SPECIAL REPORT: Orr Shalom – Caring for Israel’s most disadvantaged children

SPECIAL REPORT: Orr Shalom – Caring for Israel’s most disadvantaged children

Orr Shalom was set up in 1980 and has cared for thousands of Israeli children

Orr Shalom has cared for thousands of Israel’s neediest children. One student tells Lianne Kolirin how the charity stepped in after her father murdered her mother

The charity looks after 1,400 children from all walks of Israeli life

When Fantanesh Mangisto was just nine, she returned home from school to find her mother had been murdered. The abominable crime, for which her father is currently serving a life sentence in Israel, effectively made orphans of Fantanesh and her six siblings.

Last week, now aged 25, a brave and confident Fantanesh arrived in London to share her triumph over adversity story with an intimate UK audience.

She came with a delegation from Orr Shalom, a not-for-profit organisation that rehomes ‘at- risk’ children. Since its inception in 1980, the pioneering body has cared for thousands of Israel’s neediest children – among them Fantanesh and her siblings.

Speaking ahead of the private fundraising event in north London on Sunday, Fantanesh told Jewish News that Orr Shalom enabled her to have a “good childhood”, despite the tragedy that ripped through her family. “We were a normal family,” she said. “There had never been any domestic violence, which made it all the more shocking. There were no early warning signs.”

The family had arrived in Israel from Ethiopia four years earlier, in 1995. Their aliyah began with a stint at an absorption centre in Haifa, after which they moved to Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the children moved in with their grandmother.

But social services stepped in and referred them to Orr Shalom, which today looks after 1,400 at risk children from every walk of Israeli life: religious and secular, rich and poor, Jewish and Muslim.

They are rehoused in foster homes or one of 22 family group homes nationwide. Each home is run by a married couple with children so as to provide a warm family setting. House parents are supported by a team of professionals, including a psychologist, a social worker, a tutor and a counsellor.

Determined to keep the children together and stick to their motto – ‘we don’t give up on any child’ – Orr Shalom opened a new home in Ma’ale Adumim for the Mangisto children. “That way, we stayed in the same environment and at the same school,” said Fantanesh, who was in London to raise Orr Shalom’s international profile.

A child takes part in dog therapy at Orr Shalom

She added: “The house parents were white and had their own children. I didn’t understand what was going on. Slowly, slowly we connected and opened up. At first it was a bit strange, but we learnt to accept it.” With intensive care, support and therapy, the team helped the children overcome a range of problems, including dyslexia and a severe speech impediment. “Then after four years, the parents left,” said Fantanesh. “We believed we’d built a kind of family that would last forever, but of course it didn’t. After that, we woke up a bit to reality. “It actually made us closer and also helped me develop my independence as I realised that I would one day have to fend for myself. “We are very close and really understand the importance of the connection between us, while still staying in touch with many of the people who came into our lives.”

The London event was organised by The Israeli Friends of Orr Shalom and hosted by Karin and David Gillerman in Hampstead. Mrs Gillerman said: “Meeting Fantanesh has further strengthened our conviction on how important Orr Shalom’s work is and how essential it is that we all do much more to provide it with sufficient means and the right tools to assist many more children like her.”

Accompanying Fantanesh on the trip was Michael Fisher, Orr Shalom’s vice president for development and community outreach, and Yair Medalion, director of the graduate programme. Fisher said: “When kids come to us, they often come in survival mode. Many are very suspicious of adults and have to learn to trust again.”

But as the independence of late adolescence approaches, that fragile relationship can sometimes crumble. For that reason, Orr Shalom recently introduced a graduate programme, which assists young people in making the difficult transition to adulthood. “In Israel, there is a false belief that if you can go to the army and hold a gun at 18, you can manage yourself in the world,” said Medalion.

Under his guidance, ‘graduates’ are supported by professional mentors. “Just knowing they have someone there often allows them to take that next step,” he added. Although largely financed by Israel’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Orr Shalom must raise at least £3million annually to fund its most basic needs. “We don’t want to just provide the minimum requirements,” said Fisher. “We want to make changes in these children’s lives and we need to go that extra mile to help them.”

One of Orr Shalom’s key aims is to enable the children to achieve their full potential. In that respect, Fantanesh is a stunning success story. She recently completed an extended four-and-a-half year stint in the air force, serving as an officer. She has since gone on to secure a scholarship to study international relations at Israel’s only private university – a path she hopes will eventually lead to a career in diplomacy. She lives with a friend from Orr Shalom, as part of the organisation’s graduate programme. Each week Fantanesh spends a day volunteering at one of Orr Shalom’s group family homes for adolescent girls. Furthermore, she is also now acting as an ambassador for the organisation, sharing the story that for years she kept private. “I’m closing the circle,” said Fantanesh. “It’s my way of giving back and dealing with things I experienced. Maybe my story will give hope to the other girls.”

• For more information visit www.orr-shalom.org.il