South Tel Aviv’s ‘pirate kindergartens’

Ranging in condition from the unthinkable to the near-professional, almost all facilities for the children of undocumented workers are run in migrants’ homes.

By MYA GUARNIERI
August 13, 2010 16:29
LYDIA NITUDE has been in Israel for 14 years. She says she has learned a lot from her children about

lydia nitude311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Despite the imminent deportation of 400 migrant workers’ children, South Tel Aviv’s black market kindergartens are still up and running.

Sometimes referred to as “pirate kindergartens” or “babysitters,” this is where most of the kids who face expulsion spend their days. Many of the older children who meet the government’s criteria for naturalization also come to the kindergartens, arriving in the afternoon during the school year.

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Almost all the kindergartens are run in the homes of undocumented migrant workers. They range in condition from the unthinkable – one woman, alone, with dozens of children and only a bucket for a toilet – to the near-professional.

At one, backpacks hang neatly from a rack by the door.

The walls are painted a cheerful combination of rose and apricot. Children sit on bright yellow chairs, playing with blocks and puzzles. They seem to have no problems cooperating or sharing.

One little boy works on a puzzle alone, a look of intent focus on his face as he slides each piece across the table.

In another room, toddlers are out of their cribs, padding about on a red, oriental carpet. One of the kindergarten’s three employees hands out snacks.

This is an exception, one of the better kindergartens in South Tel Aviv. It is operated by Felicia A. Koranteng, an undocumented migrant worker from Ghana.

Koranteng arrived here 18 years ago on a tourist visa, leaving her own toddler behind with her parents so that she could work to support her family. A Christian, she chose Israel because of her deep, abiding faith. “I wanted to know the land of Jesus,” Koranteng says.

Today, 15 people in Ghana rely on her income to survive.

“We don’t have war there,” she remarks. “But we don’t have food.”

While those from Eritrea, gripped by a cruel dictatorship, and war-torn Sudan are safe from expulsion, Koranteng worries about the fate of dozens of Israeliborn children who come to her kindergarten.

“When they go to Africa, who is going to give them food?” she says, adding that some might die from starvation in their parents’ home country.

Koranteng cares for about 60 kids a day. Most of their parents come from Togo, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sudan. While some came to Israel to work, others fled violence years ago.

The mother of a two-year-old daughter, Koranteng says that she understands that the state wants to protect its Jewish identity.

“But [the children] were all born here,” she says. “One day they will grow up to be a part [of society], like soldiers. Israel will enjoy them.”

Koranteng, who has been praying for all of the children since news of the deportation was announced last summer, says she and other members of the African community are “very grateful” that the older kids will be naturalized.

“But Israel should remember the little ones. [The state] should not throw them out,” she says. “They are a matana [gift] for Israel.”

That the state now seeks to deport migrant workers’ children – after more than two decades of allowing them to stay – reflects what some call a “schizophrenic” policy toward foreign labor. So does Koranteng’s kindergarten. It is one of dozens that receives support from the municipality-funded Mesila Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community.

Koranteng credits Mesila with creating a kindergarten from her babysitting.

Since 2004, Mesila has been offering volunteers to South Tel Aviv’s kindergartens. Israelis and a handful of internationals play with the kids and lead group activities.

A volunteer comes to Koranteng’s kindergarten twice a week.

WITH THE help of the Kibbutzim College of Education (Seminar Hakibbutzim), Mesila also conducts annual training sessions to teach the “babysitters” about childcare and enrichment. And, for the past several years, Mesila has placed pedagogical instructors in some of the kindergartens, giving the women intensive, on-thejob training.

Koranteng has attended the training sessions and, one afternoon a week, she receives pedagogical guidance.

She describes the kindergarten, before Mesila’s help, as “lacking.” There were no activities and no structure. The children did not get enough attention and, without a schedule, she struggled to feed all of them.

Parents often send the kids with little or no food.

Koranteng pays for their meals out of her own pocket.

At the end of the month – after she has paid the rent, her employees’ salaries, and sent money to Ghana – there is almost nothing left for herself.

Still, she prays to pay taxes. Paying taxes, Koranteng explains, means being a recognized part of society.

Having operated a kindergarten in South Tel Aviv for 17 years, Koranteng helped raise children who were absorbed in 2006, when Israel absorbed more than 500 families of migrant workers. She has also cared for scores of kids who will be naturalized this time around.

Koranteng reflects on her own legal status. “I’m living in the country for 18 years,” she says. “I’m like a citizen, but I don’t have a teudat zehut [Israeli ID card].”

Tamar Schwartz, director of Mesila, explains that kindergartens like Koranteng’s are a response to gaps in Israel’s policies regarding migrant workers.

From the age of three and up, the Ministry of Education assumes responsibility for all of Israel’s children, regardless of legal status, allowing them to attend municipal kindergartens and schools. But the state doesn’t offer public daycare for children under three.

And private kindergartens are expensive, running between NIS 2,000-3,000 a month.

“If you are an Israeli citizen and you have financial difficulties, you go to the welfare office,” Schwartz says.

“Welfare will pay [for daycare] according to your salary.”

Ineligible for such benefits and unable to afford expensive private kindergartens, migrant workers are left with no choice but to turn to the babysitters, who usually charge about NIS 400 a month.

“[They] are symptoms of vacuums the government leaves,” Schwartz says. “Everyplace there’s a vacuum, it will fill – and not always with good things.”

When Mesila first discovered the kindergartens, there were 20 or so. Now, there are about 50, serving approximately 2,000 children. As the state continues to neglect them, and Mesila’s funds are limited, most remain unimproved.

“We call it ‘babysitter’ because it is in no way a kindergarten,” Schwartz says. “It’s storage of children.”

Overwhelmed babysitters keep infants and toddlers in their cribs all day. They feed them and change their diapers, but do little more. In the first years of life, which are crucial to emotional and cognitive development, the children don’t receive the amount of touch, attention, or mental stimulation they need to thrive.

“[It’s] a sad vision,” Schwartz comments. “The babies learn very fast not to cry because no one will come. So what you see is them lying in the pen, staring at the ceiling.”

Such neglect can make a tremendous impact on children.

Schwartz reports that many of the kids have developmental delays, language and learning problems.

When they turn three and enter municipal kindergartens, this can disrupt classes.

As Israeli law states that the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor must inspect private daycares, MOITAL is the government body that bears responsibility for the unrecognized kindergartens. But with thousands of daycares and only eight inspectors, South Tel Aviv’s children fall through the cracks.

Mesila and the Tel Aviv municipality have also appealed to the Ministry of Welfare for help, only to be turned away.

“We got answers [from the Ministry of Welfare]: ‘The Treasury does not give us the budget for this, we cannot give service to the children,’” Schwartz says.

But they are “entitled” to help, Schwartz argues.

“Israel signed the [United Nations] agreement to care for the children,” she says, referring to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Schwartz notes that the convention applies to all minors in the country, legal or illegal. A summary of the agreement, issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), says that children have a right to “develop healthily.” States are obligated to “create an environment where [children] can grow and reach their potential.” The convention also urges signatory countries to assess their legislation and funding – and make necessary changes – to ensure that they comply.

“If [children] cannot receive services from the Ministry of Welfare… it means that Israel is only implementing half of the agreement,” Schwartz comments.

“We signed it as a whole.”

SHE CONTINUES to hope that the ministry will recognize the children and assist them. “In the meantime,” she says, “[they] are growing and they need services.”

When Mesila finds a new babysitter, the first issues it addresses are safety and hygiene. It looks for exposed electrical sockets, a common problem, and checks the condition of the toilets. The first step after that, Schwartz says, “is getting kids sitting at tables, eating from their own plates. Pedagogy starts [with] not eating on the floor.”

But, because having a pedagogical instructor can be disruptive, not all the babysitters are eager to receive guidance. “The motivation is not big,” Schwartz says, “even [though] it’s free.”

So Schwartz makes a deal with the babysitters – they receive renovations in return for cooperating with the instructors. It’s an expensive proposition, funded mostly by donations, but Schwartz explains that it is better to invest in the children now than to create a generation of marginalized adults.

As structure is implemented and the children get onto a schedule, things run more smoothly. This is rewarding to the babysitter and encourages her to continue. And what was once “storage of children” slowly becomes a kindergarten.

As a municipal employee, Schwartz cannot comment on the expulsion. But she recalls the children’s reaction to the news when it was first announced last summer. “It was a nightmare,” she says. “The children didn’t want to go out. They wanted to hide under the beds and in the closets. The big kids regressed and started to wet the beds.”

And, Schwartz adds, “I know one thing – they are human beings. I know another thing – the child is not to blame that he was born to an illegal [worker].”

In some instances, the mothers lost their visas after they gave birth as Israeli policy does not allow migrant workers to keep children in the country.

But such distinctions are of little importance to Mesila, an organization that is focused solely on helping the community.

“The municipality says, ‘I don’t care if they’re not legal, they’re human beings and I will help them,’” Schwartz remarks. “This is the heart of Mesila.”

Undaunted by the deportation – which UNICEF has condemned, pointing to the fact that Israel is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child – Mesila continues with its work.

Of Mesila’s 300 volunteers, 100 donate their time to children of undocumented migrant workers. Twenty of the babysitters are receiving pedagogical guidance and, in the shadow of the expulsion, Mesila still hopes to extend the offer to more.

BUT AT the same time that they are continuing to support the kindergartens, Mesila is trying to help the community prepare emotionally and financially for the deportation. Schwartz, who wears her brown hair in a neat bob, gives a wry smile. “We are schizophrenic here,” she says. “I want to see the first time a policeman comes and takes a child,” she adds. “I, personally, don’t believe it will happen.”

Lydia Nitude, a Filipina babysitter who has been here for 14 years, echoes this sentiment. Pointing to the waves of expulsions that rocked the foreign community in 2002 and 2003 –when fathers were targeted for deportation – Nitude remarks, “It’s a 10-year story already.”

And it’s a story that is likely to be repeated as Israel continues to bring migrant workers. In 2009, the same year the expulsion was announced, Israel issued more than 120,000 visas to bring in new foreign labor. This was a record number, surpassing the 118,000 issued when Interior Minister Eli Yishai – one of the biggest advocates of the deportation – was at the helm of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, the government body that sets quotas for permits.

Nitude is concerned about what is commonly referred to as the “revolving door” – the simultaneous importation and deportation of workers.

“The employment agencies are getting rich,” she says. “This is the big problem here in Israel.” And she feels that the children she cares for – most of whom meet the criteria for naturalization – are not. “The kids speak Hebrew,” she says. “They’re excited to get their teudat zehut.”

Nitude, a Christian, has learned a lot about the language and culture from the kids. Her three children, aged 11, 10, and seven, help her prepare for the Jewish holidays.

“They remind me, ‘Mommy, for Pessah you need to get the eggs,’” she says. “They help me get the Seder together.”

Nitude’s 11-year-old son is scared to go to the army. At the mention of the word, he grabs her and buries his face in her side. She smiles and strokes his hair. “God will protect you and you must protect the country,” she says.

“You will protect the country when you go to the army, nachon [right]?” He nods.

She switches to Hebrew. “You are Israeli,” she says.

“And you don’t have another land.”

But a handful of kids in her kindergarten face expulsion. She worriedly points them out. “They were all born here,” she says. “If you give [naturalization] to one, you must give to all.”

Just as a volunteer from Mesila continues to come – as they have weekly for five years – Nitude is teaching the little ones the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

“When school starts, they already know how to write,” she says proudly.


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