Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Walking on the grass (when it wasn't there)

The thing she remembers most, Rachel says, is walking on the ‘grass’ in the center of the neighborhood, and her feet sinking into the sewer and open sewage. This shouldn’t be happening in modern Israel.

We’re walking in the Herzl neighborhood of Kiryat Malachi, perhaps one of the most difficult neighborhoods in the South of Israel, certainly it has the most challenging socioeconomics in the region. The neighborhood has a total of 21 large apartment buildings, with almost 3,000 households.

I’m walking with a colleague of mine, Rachel, who is the Better Together coordinator. Better Together is a platform, on which we can build stronger communities for youth at risk, especially Ethiopian-Israelis. And Kiryat Malachi was the pilot, some eight years ago, when Rachel came and did her first walking tour of the neighborhood.

Rachel went with spirit and determination from house to house and persuaded residents to join residential housing committees (ועדי בית), she brought them to meetings, introduced them to each other … because in a neighborhood filled with crime, despair and neglect, no one was talking to each other, there was hostility, vandalism, drugs and more. Kids were hanging out at night with nothing to do, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, in holes in the neighborhood [at first we thought she meant holes metaphorically, but then she explained – real holes, dug into buildings] smoking.

We’re walking in this lovely neighborhood now … where local activists, set up and empowered through Better Together, have beautified the gardens, worked together to lobby the municipality for services, and run programs and services that bring together immigrants, the poor, the different sectors of the community. Lots of enrichment programs, community building services, early-childhood projects.
From the apartment buildings, people used to throw their trash out from the windows. The main road sides of the building had trash reaching the second floor.

We brought all the departments together to one table, Rachel says. All the activists, everyone. In the past no one worked together. Now we sit together and listen to the needs of the community. The mayor is very interested and involved. It’s never happened before. They were surprised at first that the municipality got so involved – at first they said, why, there aren’t elections due right now. It’s established credibility for the municipality among the residents. Greater change; greater involvement.

Last week Rachel pulled ten building-residents together for cleaning and beautification of the neighborhood..

Rachel organized a clean-up campaign. Everyone helped, cleaned, painted, did gardening, planted seeds. They used to throw their trash out of the window into the road. Now there's neighborhood pride, organization, advocacy with the municipality.

There's a nice open grassy area between the buildings now, (in the photo at right). People picnic there.

Before Better Together started, it was a mound of trash. It took three massive dump trucks to clear out all the trash.

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