Dairy farms along Israel’s Gaza border have been supplying milk uninterruptedly since the outbreak of the war on October 7 owing to a small cadre of staff that remained behind while most residents evacuated to the center of the country. Among those who stayed are an unlikely group — university students from Africa and Asia.
“Without our agricultural interns from Ghana and Tanzania we would have had a hard time milking our cows and feeding our calves,” says Gabo Altmark, the manager of the Kibbutz Zikim dairy farm located less than two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the Gaza border.
The students were offered the opportunity to relocate, says Altmark, but unlike Zikim’s foreign workers who were quick to leave, the students insisted on remaining.
Zikim’s five interns are among more than 3,200 university students from 30 countries in the developing world currently training at farms across Israel. About 250 were on farms near Gaza when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed the border and brutally massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted roughly 240 more to the Gaza Strip, leading Israel to launch an ongoing military operation aimed at returning the hostages and removing Hamas from power in the Strip.
“On October 7, I had finished the early morning milking and gone back to bed when I heard tzeva adom, tzeva adom [red alert] over the loudspeaker,” recalls Kwabena Frimpong, 28, as he walks through the Zikim calf nursery where about 500 calves are bottle-fed. A student at Ghana’s Cape Coast University, he had just arrived at Zikim in late September.
“I knew from our orientation program that when we heard the tzeva adom alert we had to rush to the bomb shelter. Kibbutz members were there with us and we felt a sense of protection to be together with them. My supervisor Gabo also kept on texting us messages with instructions,” says Frimpong.
Unknown to Frimpong, Altmark sent some of those messages after hurrying to the kibbutz fence where he and seven other members of Zikim’s civilian anti-terror first responders were confronting Hamas terrorists who had reached the kibbutz perimeter. Altmark and his fellow civil guards managed to hold off the terrorists until soldiers arrived from a nearby army base. Together with the soldiers, they eliminated the terrorists before any were able to enter the kibbutz grounds.
By midday, Altmark was able to return to the cowshed where he joined Frimpong and the rest of the staff in carrying out the noontime milking. Zikim has about 500 cows that need to be milked three times a day. Using mechanized technologies the entire herd can be milked by a staff of about 10, but the role of each worker is crucial.
“Because of the good treatment and support we received in the heat of the war we decided to stay,” says Frimpong, adding that when the kibbutz canteen was closed, they received the same army rations and donated home-cooked meals as the kibbutz members.
“Sometimes there are opportunities in difficulties,” he notes philosophically, “and we are gaining knowledge both about dairy farming and in dealing with difficult situations.”
The main difficulty faced by Israeli residents in the vicinity of Gaza seems to have passed, says Emily Di Capua, noting that the incessant rocket attacks of the past few months have nearly ceased. Belgian-born Di Capua is the manager of the dairy farm at Kibbutz Karmiya, located two kilometers (1.2 miles) to the east of Zikim.
“The booms you are hearing now come from the firing of Israeli artillery,” she says while giving a tour of the dairy farm in the last week of December. She too praises the contribution made by the foreign trainees.
“Robert especially amazed us,” she says about student Robert Acheampong, also from Ghana. “He has been the one boosting our morale. He gets up at 3:30 in the morning and likes to say to us with a big smile, ‘Every country has its problems.’ He didn’t think about leaving for even a moment.”
Acheampong, 28, attributes his motivation both to his religious faith and his desire to get ahead.
“The people in the kibbutz made us feel like we were all part of the same community. When the soldiers left their families for the battlefield it was up to us to support them, spiritually through prayer, and physically by producing milk,” he says.
In addition to his studies at Ghana’s Wenchi Agricultural College, Acheampong previously ran a small farm of his own, raising pigs, snails and goats for meat production.
“I came here to learn about new methods so that I could expand my livestock business,” says Acheampong, adding that he has already acquired new approaches to keeping animals healthy and formulating animal feed.
Phearan Ke is a Cambodian intern who works at the Kibbutz Gvar’am dairy farm, located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the Gaza border. He points out that one problem he has faced is pressure from his family to return home.
“My mother has called me every day since the war began,” says Ke, a student at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh. “I explain that my year here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and though the situation was tough for the first few days, now that soldiers patrol the kibbutz we feel quite safe.”
Ke adds that he and his fellow Cambodian interns often try to relieve their stress by discussing the teachings of their Buddhist faith. “When we think of good deeds it helps us keep bad things away,” he says, quoting a Buddhist saying.
Growing up in Cambodia, Ke worked on his grandfather’s farm, in rice paddy fields, and raising cows. “There is a big gap between the way farming is done there and the way technology is used here,” says Ke.
Ke is referring to the advanced technologies developed in Israel to nurture and milk the cows. Dan Grossman, the Gvar’am dairy farm manager, points out that Israeli cows produce a world-leading amount of 40 liters (roughly 10 gallons) per day, more than double the output in many countries.
“Those technologies are spreading to other parts of the world and the exposure that students like Phearan get to these methods will create opportunities for them when they return home,” says Grossman. He notes that a Cambodian student trained at Gvar’am recently began to work at a new modern dairy farm in Cambodia that was built in a joint venture with an Israeli company.
The agricultural interns working at the kibbutz dairy farms are participants in a one-year program administered by MASHAV, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. In addition to dairy farming, students are training in orchard and field crops, poultry and livestock raising, and fisheries. The students do paid work on a farm five days a week and spend one day studying at one of the country’s five international agricultural training centers.
Unlike the temporary foreign workers in Israeli farms, who usually come from small villages and have a limited educational background, the agricultural interns are all university-educated and many are aspiring entrepreneurs.
The Internship in Agriculture Program was initiated by the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training in 1994, but Israel has a long history of reaching out to the developing world, going back to the 1950s when then-prime minister David Ben Gurion mandated extensive programs that lasted for decades. A United Nations Development Program report noted in 1975 that Israel was the largest contributor of assistance per capita of any country in the world.
Many of those programs have dwindled since then, but as the agricultural internship program in the past few months has shown, Israel continues to reap benefits in unexpected ways.
It’s a three-way win-win situation
“It’s a three-way win-win situation,” says Tamar Yarden, who heads the Internship in Agriculture program. “The students receive on-the-job training and learn skills which they can take back to their home countries, the farmers get labor assistance and Israel strengthens its relationships with the developing world.”
She points out that students from Bhutan and East Timor participated in the program even before those countries established diplomatic relations with Israel, while Indonesia, which does not yet have diplomatic ties, this year sent a contingent of 92 students.
When asked why Israel would offer assistance to countries that often vote against it in the UN, Yarden offers two reasons.
“There’s the concept of tikkun olam, the Jewish commitment to helping people in need, in this case to capacity building and world nutrition. Then there’s the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Do we only reward those who support us or do we also make efforts to create relationships with the others?” she asks.