Name: Safa Kassas Younes
Title: Executive Director at Arous El Bahr Association for Women in Jaffa
Languages: Arabic (native), Hebrew, French, English
“I am Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian. I live in Israel. It’s complicated, I have a lot of identities.”
Safa was born in Jaffa in 1975, to Siham and Ali Kassas, as the eldest of four children. Safa’s maternal family fled Jaffa in 1948 to Gaza, where they stayed– separated from the rest of their relatives– until after 1967 when some of them were able to return. In 1973, Safa’s mother was married to Ali, a relative of the family who still lived in Jaffa. Her brothers and sisters were unable to leave Gaza, where they stayed and operated a cosmetic manufacturing company until today.
Growing up in Jaffa, Safa attended school at College de Freres until 10th grade. “Because I was a girl, life was different for me,” she says. I was very close to my brothers, but they were younger and I felt responsible to help them in their homework.” Her father worked painting cars in an auto shop in Tel Aviv.
“I learned the importance of work from my father,” Safa explains. “I remember how hard he worked each day when I was a kid. But he also liked to have fun and take us on trips.” Safa’s mother stayed home with the children, but was active with friends and visits to relatives in Jaffa. “We saw them all the time,” Safa remembers, “Aunts, cousins, uncles… we were– and are– very connected.”
When her brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and began painting cars after high school, Safa decided to push on with her studies. After completing the French school curriculum, Safa attended a Jewish school to receive her Bagrut (educational certificate) which is required for higher study in Israel. Diploma in hand, she was married to Issam Younes and moved to Jerusalem to live with her new husband’s family.
A year and one child later, Safa and Issam returned to live in Jaffa so that Issam could begin a course in computers in Tel Aviv. He soon found work teaching computer classes in the “Eloukhouwa” school and later at Kaf Bet High School, and in 1995 Safa began to study social work at Tel Aviv University.
“I chose social work because I wanted to be involved with helping people and making a difference in their lives,” she says. “I liked learning about society and people’s psychology, and I also learned a lot about empowering myself.”
After completing her first degree, Safa worked at the Provence Center helping rehabilitate men who had broken the law. She then continued on at Tel Aviv University to begin a Masters in Gender and Women’s studies. Though Safa didn’t know much about the field, she had noticed in her work that most of the organizations providing social services were directed toward, and run by, men.
Safa finished her Masters degree and gave birth to her third child. It was then that she left the Provence Center and decided to work with teenage women. Safa began to see that women who were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s had no place to go for help. “All the organizations were for men at the time, and didn’t really address the problems of women. It was then that I started to think about making an organization, a place for women.”
Safa began to research the field of women’s organizations, but found very little. “In the center, Tel Aviv, Ramle, Lod, there were no centers,” she remembers. “I started to speak with other women about how to create a place for ourselves.”
After a lot of work, Safa finally succeeded. With the support of the community, and in-kind donations, she and her peers were able to open a small resource center in a beautiful old building just minutes from the sea. “I thought about the name Aros el Bahr because it is the historical name of Jaffa,” Safa explains. “All the time they say that Jaffa is the bride of the Sea. I like that. It’s a very feminine name.”
The Aros el Bahr Center has now served hundreds of women in Jaffa and surrounding neighborhoods. Projects include occupational training, job placement, academic lectures, computer courses, language courses, business workshops, and social clubs. The women who call it home claim it has changed their lives for the better. But Safa isn’t satisfied just yet.
“Now, we are planning for something new,” she says. “A Jewish friend and I wanted to create a long-term project to let women meet in a social setting and speak casually about shared cultural issues. So we are beginning to host a once-a-month gathering for activist Jewish and Arab women to meet, speak about themselves, and get to know each other. It is good for the Arab and Jewish women to hear about the other side, their habits, their holidays.”
In this way and others, Safa is empowering the women of Jaffa to support one another, finance their own education, and make progress in their homes as well as in their communities.
Q&A with Safa Younes
What is your favorite thing about Jaffa?
- I was born here, so I guess I never thought about it! I love this place very much. I feel at home here, there isn’t any other place that I feel at home like I do in Jaffa. When I go out in the street, I feel very comfortable. It’s not just a place to live, it’s more than that. It’s also liking the people who live here, and wanting to make something for the community.
What is your least favorite thing?
- The hardest thing about Jaffa is the conflicts between the many organizations here, which makes it hard to work together for the good of the community. It’s hard that most of the organizations are run by men. There is the ego of the man, and maybe also competition of “who is the best.” Sometimes it’s making volunteer projects where everyone wants to be the leader, but not everybody can be. And maybe limited resources, maybe.
Is coexistence a reality in Jaffa?
- Sometimes no, I don’t always feel it. Sometimes people live here, but they are not really here. The rich people, in the new places. You can’t see them in the community because they work somewhere else. They come to live in the houses but aren’t a part of the community. But there are also Jewish people, some of them living here for years, who are involved in the activities in Jaffa, in groups, so we do see them. And they are trying to be a part. And this is beautiful.
What are you most afraid of?
- In Jaffa, I am most afraid that the young generation will face a lot of hardships in finding jobs and places to live. I’m not sure it will be easy to find somewhere for the family to live in ten years, because they’re not building new houses for Arabs. I’m afraid they won’t have places to work. It’s very hard for the people to find jobs now, and in a few years it will be even more competitive. We see people who are finishing school and can’t find jobs, or if they do it is in very low jobs like cleaning. My advice for my children and for the people who come here to Aros El Bahr is to continue learning, so we can help them find work that’s suitable for a career. Without an education, it’s difficult to help.
What makes you sad?
- Since the year 2000, I haven’t entered Gaza. I’ve only seen a couple uncles who are businessmen, and occasionally have permission to enter Tel Aviv. It is very sad that I haven’t met the whole family for years.
What are you most proud of?
- My parents weren’t very educated, so I am proud that I continue to learn and get degrees. Even when I got married, and had children in the house, I didn’t stop. Until now, I am working on a degree (MBA). I like learning and I am proud that I make time for it. When I think about the organization (Aros El Bahr)– that we have a place, many women… They are very grateful, they say it changed their lives in finding jobs and having new businesses in their homes. Now they are getting involved in the community, and seeing each other even. One woman told me she is grateful for the opportunity just to meet other people. It’s not always easy for them to do that. Here they can meet and support each other.
What is your favorite place to be in Jaffa?
- My favorite place in Jaffa is the Sea. I don’t have the opportunity to go very often, because I don’t have the time. But if I want to be in a place that I will be alone, it is to be near the Sea and to see the view, and feel the calm.
Where’s your favorite place to eat?
- Ten years ago, there weren’t any coffee shops here, only big fish restaurants. Now, I am very happy that there are a lot of small restaurants for coffee or small meals. I like Rojet (near the clock-tower), because the owner is an Arab woman and she has made a big business, so I am very proud of her. I like the authentic food, also the pasta with mushrooms, everything. I also like Paul’s coffee, the coffee there is very good. Paul’s is a small neighborhood place, so I like that. I also like the breakfast at Cafe Alma, which is a new place.
What is your dream for yourself? For your family? For Jaffa?
- My own dream is to finish my MBA and to do a doctorate after that. I also want to create another organization besides Aros el Bahr, to promote the culture of Jaffa. For my family, my children, I dream that they will have the opportunity to study what they like, be happy, and find careers for themselves that they will be passionate about. For Jaffa, I want it to be the most fun and nice place to be for the people who live here. I hope that they will be proud of how beautiful this place is, and feel that the relationship between all peoples is comfortable. I hope people will become more cultured and educated, and help each other and the community. And I would like people to find solutions for the housing problem. We need more houses. we need to expand Jaffa physically because there are more and more people but there’s no place for them.