Work Programs for Israel’s Special Needs Community Benefit All

Work Programs for Israel’s Special Needs Community Benefit All

KARMIEL, Israel — Ali spent nearly twenty-years combatting terrorism in south Lebanon, today he credits a north Israel electronics recycling firm with his happiness. His story is extraordinary, but at the recycling center he is also one among many.

Born in south Lebanon in the village of Al Hayim, Ali has lived with partial paralysis in his right hand and foot since a local physician botched the administration of his childhood vaccinations. He walks with a cane, has limited agility, and little use of his right hand, but Ali has never allowed his physical limitations to slow him down.

He graduated High School in Al Hayim and as a young man left his village to pursue an education in electrical engineering. But in the mid-1980s, at the same time that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were setting up the Lebanon Security Belt across his home region and just two years into his degree, Ali had to return to Al Hayim to help his family overcome local economic struggles. The Lebanon Security Belt was a geographical buffer zone that was established along the border between Israel and Lebanon following Operation Peace for Galilee[5], an anti-terror measure that had sent Israeli troops deep into Lebanon during the Lebanon War of the early 1980s. The zone was established as a way to prevent terrorists from crossing the border into Israel and eliminate cross-border rocket fire on Israel’s northern settlements.

Back home, Ali joined the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a Christian Shi’a militia that had split from the Army of Free Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. At the time the SLA was supported by and worked closely with the IDF in their joint resistance of both the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hezbollah inside Lebanon. Though the PLO is now the officially recognized representative of the Palestinian People, at the time they were considered by both Israel and the United States to be a terror organization akin to Hezbollah and Hamas. It would not be until the early 1990s, when the PLO accepted Israel’s right to exist in peace that they would elevate their status.

Ali is a refugee and ECommunity employee.

ECommunity has helped Ali regain purpose in his life.

Beginning his service in the SLA’s communications network, Ali climbed the ranks and eventually became an administrator and supervisor in coordination and logistics. There, he was responsible for five villages in the surrounding area and had frequent contact with Israelis who coordinated the security activity between the SLA, IDF, and Israel Security Agency. Over the years Ali collaborated with his Israeli counterparts to not just combat, but catch terrorists living in Lebanon.

Officially, Israel did not consider its work in the security belt a war, but in the late 1990s, a small group of women set out to shape Israeli public opinion of the occupation. The women, whose work would come to be known as The Four Mothers Movement, were prompted by a February 4, 1997 collision of two IDF helicopters bound for Lebanon. The crash killed 73 IDF soldiers, some of whom were friends and classmates of the activists own children who were also serving in Lebanon at the time.

In a 2012 interview with The Jerusalem Post[2] one of the movement’s original participants recalled the Lebanon conflict, calling it a silent war. “No one talked about it.” Said Linda Ben-Zvi, “There was very little support for a withdrawal…” But three years after the group’s first protest, their original mission was accomplished. Israel’s occupation of the Lebanon Security Belt was far from a silent matter and strong national sentiment conspired to bring the country’s work in Lebanon to a close. After 18 years of occupation Israel unilaterally withdrew from the strip of land that had encompassed roughly 150 Lebanese villages.[7]

While The Four Mothers Movement and their supporters were able to sigh in relief as Israeli troops came home, the end of a nearly two-decade long occupation was not as clean for people like Ali. Ali had married and had two children during his time with the SLA, and fear for his safety and that of his family was real. If Ali had kept his family in south Lebanon fanatics in the area likely would have retaliated for his affiliation with the SLA and IDF. He, his wife, and their children who were just toddlers at the time could have been injured, maimed, or killed so Ali packed up his family and left their home for safety in Israel.

Once relocated Israel’s Ministry of Defense laid out a plan for Ali that they felt confident would keep his family safe: stay in Israel briefly, and then go wherever they wished — except back to south Lebanon. There, they reasoned, the threat of revenge would always loom. At the time the future of Lebanese people within Israel was uncertain and Ali’s wife didn’t have the extensive experience with Israelis Ali had gained over his years of service with the SLA. With two small children to care for she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the Ministry of Defense’s plan for their family and wanted to return to her village. Despite Ali’s confidence in Israel and the plan that had been laid out for their family his wife’s wishes prevailed. When his children were just two and four years old Ali and his wife divorced so she could return to south Lebanon. She took the children with her and Ali has not seen them since.

Grief-stricken over the loss of his family, Ali recoiled and by his own account rarely left his home for a span of roughly ten years. If not for an Israeli doctor who sent Ali for what is known as Tipul or personal treatment at Bituach Leumi (the National Insurance Institute of Israel) he might still be there, but as Ali’s circumstances came to light through his treatment Israel’s Ministries of Health and Defense began work to help him overcome his deep depression. Emotionally supported by the counseling and social work services he was receiving Ali started to become his old self again. He entered an extensive independent study of computers, the internet, and anything and everything related. Eventually, Ali’s studies led him to Ecommunity,[4] an electronics recycling firm with a story[3] almost as extraordinary as his own, and it’s there that I met him and the organization’s other employees earlier this year.

ECommunity's Recycling Center

ECommunity’s Recycling Center

The father of a special needs toddler himself, Danny Kogen is a passionate advocate for integrating special needs adults into the work force, and through the recycling of electronics he’s devised a unique way to do it. Kogen founded Ecommunity Group in 2007 and now serves as the organization’s CEO. Tucked into the Misgav industrial zone of Karmiel in northern Israel, the center employs sixty special needs workers from a wide range of backgrounds. Some, like Ali, face physical challenges and mental illness, others are on the Autism spectrum, have Down’s Syndrome, or struggle with severe ADD/ADHD. Whatever their circumstances, Kogen has found a striking similarity about how they respond to the work of recycling electronics. While dismantling motherboards and dismounting PC fans may be tedious work for the average employee it seems to have a calming and therapeutic effect on workers with special needs.

As a result, the special needs adults who work at Ecommunity are able to hold long term employment, better assimilate into Israel’s society, and feel pride in their accomplishments. Meanwhile, their families are relieved of being their sole support network. It’s something they do happily and with love, but that, as anyone with a special needs family member knows, can also be very stressful.

It helps that Ecommunity embodies the “community” in its name as much as the “eco.” Surrounded by shelves stacked high with printers, monitors, modems, and all manner of used electronics sent to be recycled by companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, Arab and Jewish special needs employees work side by side and form lasting bonds. During my visit to the center in June Ira Caplan, the organization’s liaison to the United States, relayed the story of an earlier visit during which they’d hosted some of Israel’s top government officials. When the group walked into Ecommunity’s workroom to find one employee, arms stretched around another to help carefully guide him in learning a new skill, no attention being paid to the fact that one of the men was Arab and the other Jewish, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “Here,” Caplan said, “we had these extremely important men and even they were tearing up.”

“Our business is recycling electric waste. Our mission is employing the special needs population.” Caplan’s succinct explanation of the organization resonates in Israel where other initiatives to help the special needs population assimilate with the general population have been lauded a success — even in the IDF itself.

In 2001, after 28 years of service in the IDF Lt. Col. Ariel Almog was severely wounded in the line of duty. During his stay in the hospital he met other wounded soldiers, many of which had suffered as much psychological trauma as they had physical trauma and in some cases even more. Inspired by these soldiers, Almog set out to find a way to incorporate people who did not fit into the country’s traditional military framework in IDF duties. A few years later his project, “Realizing Our Dreams – Engaging with the IDF” was born.

In Israel military service is compulsory.[6] While a few exceptions to the rule exist, such as for medical reasons or religious study, virtually everyone else is expected to serve. Directly following high school young men enlist for three years, and young women for two. As a result military service is an integral part of Israeli life. During my time in the country nearly everyone had a story of their time in the IDF and often related to their communities in terms of whom had served with whom. But for many special needs youth who are relieved from the draft under the medical exemption, watching their siblings and peers serve without them was just another way in which they were not able to participate in daily life.

Since its inception Lt. Col. Almog’s project has brought awareness to the role special needs citizens can play in Israel’s defense sector and provided a space for them to do it. In fact, The “Realizing Our Dreams” project has found special need soldiers to be valuable in positions very similar to those special needs employees hold at Ecommunity. Many of the soldiers in the thirty-member strong unit work in a warehouse where they dismantle gas masks and sort the parts. In an interview earlier this year Daniella, who also works in the warehouse told the IDF Blog,[1] “This work used to be done by non-special needs soldiers, and frankly it was more complicated because they were not as motivated.”

Meanwhile, much like at Ecommunity, the IDF unit they’re serving is also serving them. During their service all thirty of the special needs unit’s soldiers live together with the assistance of instructors. Those who do not work in the warehouse work in the base’s kitchen or office and all learn important life skills aside from their jobs. “When they arrive, some of the soldiers do not have the capacity to eat or bathe alone.” Ariel told the IDF Blog, “With time and the help of the instructors, they become independent, even at work,” and many, another instructor reported, even go on to work for private companies after their IDF service.[1]

It is, perhaps, that employability that is the programs greatest success. If Ali is any indication, employment in the private sector is a gift that lasts a lifetime — and maybe even saves lives in its own way. Today Ali works alongside Alexis Lam, Ecommunity’s Lab Supervisor, diagnosing, refurbishing, and testing computer equipment. He credits his employment with improving his life in Israel which he says was previously “challenging and uncomfortable.” “Since starting my work [at Ecommunity], I’m beginning to feel released from all the suffering of the past — to be happy, to be free and to enjoy life.” He says.

Ali’s last name has been withheld for security reasons.