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Working Inside the System to Affect Change

Today’s participant blog post comes from Alex Levine, a participant in the Onward Israel Diversity & Pluralism Program. Alex’s group is living, learning and interning in Jaffa, Israel for 8 weeks this summer.

My name is Alexandra Levine and I am in going into my fourth year of studies at McGill, majoring in Honours International Development-with a focus on refugee policies and human rights- accompanied by a minor in Jewish studies. This summer, I was looking for a meaningful internship that not only addressed a key developmental issue, but also one that was able to encompass my Jewish studies, learning, and love of Israel.

Two summers ago I was studying Arab-Israeli conflict in Israel and noticed a large and impoverished African population residing and conversing near the new central bus station in downtown Tel Aviv. I am not sure what it was exactly but something about the scene sparked something inside me and I went home that night to do research regarding what I had seen. Unbeknownst to me, who at the time was solely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, there was a mass wave of asylum seekers entering illegally into Israel through the Sinai, the majority hailing from Eritrea, with other minority groups including Sudanese, Ghanians and Nigerians. These newcomers were facing extreme hardships in Israel, as the government was and still is not fully equipped and willing to provide refugee status for these people, leaving them as asylum seekers, under the Geneva Convention. While the children of these asylum seekers are entitled to education, as it is mandatory for every person residing in Israel, citizen or not to attend school after the age of three, employment opportunities were scare and often degrading, and the lack of access to the same social services experienced by the Israeli citizens tainted these newcomers even further.

What I realized was that while Israel is very important to me, it has its flaws, and the only way to better something that you care deeply about is to work inside the system in order to affect change. Since then I have been actively following the situation there, and waiting for the right opportunity to go back and work with the asylum seeking population of South Tel-Aviv. This summer I had the opportunity to join a program run by Yahel - Israel Service Learning and Onward Israel, called Diversity & Pluralism. Yahel connected me with an internship at Unitaf, an Israeli NGO whose mandate is to enhance the early child-care needs of the refugee, asylum seeking and migrant community. Unitaf provides safe, holistic, culturally sensitive and educational day care centers, nurseries and after school care to the children of the community in question. Unitaf simultaneously provides empowering training and economic opportunities to the women of the community, who are employed and manage the facilities in a professional and efficient manner. The organization believes that education has the power to change a child’s social status, and therefore provide tools for the future integration of the children of refugees and their families into a developed society. Prior to the formation of Unitaf, most of the children of the community were placed in dangerous “pirate” day care centers, unsuitable for their most basic needs. In these pirate daycares, there is usually one untrained caregiver, working out of her one room home, watching over at most 50 children. The children spend on average 10-12 hours in the facilities each day, with some remaining in the care of these “babysitters” over night. The children in these settings are exposed to extreme conditions of risk and neglect, and their emotional, physical, and motor functioning has been harmed due to spending long hours in playpens and not receiving enough attention to their basic needs. Furthermore, pedagogical and social work experts are on hand to diagnose potential developmental problems, to arrange treatment if necessary, and to provide social work interventions to the child and the families as needed.

I had a variety of roles and tasks this summer working with Unitaf. I worked with the teachers in order to plan fun activities and educational programs for the children, and I was able to come in a work with a few of the classes of children in order to give them the attention they all deserve and try to work with them and aid the teachers. I was also tasked with creating sponsorship spreadsheets, applying for various grants, editing and updating the website (which turned out to be a bigger task than anticipated), writing progress reports on some of the newer projects taken on by Unitaf, such as their small nurseries project, where maximum seven children are under the care of one trained caregiver and obtained funding from the catholic church of South Tel Aviv, and creating an end of the year survey for the parents in order to evaluate the Unitaf centres and narrow in on problem areas.

Some of the highlights of my internship were the bonds I created with the caregivers from the foreign community, and being able to discuss their pasts and their ongoing adversities, as well as being able to joke around and just get to know them on a personal level. I also loved hanging out with the children, and just being around all their happy and positive energies, despite their current situation. It was incredible for me to be able to see first hand how despite the adversities and struggles these children and their families were facing, the children were always energetic, happy and extremely trusting. They had been let down by so many people in their past, however through Unitaf’s inclusive and open framework, as well as the natural innocence that is within each child, I was able to connect with these children and take an active role in their Unitaf summer experience.

I was also able to get close to one specific parent, a woman named Simra, who is an asylum seeker from Eritrea and from her learned much more about the current situation in both Eritrea and Israel and as well about her as a person. She is such a strong and courageous woman, who despite having not seen her son in 6 years, as he is back in Eritrea with his grandmother and has no way of coming to joining his family in Israel (he is now seven years old) still works hard to better the community she is apart of. She volunteers a few times a week to teach English in an after school program for Eritrean children, and allowed me to come help out sometimes and hang out with her and her students. She not only bought me lunch at one of her favourite Eritrean restaurants near the New Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv, she showed me photos of her whole family and trusted me with her criticisms about her life in Israel, back in Eritrea and some problems she was encountering with Unitaf as well. I came to Israel hoping to form strong bonds and really connect with the children, families and staff that I was working with, and Simra allowed me to be a small part of her life and it is a friendship that I will always cherish with me.

I did encounter a variety of challenges, the main one being that I still felt as though I was an outsider, and that while I was doing on the ground work, there was nothing I could do to help these people immediately, or sway the opinion of the Israeli Ministry of Interior into giving out more refugee status cards. I met amazing people everyday, and I sometimes felt over-privileged and hopeless in regards to their needs. Many of them confided in me that they wished they would be accepted as refugees into Canada, however that the process was extremely long and they had been unsuccessful in the past. One way that I was able to reconcile this feeling, however, was just giving my all into the work I was doing, and I took on volunteering at the Eritrean Woman’s Centre a few nights a week, aiding in filling out RSD forms (refugee status determination forms) in order to request refugee status, as well as filling out Canada placement request forms.

Another challenge that I was faced with was the reality that there were still thousands of children in these pirate day cares, and that while Unitaf is doing great work, they are only scraping the top of the issue. Both the Tel Aviv municipality and Israeli government recently recognized the horrendous implications of these pirate nurseries, following the deaths of 5 young children in the “babysitters” care in 2014, however the money is not rolling in fast enough and there is still the underlying issue of societal acceptance of the African asylum seeking population. These are hard working and honest people, and the developed world has a duty to aid them in obtaining their human rights, using more power and effort than has been attributed to this population in the past. We have a duty to raise awareness regarding this demographic and their challenges, and to increase education in the field of refugees in general, as in the past decade thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world have been making the plight to escape atrocities at home.

This summer allowed me to experience first hand the challenges that this asylum seeking population in South Tel Aviv face. I am now able to use the personal narratives I gathered, in conjunction with knowledge I gained, to raise awareness for the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in their ongoing struggle.

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