Helping African women in Tel Aviv
We, as individuals, and as a society (and the government of Israel) have an opportunity to be up standers, to be righteous among the nations.
Volunteer with Eritrean toddler at community cente Photo: Ben Hartman
For most Americans, the issues of government oppression, genocide, civil wars,
mosquitos and hunger in Africa are experienced only through television
commercials portraying young children as an emotional tactic to elicit monetary
aid. Not so long ago, this was the extent of my knowledge and perception of
societal problems in Africa.
After finishing graduate school with a M.Sc.
in Health Systems Management from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago,
Illinois, and working in project and medical group management for two years – I
decided I wanted to live in Israel and somehow make my degree valuable in this
land that Jews from all over the world feel such a strong connection
Through a MASA program called Career Israel, I was placed with an NGO
called Hagar and Miriam, a branch-off organization of Brit Olam and
Hagar and Miriam’s mission is to help refugee and asylumseeker
women in Israel access pre-natal medical care (although their specific statuses
were not distinguished by my organization).
My role was to be a
coordinator of abortions, and I spent my days meeting with dozens of African
refugees, asylum-seeking women and migrant workers, almost solely from Eritrea.
I was to navigate the healthcare system for them.
There are five
stipulations, one of which must be true, for a woman (Israeli or not) to be
allowed to have an abortion in Israel. They are: 1. The women is under the age
of 18 or over the age of 40. 2. The woman is not married. 3. The woman was
raped. 4. There is health risk to the mother, and 5. There is health risk to the
ESSENTIALLY, THE only situation in which it is NOT possible to
obtain an abortion in Israel is when a woman between the ages of 18-40 has a
perfectly healthy, willing, pregnancy with her husband.
Most of the woman
came in contact with Hagar and Miriam through the refugee medical clinic in the
Tel Aviv central bus station, or through other organizations that work with this
population, because they know of Hagar and Miriam’s niche for working with
Following an initial intake (meeting to gather as many
facts about the woman’s social and medical past), I would direct the women to
either a private doctor, the free rape clinic at Ichilov Hospital, or Wolfson
Hospital in Holon.
The process for one specific woman I worked with,
named Tirhas, went something like this: One of my colleagues sent me an SMS text
with a phone number and name, and instructed me to call her. I had no additional
Through broken Hebrew and English we arranged to meet in the
refugee clinic in the central bus station in Tel Aviv. Of course, when I arrived
there were many people waiting, and I had a hard time figuring out who was who,
and who was there to meet with me, the doctor, or someone else.
with Tirhas for about an hour, and learned that she had been in Israel for seven
She had come from Eritrea. She had one son, who was still in
Eritrea, and her and her boyfriend had become pregnant since her arrival in
He was also at the meeting, and for the most part answered the
questions on her behalf – his English was better because he had been here for
longer and had been in and out of jobs. They did not want to have this baby due
to financial concerns. I presented Tirhas with the option of an abortion via
private doctor (fast, easy and expensive), or from Wolfson Hospital (confusing,
slow and slightly cheaper).
ALL TOGETHER, the process would cost anywhere
between NIS 1,500 to NIS 4,000 (primarily depending on how far along the
pregnancy was). In any of these situations, she would be required to pay for the
full price of the procedure. Hagar and Miriam does not provide any financial
assistance to women, although they do have agreements with Wolfson and several
clinics for discounts that are taken off of the regular price an Israeli citizen
would pay; and we provided them with those forms. Tirhas chose Wolfson.
called and made her a social worker appointment and instructed her to visit an
ultrasound doctor and a blood lab by next week, and meet me back at the central
bus station in seven days. We met, and thankfully she had the proper
documentation (ultrasound, blood tests, visa and money). This was rare, and her
diligence was appreciated.
I had to explain to Tirhas that she was to
tell the social workers committee at the hospital that she was not married. If
she said she was married, they would not allow her to have the
Her boyfriend was one of the supportive ones, and I don’t know
if they were married or not, by what nation or standards, with what ring or
documentation – but each time this was a lengthy explanation and a waste of
several hundred shekels if she made a mistake.
We were not really telling
her to lie, we were telling her how to tell the truth by Israeli standards of
marriage. I didn’t escort Tirhas back to Wolfson for the actual procedure, but
rather hoped that she got there, and called her boyfriend a couple weeks
He told me everything went fine.
That is all I know, and I
never saw them again.
We were lucky if we could follow a woman from
intake to post-abortion. Many times they are lost in the traffic of phone calls
to personal cell phones, language barriers, way-finding problems to the many
locations, and financial issues.
IN TERMS of refugees, asylum-seekers and
migrant workers in Israel, the issues of pregnancies and abortions of women are
microscopic. It is one small insight into a personal part of the situation of
these people, and of the reaction of the surrounding society. In this case, not
unlike other issues – the government until now has been mostly hand-off, and
non-profits have been established to help mitigate some of the struggle faced by
both the refugees, and the surrounding community who have had to watch their
neighborhood change drastically in the past years.
On a more global note,
walking through Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv isn’t pretty. Everybody knows
that. But everyone has a story, a past, and a heart, soul and mind. The recent
violence in that area is not the solution to poverty.
I wish to mention
at this point that I am by no means some left-wing peace and love activist – like
others who work in these roles; and am personally politically torn on recent
events and discussions regarding the issue of African refugees and asylum-seekers
in Israel. It seems that these days, it is somehow easier to form a political
opinion on the issue of African refugees in Israel having never spoken to or
gotten to know one of them, one of their stories – they are not all the
Stereotypes about women being raped in Sinai (none of the women I
worked with fell into this category), men stealing, etc., may be accurate some
of the time – but I have also had experiences quite different. Hearing reports
of individuals referring to them as a “cancer among us” is harsh – but the
situation is an issue for Israel.
And how do we clean up South Tel Aviv
for the citizens who live there? Actions need to be taken thoughtfully, and
thousands of people can probably not remain in the current state. But the idea
of hoping to eliminate a certain group of people, to rid ourselves of them,
should remind us all of times in history when it has been us as Jews who were
discriminated against. It is nothing less than racism.
individuals, and as a society (and the government of Israel) have an opportunity
to be up standers. To be righteous among the nations. To create intelligent,
ethical solutions to humanitarian issues.
The writer was a volunteer with
the MASA program called Career Israel and was placed with an NGO called Hagar