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Israeli Aids Group Sends Young Educators to Developing Countries

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When the United Nations assembled AIDS activists from countries such as Ghana, Gambia and Kenya last month to ask what needed to be done to stop AIDS, they answered that young people need to take the initiative because governments and international organizations aren’t doing an effective job of disseminating information on AIDS. Israeli Inbal Gur-Arie, 31, believes she has a way to help young activists bypass bureaucracy to effect change. Through Ringing Bells, a program she founded, Gur-Arie is helping to train backpackers to disseminate AIDS information in the far-flung locations they visit.

In 2003, Gur-Arie was the first Israeli appointed as an official World AIDS Campaigner by the United Nations. The nongovernmental organization through which she volunteers, the Jerusalem AIDS Project, is recognized by the world body as part of its AIDS program.

After army service, many Israeli youth travel to countries where HIV/AIDS infection rates are high. Gur-Arie thinks they can be taught to educate people about AIDS transmission in small villages that few foreigners visit.

A group of about 20 university students gathered last month in Tel Aviv for the first official Ringing Bells workshop. They were given travel-sized documents and flashcards — explaining how HIV enters and then affects the body — to carry in their backpacks, and they participated in activities to teach them how to be culturally sensitive when presenting their information in areas where sex talk may be taboo, or where men and women don’t mingle in public.

The initiative takes its name from the small Swiss cowbell that each program participant is given to summon villagers to meetings.

Ido Shor, 28, a volunteer who helped launched a pilot venture of Ringing Bells in Uganda last year, came to the Tel Aviv workshop to share his experiences. He showed a video he made about his efforts to educate the inhabitants of small villages about HIV/AIDS, and to document those dying of AIDS.

Shor believes a month-long excursion isn’t enough time to gain the trust of villagers in developing nations.

“The people in a village need to know why you are there, and damage can be done if they aren’t approached in the right way,” he said.

It’s best to spend three months in each area, he says, but backpackers aren’t expected to make any specific commitment, and can spend as little as a day or two in each location if they like.

Program coordinators at the Jerusalem AIDS Project have launched experimental ventures in at least 20 countries, including Brazil, Nepal and Rwanda. One volunteer and nurse, Hanni Oren, said she found grateful responses wherever she visited.

“The word ‘AIDS’ does miracles,” says Oren, who found that she was able to communicate her message in every part of the world, despite language barriers.

Oren will have the responsibility of making sure that once the new group of backpackers is on location, they keep in touch with local NGOs in their host nations. Ringing Bells backpackers also are expected to send reports back to the headquarters in Israel so coordinators can monitor progress and take stock of resources.

The Jerusalem AIDS Project hopes to form ties with backpackers all over the world to network and share educational resources.

Gur-Arie, who helped define the Ringing Bells initiative, knows firsthand what it means to suffer from AIDS. She was infected with HIV twelve years ago by her boyfriend Cassie, a Zambian laborer living in Israel.

She met him at Soweto, a reggae club in Tel Aviv, where “all the young Israeli girls and boys were going,” she says.

Gur-Arie manifested symptoms just days after having sexual contact with Cassie. She was one of the first reported HIV cases in Israel, and when her lab tests came back positive, Israeli police sent Cassie back to Zambia.

“I’m sure Cassie is dead now,” says Gur-Arie, who was left without contact information. An infected person from Zambia who doesn’t have AIDS medication can expect to live no more than a few years, she says.

Gur-Arie blames herself for becoming infected, because she didn’t ask Cassie to use a condom. But drugs have kept her strong: She works as a secretary at Ha’aretz and can live another 15 years, her doctor told her.

Even if she couldn’t save Cassie, Gur-Arie hopes to help others through Ringing Bells — for example, by educating HIV-positive pregnant women about how to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to their babies. She herself hopes to meet an HIV-positive Jewish man and start a family with him.

To publicize the program, Ringing Bells coordinators are recruiting Christian leaders in Israel, Europe, the United States and other countries to ring church bells on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. The director of the Jerusalem AIDS Project, Inon Schenker, jokes that it will be easier to convince priests to ring a bell than to get people to wear condoms.

Father Razmig Boghossian from the Nativity Church for Armenian Christians in Bethlehem agrees. Boghossian believes AIDS education is the responsibility of governments, schools and hospitals, yet he’s prepared to support the Ringing Bells mission, and he’ll personally ring his church bell at the specified time on Dec. 1.

For more information about Ringing Bells, contact jaipolam@yahoo.com.

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