Yael Friedman, a 53-year-old single mother, lives in the Israeli village of Arad with her 10 children. But she's not a typical single mother by any measure. For one thing, she gave birth to none of those children. Friedman works as a professional mother in a community that matches neglected and abused children -- 10 at a time -- with a women who is willing to assume the role of mother. This mother-by-choice also has to agree to stay single, to avoid any entanglement that would distract or detract from her task.
To assume this role, Friedman, who is divorced, left behind a travel business in Jaffa and wanted to make a change in her life.
"I was alone and dealing with business and things on the surface of life," Friedman said. "I wasn't involved with feelings."
"Now I am a professional mother," she said. "Every year I get a new child. I work 24 hours a day and their worries are mine."
Friedman and her children live in an SOS Children's Village, part of an international nonprofit for abused and orphaned children. The concept, developed in Austria after World War II, is a way to manage the needs of the country's many widows and orphans.
Originally the organization was named just SOS -- an abbreviation of the Latin Societas Socialis -- an expression long associated with the international cry for help. Today, such villages are answering a universal cry in 137 countries. Villages in Southeast Asia, for example, were able to accommodate new orphans after the devastating December tsunami. But whether in Canada or India, Israel proper or the disputed territories, the villages follow the original Austrian model: one single woman manages a household of about 10 children. Village funding comes from SOS-Kinderdorf International, the umbrella organization, and where possible from government sources and private donors. The children in each village, typically 100 of them, benefit from being part of a long-established international program. At the same time, the children of each village are raised within the local culture that is familiar to them.
In Israel, the children integrate into Israeli society, which includes serving in the army, aspiring to higher education and getting a job. Israeli youths typically spend two to three years in army service. The village supports them up to age 25 should they opt for college.
There's also an SOS village in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem; it raises children in accord with Palestinian norms. There's no mandatory army service; the children are raised with the expectation of getting married and/or entering the workforce. Teenagers are encouraged to study or learn a trade at 18; the village will support them up to age 22.
Although some children in the village are orphans, about 65 percent are removed from family homes through a court order.
"These children have very tough stories. Once I hear them, I can't sleep for a week," said Matti Rose, the director at the village in Arad, a quiet desert town of 30,000, some 25 miles east of biblical Beersheba in the Negev Desert.
Somehow, despite its location, the village is almost European in its feel. Lavish landscaping, including enormous cactuses and banana trees, lend privacy to the tidy array of small bungalows.
The village employs a handyman, who encourages the children to build awnings and comfortable outdoor areas to avoid the intense sun. There are well-planned activities, a computer room and a resident soccer team.
SOS children are free to have birthday parties with friends from the outside and celebrate traditional holidays. The children get an allowance, but they're also taught to contribute through volunteer work.
Whether Palestinian or Israeli, each village has the same mission in mind -- raising healthy, educated and self-sufficient adults. Similar villages are scattered throughout neighboring Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
One of the Arad village's older teens, 18-year-old Tal, is getting ready to leave; it's her time for army service. She has the assuredness of any other teen raised in a secure family environment. Sunny and bright and with career goals of work in education and medicine, she talked about her gratitude.
"Mothers do holy work, because their life is for their children," said Tal, who arrived at the village when she was 8. She had come to Israel at age 4, from Uzbekistan, and after a series of placement homes came to the village. She and her sister arrived with nothing but a pair of underwear.
She's got more now; as she talked she sat on a leather couch in front of an entertainment unit with a state-of-the-art DVD player and a big-screen TV. During the interview, Tal's "brothers" slid in through the front door -- and headed straight for the fridge, just like in any other family. Dire Straits was playing on the radio.
But it's not material things, but Tal's growth as a person that Friedman has been most concerned with, and she's obviously proud of how Tal has grown up. On occasion, Friedman thinks of leaving the village -- her home of 12 years -- because of the constant challenges. The success stories make her stay, including those of "her boys," who are now in university.
"It is a way of life, a big sacrifice, and whether I like it or not, I do it for my goal -- to help these small kids," said Friedman, while smoking a cigarette. "I give a child security after the chaos, so that day by day a certain life can emerge -- one they can believe in."
She's helped by a village support network with live-in social workers. Support services include therapy, music lessons and social activities.
Although the region's SOS villages are either predominantly Jewish or Muslim oriented, each village selects children based on circumstance, not religion. Many non-Jewish children from the former Soviet Union and Palestinian territories reside in the Israeli villages, and Christians mix with Muslims at the Palestinian locations.
On the Palestinian side, children's lives have been especially disrupted by political unrest and economic hardship, said Mohamed Shala'ade, the SOS village director in Bethlehem.
"If a father is not working for five years, and there is nothing in his pocket, then this difficulty affects all aspects of the family life," said Shala'ade.
In his view, the instability has even lead to some cases of child abuse.
"The politics here are affecting all the people, even though we know that everyone wants to be secure and in peace," he said.
Donations can be made on behalf of Israeli or Palestinian locations. For Israel, contact Hezi Ditzi at 972-3-613-2438; for Palestinian territories, contact Mohamed Shala'ade at 970-2-274-2267. For more information, visit www.sos-childrensvillages.org.
Karin Kloosterman, a freelance journalist living in Israel, can be reached at email@example.com.
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