It had never occurred to Batsheva Tamano, director of JDC’s Atzmaut program in Sderot, that her work helping Ethiopian-Israeli families gain self-sufficiency would one day help her own family.
It became clear a few days ago, when, on her way out the door of her Be’er Sheva home to work, a siren went off signaling a grad missile attack, forcing Batsheva to detour to her family’s shelter. Waiting for the attack to end, she found herself using breathing techniques from trauma relief workshops she had herself arranged for Atzmaut participants, for whom life with these types of attacks is routine.
Now Batsheva is experiencing firsthand the trauma to the families whom she serves.
“Last night, as we were descending into the shelter, my son asked me a barrage of questions, ‘Why can’t I go to kindergarten? Are they going to kill us? Why do we need to go the shelter? Is our house weak? Will the shelter stop us from dying?’ shared Batsheva. “It broke my heart. I just tried to explain calmly that the shelter was more protected.”
But these trying times have only reinforced Batsheva’s commitment to empowering her Ethiopian-Israeli community. “It’s not easy when you are worrying about your family, but it gives me strength to know that I have to help those who need it more than I do,” she said.
Batsheva was particularly eager to get to work that morning: In addition to doing the regular check-in with program participants, most of whom had spent the last five days in the crowded local public shelter, she was seeing off 20 Ethiopian-Israeli families (54 people) for a respite trip to Eilat, arranged by the municipality.
Developed by JDC to aid the absorption process in Israeli cities with smaller Ethiopian-Israeli populations, Atzmaut works with families as a unit, preparing parents for employment, bridging parent-child communication gaps, and boosting children’s academic achievements. Atzmaut, which has been operating in Sderot for four years thanks to Israel Emergency Campaign funds from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, is seen by the municipality as a central address for coordinating the needs of the city’s Ethiopian-Israeli community, and they contacted Batsheva the day before to organize a list of suitable families to participate in the excursion.
Preparing families for respites is just one of the support services that Batsheva and her staff have been providing to Ethiopian-Israeli families in Sderot since the attacks escalated. They have been working on rotation to look after children so that parents can go to work; arranging activities in shelters; connecting them to opportunities to leave the city for safe excursions; and working diligently to find an Amharic-speaking psychologist to help the adults in the community (children are receiving psychological support through the local trauma center).
“The rather chaotic atmosphere in the public shelters can be difficult for some of the adults to deal with,” Batsheva explained. “Although it’s safer for them to be there, some of the elders need quiet to deal with their worries so they just get up and leave even though they are not protected in their houses,” she added.
The following encounter from Batsheva on the morning described illustrates a common scenario in working with Ethiopian-Israeli communities living under fire:
“Before I went to the office that morning I visited the neighborhood’s public shelter. It was quite empty as most of the children and their parents had gone on a day trip to Jerusalem. A couple of women were still lying down. They were alone with a few young children.
I asked them where their husbands were. One said that her husband had gone to work but the other explained, with tension in her voice, that her husband David had dropped her and her children off and had gone home alone. She shared that she was worried about him as their home wasn’t protected.
As their home was on the way to my office I went into see David, a man in his 40s. I found him just sitting around. He had clearly returned home so he could deal with the situation in his own way. When I asked him what he was doing there since his family was in the shelter, he responded ‘I’m fine, what could happen’?
I couldn’t leave it like that. I said, ‘Don’t you realize you’re a role model for your family? Your home isn’t protected. Why aren’t you with them? What would you say if your children wanted to join you? If you are scared, share that with them, so they know its ok to be afraid, but you’re in this together’.
He smiled weakly at me. It was clear that he understood me but wasn’t ready to talk. We arranged to speak later…”
Batsheva’s work with people like David and his family is critical during crises such as this. Vulnerable in the best of times, Ethiopian-Israelis and other immigrants living in and around the conflict zone need the extra support JDC provides to cope during emergencies.