Leaving home is never easy, but for the nearly 200 Yugoslav children who have found refuge in Israel in recent months, the separation from parents and familiar surroundings has proved especially difficult.
As fighting rages in what was once Yugoslavia, the children, who began arriving three months ago, are trying to become accustomed to life in a new land.
Housed in three Youth Aliyah villages throughout the country, the children — ages 8 to 18 — do not seem different from other youths attending sleep-away camp. Like other campers, they take trips, watch movies and make mischief.
But a look into their eyes reveals an uneasiness that goes beyond homesickness. Between gulps of falafel and a trip to the zoo, these kids think about war and loved ones left behind.
"Some of our kids are very frightened, while others seem to have adjusted quite well," says Uzi Kremer, the director of Jerusalem’s Goldstein Youth Village, home to 55 of the youngsters.
"A lot depends on how close the children’s homes are to the fighting," he says. "Of course, as with all the children who live here, we do the best we can."
The picturesque facility, set on 20 acres of rolling green hills, is regarded as an oasis for children in crisis. Founded in 1949, it has housed thousands of children from lands of distress.
As in the past, priority for the few hundred dormitory beds is given to orphans, children separated from their parents and those from troubled homes.
During the coming school year, the Yugoslav youths will be joined by 70 teens from the former Soviet republics, 45 from France, 90 from the United States and 130 from problem homes within Israel. Another 150 Israelis will attend classes on a commuter basis.
‘OUR GOAL IS TO RELAX THEM’
Yet, on this hot summer morning, Goldstein seems more like a summer camp than a boarding school. Children run in and out of the dozen or so buildings that comprise the village. Some, on their way to the pool, carry swim gear, while others sport tennis rackets.
"Except for an occasional class in Jewish history or Hebrew, the emphasis here is on fun," says Kremer, who is a psychologist by training.
"A pressured environment is the last thing these kids need," he explains. "They have come from a country with troubles, tensions and violence. Our goal here is to relax them. That way, they’ll enter the school year ready to learn."
While the majority of the children are obviously enjoying themselves, those from war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina — about a dozen in the Goldstein group — are having a tougher time,
"For starters," says Kremer, "many of our kids have actually seen fighting. If that weren’t bad enough, the communication lines are down in that region.
"So while most of the other children receive phone calls and letters from home, the Bosnian kids have no contact with their parents," he says. "It’s no wonder they are sad and withdrawn."
Their fear has taken several forms, the director says. "They have trouble sleeping and cry very easily. Sometimes they become aggressive, at other times withdrawn. All we can do is offer a lot of love and a stable environment."
When asked whether the recent visit of some of the children’s parents has hindered or helped his cause, Kremer can barely restrain his anger.
"If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have allowed the parents to come for a visit," he says. "Only 16 of our 55 children have been reunited with their parents, leaving the others more demoralized than ever. Good-natured kids have suddenly begun to misbehave and stop learning."
‘MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT SENDING HER’
To soften the blow, Goldstein staffers encouraged the visiting parents to spend as much time as they wanted with their offspring — provided it was not at the village. At the same time, the other kids were treated to a trip to a water park.
"The trip was so much fun," says one staffer, "that the kids with visiting parents were upset they hadn’t gone, too."
Two days after her mother’s arrival from Belgrade, 12-year-old Anna Ferger is all smiles. Strolling around the capital with her mother, Boyena, she says, "I’ve missed her so much. I really can’t believe she’s here."
Boyena, touching her daughter’s pony-tail, gives a deep sigh. "It’s been lonely without Anna. She’s everything to me."
The decision to send her daughter to Israel was not easy, she says. "So far, things have been quiet in Belgrade, so I had mixed feelings about sending her away. But when five of her close friends flew to Israel, Anna said she wanted to go, too."
Though pleased with Anna’s life at the village, Boyena has one concern: "If Anna chooses to remain in Israel for more than the year we agreed upon, it won’t be an easy situation.
"I’m not sure she’s old enough to make this kind of decision," she says. "On the other hand, I want to give her the chance to live her own life."