From a very early age, Benny (not his real name) had always struggled to find his place in the world. As the middle child of a large Ethiopian family, he had always lacked parental guidance. His father was an alcoholic and his mother suffered great hardships to provide food and shelter for the family. She simply did not have the luxury of spending quality time with her children. Benny, in a cry for help, turned to alcohol himself and consequently fell into bad ways, running away from home, skipping school, hanging around the bad parts of the city, smoking weed and shoplifting to fund his drinking and drug habit.
By the time 16 year-old Benny arrived at the WIZO Australia sponsored Ahuzat Yeladim Youth Village in Haifa, his life had spun of control. His mother, so ill equipped to deal with him without the moral and financial support of her husband, had clearly given up on him.
The first year that Benny spent in Ahuzat Yeladim was challenging for both the staff and for the other students. He was extremely agitated, constantly picking fights and resisting authority. He was prone to violent outbursts and refused to cooperate with his teachers and the social workers assigned to him.
Youth village director, Yossi Saragossi, recalls, “In Benny’s first year here, it was an uphill battle and my staff had trouble handing him. They begged me to transfer him out of the youth village because his presence was so disturbing to the other kids. Clearly, Benny was a youth conditioned by circumstances to fail.”
With no place to go during the summer, Benny stayed at the Shabbat House at Ahuzat Yeladim. The staff again begged Yossi to transfer Benny.
Yossi explained, “I was adamant that we would not give up on Benny. Even though it was a challenge, we had to keep him here. I knew, as he had so often done before, that he would fall back to his old ways of drinking and smoking weed if we let him go. He would have no future. It was not an empty threat when I told him that if he did not pull himself together, he would be sent to a juvenile detention centre – and then who knows what would happen to him?”
Eventually, Benny asked Yossi to give him one more chance. Yossi agreed on the provision that Benny attend weekly meetings of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’. There, with social workers at the youth village supporting Benny through every step in the program, he received extra assistance to give up his alcohol addiction. With Benny’s new-found sobriety, he was able to realize, with a clear head, that WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim was the place for him. He began to settle down, study and took part in many extra-curricular activities.
After graduation, Benny was drafted into Havat Hashomer (a program for disadvantaged youth to integrate them into the army), which he completed with excellence. From there, he was accepted into the Paratroopers Brigade and is now in active service in Israel’s Defense Forces.
Benny often visits Ahuzat Yeladim. Yossi and the youth village team are always so delighted to see him.
Yossi watches, smiling, as he listens to Benny addressing the students.
“Take a good look at me,” Benny says, standing proudly in his army uniform. “Then look in the mirror and ask yourself how you see your future, because just like you, I thought it was cool to drink, to smoke weed, to do all the bad stuff. I was totally without boundaries.”
Benny has no contact with his family or his former drinking mates. He is all too aware of the triggers and he knows that to fall into old habits would ruin his army career and ultimately his future. He has the wisdom to stay away.
One of the Ahuzat Yeladim teachers has taken Benny in as a ‘chayal boded’ (lone soldier) and he enjoys being part of her family during his time off and on Shabbat and holidays.
“And perhaps you don’t see it right now,” Benny concludes, “but one day you will. One day you will look back on this place and know that it is here, in Ahuzat Yeladim, that they really look out for you. They believe in you here – and that’s all anyone needs in life.”
(Names changed to preserve anonymity)