Wassim Shibal, who lost his father when he was only 9 months old, established the Otzma camps for Druze children in order to provide all IDF orphans with a safe space to grow stronger – in their own cultural environment
Translated by Zoe Jordan
Photos by Yossi Aloni and Osama Bader
When Wassim Shibal was 9 months old, his father was killed. During the period after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Wassim’s father, Ibrahim Shibal, served as a reservist in the Gaza Strip, in Unit 8135 of the Druze battalion. During a routine patrol, Shibal’s jeep was ambushed by a terrorist group that opened fire at close range. Ibrahim was killed, along with the commander of the force, Wafa As’ad from Isfiya, and a childhood friend Mofak Abu Shach from Shfar’am. Ibrahim was only 27 years old, and left behind Aida, his young wife, and their two young boys, Bassem, who was a year and half old, and Wassim.
“Imagine my situation,” says Wassim. “I don’t know my father at all, and that is much harder than someone who was orphaned at, say, age 15. You live in a single-parent home and you’re always looking for some trace of your father. You’re always trying to search the past, to find out where you came from. People tell you that you look like your father, that you have the same moods and behaviors, and you go through life searching for a man that you never knew. And then your whole childhood you see the kids who have dads and know what fatherhood is, but you don’t understand it at all. You will always need a father figure and you will always miss it, although you have never experienced it. You don’t have that person that backs you up. All that is left is trying to learn from the path that he created for himself.”
Wassim has been working as an engineer for Israel Railways for the past 3 years, alongside his academic studies. Five years ago, he decided to volunteer in the Otzma (‘Strength) camps, as part of his attempt to face his loss, which turned out to be a meaningful experience. “That gathering is extremely powerful in uniting IDF orphans,” he says. “Finally, they meet other kids and teenagers who share the same experiences that they have had, who suffer the same pain. They are no longer out of the ordinary. We process that pain experientially at camp, and sometimes even manage to turn it into joy. It brings the orphans together and turns them into a united family. It breaks down the pain and the tears that they cry into their pillow and turns that pain into happiness. When I see their smiles, the joy on their faces, it gives me incredible satisfaction. I’m now able to give other orphans the feeling of safety and strength that I never had as a young orphan”.
In 2018, Wassim decided to take action, and requested to establish camps for to Druze orphans. The camps that Wassim organizes and the general camps are conducted almost identically, except that the camps for the Druze community are run in what Wassim refers to as “Druzi”, a language comprised of Hebrew and Arabic mixed together.
Otzma camps allow each child to feel comfortable, no matter what sector they come from. Why do you need a special camp for Druze kids?
“It’s important to me that the Druze IDF orphans find themselves within the regular Otzma camps, and that they will also be integrated in this powerful place. That is why I began to bring the Druze orphans together in the organization. Our culture is a little different, and in the Otzma camp we emphasize treating one another with respect, so that everyone can feel good. It’s important to us that the kids will come to camp, have a good time, and return home happy.”
Wassim, 25, lives with his mother in his childhood home in Shfar’am, a town with the highest percentage of recruits in Israel. Wassim enlisted in compulsory police service (“Shacham”), and served for three years. “As we see it, service is compulsory,” he said. “To the Druze people there is a kind of covenant of life and a covenant of blood with the State of Israel. We are loyal to the country that we serve. In Shfar’am, there is great respect for the fallen, and respect for the orphans and widows left behind. It’s honorable to die wearing the IDF uniform; it’s an honor to fall defending our homeland”.
This honor comes at a high cost. In the Druze community, there are approximately forty orphans, ages 8 to 18, known to the Ministry of Defense.
Wassim had many concerns while preparing the first Druze camp. “How would I manage to organize and pull off the first camp of this sort? Would I be able to fulfill the expectations? But from the moment the camp began, when we arrived at the pickup point in the Kabri forest, and I saw the orphans meet for the first time, I was convinced everything would be fine. Immediately after the first round of introductions, the experience became magnetic, they all stuck to one another. At that moment I stopped worrying”.
Even in those first moments of introduction, and more so as the camp progressed, Wassim witnessed the connection between the children deepen, evolving into a brotherly one. They shared their pain, their stories, and this new experience went home with them. “These friendships will last their whole lives, and I am convinced they will stay in touch for years after the camp. Together they transform the pain of mourning into an empowering conversation”.
And what is next for Wassim? Fatherhood, he hopes. “My dream is to have children and grant them the fatherhood that I could never experience”.