Today's blogpost was written by Ethan Harrington-Smith, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.
The Shay Agnon Arts and Crafts Booth, Ramat Eliyahu, Rishon Lezion, Israel.
“THEY LOVE THIS. YOU KNOW THAT?”
Bat El smiles, handing me a marker from the other side of the table. She’s wearing a traditional Ethiopian dress, even though it’s a blistering 37 degrees Celsius at the playground, and the chocolate wafers I’d placed by the coloring sheets have turned from solid into soup. We don’t notice. The kids coloring beside us don’t seem to care, either — they’re more focused on their pictures and sticker books. “It’s getting late now,” she says and points to the shade slowly spreading over the swingset. “See? Dark soon. We need to clean up.” I nod and collect our markers, not wanting to argue, but not wanting to go. This is the last Shay Agnon Community Arts and Crafts Table of the school year. The last time I’ll see most of these kids again.
Tonight, the feeling is bittersweet, because Bat El and I just found out that starting this fall, the city of Rishon Lezion will be taking over our craft booth project, and each week, will provide the community with volunteers and crafting supplies. The Shay Agnon Arts and Crafts Booth will go on. Yet, I’m still left with an empty feeling, because as the sun dips down behind Shay Agnon’s low-rise apartments, so too does it set on my volunteer fellowship with Yahel Israel, and so too does it set on my life here in Ramat Eliyahu.
Yahel Fellows at the community Purim festival; March, 2019
It’s June as a write this. My hair’s a bit longer, and my skin’s a bit tanner, but on the inside, I’m completely different. Ramat Eliyahu, a humble community, and my home for the past nine months, has changed me forever.
It was in September 2018 when we, Yahel Israel’s volunteers, first walked the streets, shook hands with the people we’d be working with, and began our new lives as social change fellows. By October, we were fully immersed in the non-profit placements, and by November, I was already questioning my place here — wondering what the Ethiopians thought of us, foreign volunteers with foreign ideas and foreign privileges. I wondered if we were wanted. I wondered if our work would have any impact at all.
My answers to those questions came with the news of the Arts and Crafts Booth, but even before that, I’d been seeing the effects of our work in the community. The students we tutored were showing amazing improvements in the classroom. My phone was full of pictures from nights at the youth music center, and my cupboard was cluttered with mementos from the Purim and Pesach and Peshtishnekel festivals we’d helped to plan. As the weeks passed, the community showed appreciation with verbal thanks (and, in true Israeli fashion, endless invitations to dinner). In return, I worked doubly-hard, hoping to show appreciation of my own. But there were failures, too. Plenty of them.
Yahel’s fellows in Ramat Eliyahu started off ten strong. Come March, we were down to eight. At the elementary school, plans for an End-of-the-Year English celebration never came to fruition, and months of preparation went into a drawer. Even the social media pages I helped build for the youth music center flopped, because I failed to secure the finances that would have given us a means to promote them. I know what I did wrong. I’ve learned from these failures — most of which were out of my control — but that doesn’t diminish the guilt that I feel, and I wish I could go back and fix it.
It’s late though. My date of departure approaches, and it’s almost time for me to move on.
After the Shay Agnon craft booth is locked up, and the playground is quiet again, I say bye to Bat El and head home for the night. My walk takes me past the Anielewicz bus stop, to the closed hair salon and the candy shop next door, where the neighborhood kids wave hello. I wave back, but I don’t stop until I reach my apartment. I've covered the door in projects from Shay Agnon, drawings the students have made, and suddenly, I realize that Ramat Eliyahu feels more like a home to me than anywhere else. Nine months might not seem long, but with each passing day, I was tethered more tightly to the community, and the beautiful people who live here. I begin to wonder if I’ll see the kids in the candy shop again. I recall Tel Aviv trips with my friends, and Shabbat dinners with the Batvavo family upstairs, recognizing there won’t be many more. With every farewell, I sever the tethers, and although I’ve sworn to come back for work or to visit, the truth is, I have no clue when that will be.
I know some things for certain, though.
I know that it’ll take a lifetime to reflect on everything that
I saw here, in the community, in the classroom, on trips to the Israeli North and the Negev and the West Bank and Gaza. I know I’ll miss the savory scent of wat and injera at sunset, and the kindness with which those Ethiopian households embraced me. I’ve made friendships that will last forever, and met people who will always be close to my heart, but most importantly, I learned the kind of person I want to become. Ramat Eliyahu has changed me forever, for the better, and I might be gone, but I'll be leaving a little piece of myself behind. I'm not worried — I know it's in good hands.
Yahel closing ceremony; June, 2019