And the Winner Is . . .

2 June 2016

Public housing activist Rikki Ben Lulu is one of four incredible women to receive the Yaffa London-Yaari award for her outstanding commitment to social justice, equality and human rights. While Rikki’s ride from her public housing apartment in Ashdod to the awards ceremony in Tel Aviv took less than an hour, Rikki has been on a journey to get there for many years.

Following a childhood of poverty in which she was shifted from one institution to another, Rikki married young and poor. She and her husband found themselves without a place to live. “We finally broke into an empty public housing apartment and squatted there, till we received permission to live there officially.” Rikki recalls. When her marriage became abusive, Rikki escaped with her five children to a shelter, with the hopes that the social services there would help in finding a safe place to live. She was told that they could only help her if she could secure a lease with a security deposit she couldn’t afford. So she returned to her apartment, knowing her life was in danger.

“I didn’t know anything,” Rikki says, “I didn’t know I had rights, I didn’t have information about National Insurance. I was so poor the supermarket let me exchange the donated cans of food I received in exchange for baby food.” In what she thought was finally a break, Rikki met someone who was able to help her move to another apartment. As luck would have it, however, her ex-husband was moved to a neighboring apartment. For 10 years she lived in constant fear for her and her children’s lives.

There were two catalysts for change in Rikki’s life, in her words: “from victim to social policy changer.” The first was an inner strength welled from a spring of desperation. She said, “I didn’t have much to lose, so I went to my ex and told him he had stop the threats; I wasn’t afraid of him — besides, we needed to think of our children. And somehow I made sense to him. And from then on we began to get along.”

The second catalyst was electronic. After someone gave Rikki a computer, she began following the news coverage of the 2011 protests for affordable housing, discovering on-line forums and Facebook pages. “At first it kind of annoyed me,” Rikki recalls. “I was much worse off than a lot of those other people. They weren’t telling my story. Then I made contact with a woman living in a tent and we messaged back and forth till I finally went to see her in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the year. It broke my heart to see the situation she was in. The first thing I did was bring her a blanket. But I also realized that wasn’t enough; I had to do something bigger that would make a change. That’s when I joined up with the organization, Lo Nehmadim Lo Nehmadot.”

According to Rikki, social networking is key to social activism: “Poor women don’t always have the opportunity to get out in public, but with a cellphone in my hand, I can even access the public records of the state comptroller. We don’t have to wait for someone to come to our house. We can be like social workers and bring about change. I can create relationships with other people like me, whom I’ve never met from, places like Dimona and Be’er Sheva, That’s how we create a community. And I’ve learned that community is the most important thing. Today, a woman whose electricity was turned off when she couldn’t pay the bill, can call me, and together, we can figure out how to help her.”

Rikki connected with Shatil through her activism with the Shatil-guided Public Housing Forum and the workshops Shatil offered. “Shatil taught me how to be informed, to know my rights and to understand how to be part of a movement that influences public policy. I went from being completely ignorant about all that to someone who can speak at high schools, and converse with university students.”

In Rikki’s acceptance speech at the ceremony she said: “Even from the weakest place, it’s possible to change policy, not just for yourself but for others too . . . We can rise up and demand the change of the policies which hurt us. Any woman can change her fate.”