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How Caring for Plants Helped One Israeli Tween Face Wartime Anxiety

Itai Azimi, not yet 12 years old, found a way to dispel his paralyzing fear of the wartime sirens and sounds of explosions: in the yard of his home in Karkur, he devotes himself to growing plants in the nursery he established. He donates the money to Israelis from towns around Gaza and to IDF soldiers | “From now on, it's the job of children to help soldiers. Everyone should help everyone”

איתי עזימי (צילום: יהל פרג')
Itai Azimi and one of the plants he cultivates. “Every boom I heard, even from the bin being closed, made me nervous. I started taking care of the plants. It calmed me down.” (Photo: Yahel Farag)
By Yahel Farag

On the bloody Saturday morning of Oct. 7, 11-year-old Itai Azimi (who describes himself as “going on twelve” was at his grandmother’s house in Yavneh, central Israel. At 6:30 in the morning, his mother Lilach woke him and his brother by shouting to go to the stairwell, which would serve as the makeshift bomb shelter. A nearby building was hit by a rocket, and the sirens didn’t stop.

“The building shook from most of the booms,” Itai said, “and all the time the adults were talking to each other on the phones, that terrorists were entering the houses, and that created an even more stressful atmosphere for the kids.”

A few days later, the family returned to their home in Karkur, a quiet community in the Haifa district. Itai found himself unable to function. “Every boom I heard, even from the bin being closed, made me nervous,” he said. “I was afraid of sirens and booms. Police were roaming the area and the noise of the sirens made me even more nervous.”

Only the family’s potted plants took him out of the house. “After two weeks like that, I started to be involved even more in the garden business,” he explained.

Itai at the nursery. (Photo: Yahel Farag)
Itai at the nursery. (Photo: Yahel Farag)

Itai’s mother said that he was suffering greatly following Oct. 7. “Two weeks after that Saturday we were closed at home, Itai was hysterical and it was impossible to communicate with him, to the extent that he couldn’t go outside,” she said. “He was terrified.”

She began to receive clients at her aesthetics clinics who had been evacuated from their homes in the Israeli towns around Gaza, a region known as the Gaza envelope. Her son suggested that they donate plants to the evacuated citizens. After understanding that they didn’t currently have homes to plant them in, “Itai suggested we build a nursery, sell [plants] and donate the money to them and the soldiers,” she said.

“At first I only had that area over there,” Itai said, pointing to a wooden table in the yard. “I put some potted plants on it and started tending to them. It calmed me down. I’m very shy in general, and that helped me overcome it. I had a lot of fun in the garden and noticed that a lot of people were as excited and loving as I am.”

Itai’s mother shared about the nursery on her Facebook page, but the boy’s parents didn’t expect it to be a lasting part of her son’s life.

“I thought that it would last for a few days and then it would pass for him,” Itai’s father, Idan Azimi, explained. “I’m mostly happy that it managed to get him off the screens.”

Itai and his mother Lilach at the entrance to their home next to the sign “Itai Nursery.” Lilach: “Some people only find what they love at the age of 40, but he has already found what makes butterflies in his heart.” (Photo: Yahel Farag)
Itai and his mother Lilach at the entrance to their home next to the sign “Itai Nursery.” Lilach: “Some people only find what they love at the age of 40, but he has already found what makes butterflies in his heart.” (Photo: Yahel Farag)

Slowly, the nursery began to gain momentum in the area and became known as the “Itai Nursery.” Family and friends brought more tables, potted plants, and soil, and Itai researched, deepened his knowledge, and began to grow more and more plants. “Dad saw that I was serious,” Itati said. “It’s fun for me that my parents are interested in this, and he gave me more inspiration that I’m not alone in this.”

People from the region and across the country come to buy from the nursery, many of whom have heard about the project from the internet. Proceeds are donated to Israeli soldiers as well as residents of the Gaza envelope who were displaced from their homes. Itai is also participating in a project to bring potted plants to evacuated families staying in hotels.

Itai dismissed the idea that children should not have to help soldiers. “We all need to help the country and make sure it improves,” he said. “And the soldiers. Everyone should help everyone. We are the state and the state is ours.”

Despite parental support, it is not easy to open a nursery. Neighborhood cats overturn the pots, rain floods the street, and sometimes plants simply die. In the past month, Itai added a greenhouse to the nursery, which he uses both for cultivating strawberries and for storing the plants when a storm is expected.

Working in the nursery, Itai has learned both about plants and their care and also about sales and interacting with adults. Both developments are sources of pride for his parents.

“Some people only discover at the age of 40 what they like,” his mother Lilach said. “He has already found what makes butterflies in his heart.” Until recently, he avoided communicating with adults he didn't know. “He used to wear a hoodie on his head all the time,” his father Idan said. “But with me now, after Oct. 7, he’s a different Itai.”

Itai’s favorite plant is a certain carnivorous plant which he is still cultivating in hopes to sell. “I relate to the fact that they act on their own and they have a way of thinking about how to get the food, and they need special distilled water,” he explained.

For him, plants and people have certain characteristics in common. “There are prickly plants, like there are people who are nervous or don’t want to be approached,” he said.

Not surprisingly, he has big plans for expansion: during summer vacation, he wants to work at the Nirvana nursery near his home. After that, he wants to open a nursery near his school, where there is more movement of people, and more branches later on, eventually with a small petting zoo as well.

Itai in his nursery. His father Idan: “After Oct. 7, he’s a different Itai.” (Photo: Yahel Farag)
Itai in his nursery. His father Idan: “After Oct. 7, he’s a different Itai.” (Photo: Yahel Farag)

Itai recommended that kids get involved in projects, plants or otherwise. “Let children think about what they're doing and not give it up,” he said. "If it’s something a child wants to do in the future, don't give up."

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