, a former Shin Bet collaborator in Jerusalem who is now a drug dealer and living in the el-Arub refugee camp, who beat and severely abused him. "No one cares where I am," he says, "all I want is to tell the world what I'm experiencing and then to commit suicide."

They are all boys. Some are exploited laborers working in the market, garages or other jobs, some are light, social drug users. Some of them, the really tough cases, are involved in commercial sexual exploitation. There is also another reason for their flight to the western part of the city: the boys want to enjoy a little of the west's pleasures, which don't exist in the Old City, on the Mount of Olives or in Silwan. However, these urges do not change the definition of these youths from distressed youth to just youths seeking entertainment. That, nevertheless, is how the youth welfare department views them.

The cafe is just one example of the neglect of Arab youth in Jerusalem - primarily the ones who wander from the eastern to the western part of the city. Initially, the welfare department tried to deal with this group. A social worker from the eastern section was assigned to each one. When the cafe opened, he would meet them there. "This effort was unsuccessful," Amedi says, "these boys just didn't want to receive treatment." Since the employee decided to quit, no replacement has been found. The boys have been left without any authorized body to care for them.

The group is comprised of sub-groups: the first and largest is those who are defined as residents. They are entitled to all welfare and other services provided by the Jerusalem municipality. The second largest group consists of residents of the Palestinian Authority. According to international conventions, Israel must also care for these youngsters. Shibli claims neither the Israeli nor Palestinian authorities care for them at all. She plans to approach Umm Jihad, the PA social welfare minister, directly with a request to deal with this phenomenon. The third largest group is Arab youths who are Israeli citizens. The common denominator is that none gets any of the care available to Jewish youth. None of them is allowed to enter Koreh b'Cafeh.

"Apart from the usual problems of such youth," says Michal Ben Arye, the coordinator of the Elem mobile assistance unit in Jerusalem, "these are kids who experienced the Intifada period as children. This affected their identity very much. A specially trained staff is needed to earn their trust."

Once again, Elem is the only organization that seems to be on top of the situation. But it has no therapeutic authorities. After the staff of its nighttime mobile assistance unit noticed the growing incidence of neglected Arab youths in the western section of the city, they decided to launch a project which would employ a full-time social worker and later would set up a support and counseling center. Elem workers approached the youth welfare department and promised to share the expenses equally. The project was approved, but a suitable social worker and the funds to finance one have yet to be found

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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