June 10, 2008

Sderot may have suffered eight years of Kassam rocket attacks, but it’s also a vibrant and socially active city.After enduring Kassam rocket attacks for eight years, residents of Sderot and the surrounding area want the world to see them in a different light.

“We want the Jewish community to know the situation here,” said Avi Sulemani, who runs Sderot’s community center.

“It’s a kind of solidarity with the city. We want the wider world to know that we’re a community looking for peace, that we want peace. We cleared out of Gaza [in 2005] because we want peace.”

Like many residents, Sulemani thinks that the world sees Sderot as a war zone or military stronghold. But there are those who want to show the rest of the world – including much of Israel’s population – that Sderot can be a vibrant city. Social programs have been created throughout the area, encouraging residents to interact with each other in communal settings.

“Life here is stronger than any Kassam rocket,” said Talia Levanon, a representative of the Israel Trauma Coalition. “The city is standing its ground and the residents will never leave.” One of those activists is Amit Lerner, who moved to Sderot a year and a half ago to work with the youth population there. In addition to helping those who have just finished army service find jobs and go to college, she guides groups of 18- to 24-year olds who want to galvanize young leadership in the area.

“The communal aspect [of my work] connects them to the city,” said Lerner of the discharged soldiers. “They run cultural programs for the community. They are very active in volunteering. Young people are the strength of the city.”

The city’s schools have also set up a support system to help children deal with the daily trauma by holding yoga classes and group therapy sessions for students that include work with animals and team-building exercises.

“Therapists have become part of the culture of the school,” said Beth Raise, the director of the Joint Distribution Committee’s Havens of Calm Room at Alon Madaiim Elementary School, where much of the social work takes place. “It’s kind of like a family. Through their presence at the school they [also] provide support for the teachers.”

Even so, some children are having trouble living with the terror. Liza, a 10-year-old whose family moved to Sderot from Kharkhov in the Ukraine when she was three, says that she can’t see her friends on a regular basis.

“I can’t go out with friends or walk around because of the Kassams,” she said. “When there are Kassams, we all need to stay at home. We plan things, but we can’t go out.” Liza added that her family hasn’t adjusted to life in Israel due to the Kassams, and that they miss the calmer life in Eastern Europe.

“They brought us from a relatively good life, a calm life, to life here, with the Kassams,” she said. “All of the neighbors there were friendly. That’s impossible here because we can’t go out. We try to continue [with everyday life], but it’s hard.”

Another resource exists for children in groups of area teens who hold programs to enliven the town. One student, who plays a clown for bar mitzva parties, says that acting helps distract the children from the situation in addition to providing an escape for the actors.

“I entertain the children,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of activities they can go to and their parents don’t have the ability to act like clowns, so I can make them happy. It also makes me happy. It gives me a pleasant feeling.”

One of the ways the area is hoping to galvanize social and cultural activity is through Sapir College, which boasts a student body of some 8,000 students and is one of the area’s largest employers. One student there is happy with the atmosphere on campus but wants students to focus on solutions to the situation rather than on ways to avoid the attacks.

“If we want to change something, it needs to come from here,” she said. “People need to oppose the [attacks] themselves, not just figure out how to deal with them. It’s impossible to [completely] defend this place.”

She also hopes to see more dialogue between Israeli and Gazan students, whom she says want the same things.

“[Dialogue] is what will improve things,” she said. “Everyone wants quiet and peace here. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t want to live. [Gazans] experience the same things we do. They also live lives that aren’t lives and they’ve also lost friends and relatives. Once you recognize that you can talk about everything else.”

While Sderot residents are trying to improve their lives, many have called on the government to pay more attention and direct more resources to the situation.

But some believe that instead of relying on the government, the town should attempt to create as positive an environment as possible. “Sderot is presented to the world as a city with a lot of wretchedness,” said Lerner. “Despite everything, there are social projects for teens, for young people. People haven’t lost hope.”

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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