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How about a holiday list for social activism?

Here's what to do if you want to change the things you can change - using Elifelet, a nonprofit helping children of refugees, as case study
Elifelet's after-school programs provide a warm meal, tutoring, music, art and language classes, and most importantly,, a safe haven off the streets for hundreds of children growing up without legal status in Israel. Fall, 2021.Credit: Elifelet.

It’s that time of year when everyone is making lists, and so I figured that instead of my usual format, I’d join those efforts to keep up our holiday spirit. Inspired by a recent visit to Elifelet, a nonprofit that works with children of refugees, I came up with a top ten list for my students who are thinking about how to engage in social activism. Perhaps you too would like to adapt and adopt as you see fit.

1. When you decide that this can’t be the way the world is supposed to be, jump in…

Elifelet began when a journalist, Yael Gvirtz, was covering the refugee and asylum seekers community who had fled places like Eritrea and Sudan. After reporting on the dire problem of overcrowded and unregulated ‘baby warehouses’ for many of these children in South Tel Aviv, Yael made the jump herself. She organized an extensive volunteer network for makeshift childcare solutions in order to help keep the children healthy and safe.

2. Invite others to build an ecosystem of support.

Open your doors to volunteers. Show how individuals can do something, however seemingly small, to make things better. This can, in turn, inspire new champions for your cause. Julie Fisher, who volunteered for years with children of refugees through Elifelet, went on to establish an advocacy and educational forum called the Consortium for Israel and the Asylum-Seekers. It is another reminder, like Elifelet, of how to connect well-meaning individuals who want to put more kindness out into the world.

Therapeutic support is also offered by Elifelet along with its educational program, as the challenging realities facing the asylum seeking and refugee community can lead to serious developmental and emotional difficulties. Fall, 2021. Credit: Elifelet.

3. Go big and take risks.

Feeling bold? Look at Sharon Tal, who now is the director of Elifelet. In a mid-career shift, Sharon became devoted to working with thousands of children who are growing up speaking Hebrew, yet who lack legal status in the only country they have known as home. And Sharon has kept thinking big in every way, shepherding Elifelet through a major change within her first year. In partnership with the Tel Aviv Municipality, Elifelet now provides afterschool programs to hundreds of children.

The afterschool programs that are staffed by both professionals and volunteers take place at the neighborhood school located right across the street from Elifelet’s offices and ‘Community House’. Fall, 2021. Credit: Elifelet.

4. Build a team that prioritizes partnership.

Are you in constant communication with like-minded nonprofits? If not, you should have someone like Tamara Newman on your team. Tamara has worked with refugees for years and focuses on nurturing partnerships in every direction. So when the pandemic extinguished many jobs in the hospitality sector and led to a humanitarian crisis for the refugee community, Elifelet was in a position to collaborate extensively with its partners in order to meet immediate needs.

5. Continually examine the status quo.

What kind of questions to ask? Well, everything. When Sharon Tal took over Elifelet in 2019, one of her many questions was if there could be a hub for like-minded organizations working with the refugee community. With all of the nonprofits operating on shoestring budgets, wouldn’t it be efficient to have shared access to board rooms, copy machines, or even coffee filters? Fast forward to this Fall. At the newly established ‘Community House’ initiated by Elifelet, various nonprofits benefit from the formal partnerships and the informal networks that come from sharing office space.

The ‘Community House’ now houses Elifelet, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants the African Refugee Development Center, and PCATI- the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. And more are on the way. Fall, 2021. Credit: Elifelet.

6. Stay close to your community.

How do you stay grounded in the refugee community, especially when it is in flux, with community leaders often migrating abroad? Remain focused on the changing needs, keep building partnerships and settle in where you serve. Elifelet established its hub directly across from the public school that has hundreds of  children without legal status. And if you make it convenient for your target community, good ideas will keep coming. Recognizing that parents will be picking up their kids at school, Elifelet suggested the space to the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Mesila as a location for its planned foodbank, with easy access to over 1000 families.

The Tel Aviv Municipality’s Mesila’s food pantry, run together with its partner Lesovo, is located right next to the ‘Community House’, and serves over 700 families a month. Fall, 2021. Credit: Natalie Silverlieb.

7. Try to maintain a 360 view.

Remember to keep broadening your perspective from each angle, seeing how each of the organizations engage with your target community. Right next to Elifelet’s offices – where lawyers from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants are helping to stave off deportation orders or grant asylum status – there is workshop space for English and coding lessons offered by the African Refugee Development Center. Build an ecosystem that lets everyone see themselves in different ways. And once in place, keep filling in the open spaces.

The African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) operates various educational programs to help advance both the social and economic inclusion of refugees and asylum-seekers throughout Israel. Fall, 2021. Credit: ARDC

8. Dream of possibilities.

Think of every option and every connection you have. Other creative efforts can help step in, like ‘Shinua Hevrati’ that furnished the nonprofit hub with donated office supplies and furniture. And what other ideas can you welcome in for your community? How about an art exhibit sponsored by another NGO that shares the hub space PCATI, in order to raise awareness about incarcerated children? And have a roof top? Why not consider a greenhouse so that the kids can come across the street from the school to learn about growing herbs? Then parents can come to select from the rooftop garden after school pick up. It is already in the works…

9. Keep your heart open, but make sure to pace yourself.

It’s ok to feel overwhelmed. There are so many children with needs and the challenges are not going away. So many have suffered displacement, loss and untreated traumas. But all you can do is begin where you can. Look at the local school where Elifelet’s afterschool program takes place. The professionals and volunteers are providing these children not only with needed supervision and care, but also with yoga, canine therapy, violin lessons and more. You can take your cues here. To stay in it over time, the spark you have can’t only be fueled by anger at the situation but balanced with joy, compassion and kindness.

10. Show up, again and again.

Here you can leave space for the unexpected in life and for the ways in which your own activism will be enriched along the way. Many of Elifelet’s staff and partners describe surprising twists in how individuals became engaged in working with the refugee community. And in each of their own ways, they all have signed up for hope. As Sharon Tal has quoted Magic Johnson, and it seems to summarize the work of Elifelet in a nutshell: “All kids need is a little help, a little hope and somebody who believes in them.”

Children at Elifelet’s afterschool programming engage in all types of activities that focus on both educational opportunity and their overall wellbeing. Fall, 2021. Credit: Elifelet.
About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives with her family in Kiryat Tivon.
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