Since 2001, the southern city of Sderot, which is located half a mile away from the Gaza Strip, has been under near-constant rocket fire from Hamas. As of 2013, over 13,000 rockets had been fired at Sderot. During last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, a total of 4,500 rockets were launched at Israel, many of which landed in Sderot. Due to Sderot’s close proximity to Gaza, citizens have between 7 and 15 seconds’ warning to get to a shelter.
Many families are forced to sleep together in safe rooms, and schoolchildren are trained to run to a shelter at the first sound of the siren. Hundreds of bus stops in the city are fortified, and on playgrounds, tunnels are covered in concrete. Over 5,000 bomb shelters have been constructed in the city, which has been nicknamed the “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World.”
As a result of their being under constant attack, over 75 percent of Sderot’s 24,000 residents suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many of them children and teens. The psychological toll of constant air-raid sirens and explosions has caused severe trauma in thousands of children, leading to an alarmingly high high school dropout rate of 15 percent. Many more are at risk of leaving school before graduation.
In order to combat this problem, the Municipality of Sderot turned to Meir Panim, one of Israel’s premiere social services relief organizations, to help create a program for at-risk youth.
Meir Panim is best-known for its chain of restaurant-style soup kitchens and meals-on-wheels food delivery programs throughout Israel, but it also runs several other programs benefiting Israel’s children in need, including after-school clubs and summer camps.
Known for its large network of social resources, Meir Panim was the natural choice to build the program of “safe haven” youth centers.
The twist, however, is that the youth centers will actually be built in existing bomb shelters, enabling Meir Panim to use the city’s infrastructure and to reconfigure bomb shelters into more welcoming and friendly places, rather than a room that represents panic and fear.
The shelters will provide a safe space where children and teenagers can come to relax, do homework, participate in recreational activities, and receive professional mentoring. Staff will work with at-risk youth to help them create and meet personal, academic and professional goals, and specially-trained student volunteers from Sderot’s Sapir College will work with the kids as group leaders and role models.
The renovated bomb shelters will have full amenities, including a fully-equipped kitchen, computer stations, and a furnished recreational area with a TV and games. Each shelter will have its own air hockey table. Meals will be provided, as many at-risk youth come from impoverished homes and don’t always get enough to eat.
According to Meir Panim, their goal is not only “to empower the youth of Sderot to overcome the deleterious effects of living under fire,” but to “also triumph in the face of adversity.” Their new bomb-shelters-turned-youth-centers will go a long way towards helping traumatized Israelis come back from the fear of rocket attacks, and enable them to live normal and healthy lives under very abnormal circumstances.