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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yardena Oscar, 36, grew up in Lod knowing that her Bombay-born mother was different from the typical Israeli mom. Her mother spoke Hindi at home, packed embarrassingly "stinky" sandwiches for school lunches, and unlike her friends' moms, didn't seem to get tied up emotionally when it came to housework and child rearing. Today, the Tel Aviv University (TAU) doctoral student has come to embrace the East Indian roots she once wanted to hide. And the East-West divide is preoccupying her in her PhD studies: She is asking how eastern mothers are different from western ones.
Based on her personal experience and from literature, Oscar thinks that the concept of "motherhood" in eastern cultures might be different from that of western ones. She wants to explore and uncover this difference.
She sees Israeli society as an ideal case study for eastern and western cultures existing side by side. One of the most extreme examples is the Israeli phenomenon of the "Filipina caregiver" - home care providers who are flown in by agencies to tend to the disabled and aged.
Oscar calls the Filipinas "transnational mothers," as they cross continents to work in mothering roles and leave their birth children behind in the Philippines. "Israelis proclaim with great boldness that they could never live like the foreign workers do in Israel," says Oscar. "The workers leave their children behind in their country of origin and in some cases start new families in Israel. But the reasons are not always economic, like most people think," she explains. "Some women have fled abusive relationships and others take coming to Israel as a way to enter the developed world. It can be a sort of liberation for some women to come to Israel."
The Department of Labor Studies at TAU has put Oscar in a unique position to dig deep into her research, by awarding her an Amalia Biron-Cegla Doctoral Fellowship. With the help of this financial support, she was able to live for three months among foreign workers in a crowded south Tel Aviv neighborhood in an apartment which housed up to six women per room.
There, she was privy to intimate details of Filipino women's lives, enjoyed weekend karaoke parties and learned a lot about the plight and fight of being a caregiver in Israel. "Filipinos don't come to Israel to work in high-tech or in a shop," says Oscar. "They come to do domestic work such as cleaning and caregiving. They transfer what they were doing in the Philippines to here, which made me wonder: Are these foreign workers just doing a'job,' or are they taking their emotions with them to work?"
Though the circumstances are diverse, most women, Oscar has learned, come to Israel for economic reasons. Some become a live-in caregiver, spending up to 24 hours a day taking care of families which are not their own. They can be seen throughout the country, gently escorting elderly people along sidewalks, and speaking in broken English and Hebrew to other people's children and grandchildren.
One of Oscar's case studies is Karing (only first names are used to identify the Filipinas), who lives and works in Tel Aviv, a widow who left her three young children aged seven, five and three with her sister-in-law in the Philippines. Karing joined her sister in Israel to work as a caregiver for the elderly. Her friend Conchita left her three teenage boys with their father to take care of an autistic boy in Ramat Hasharon. Del left her cancer-ridden son with a nephew so she could work as an illegal housekeeper to finance her boy's treatment back home.
Oscar's research thus far includes interviews with 50 foreign workers in Israel and 50 families abroad. She also worked as a caregiver herself. "I wanted to fill the shoes of a foreign worker for 24-hours-a-day to see if I will make an emotional bond to the person in care," she says. She also had the opportunity to visit the Philippines.
A year ago, she returned from the Philippines after visiting the families of the people she had met here. "The Filipinos here in Israel were very quick to cooperate," says Oscar. "They put me in contact with their families there, and really made a big effort. I was amazed by their hospitability and friendship. But at the same time it was really sad to hear fathers say that they don't want their daughters in Israel to come to their funeral; or to find children who are angry at their mothers while at the same time make excuses as to why she abandoned them."
When all the research is collated, she plans to analyze what factors influence the way motherhood is conceived and practiced by transnational mothers. The process of her work is called "inductive research" - a method requiring a theory to be built only after the research is collected. "This way, I will learn without categories. It is a special technique for breaking down barriers," says Oscar, noting that her supervisor, Professor Gideon Kunda of the Department of Labor Studies, supports this method.
The research can have practical applications too, she says. For one, it could help policy makers, human rights activists and NGOs know and support the needs of the country's foreign workers. "The way a society treats its foreign workers is an expression of the health of the society. If we can improve the quality of life for Israel's foreign workers, we can improve the quality of life for ourselves as well," she notes.
The work can also help people recognize their own self-worth, she believes. "Today I love that I am different. In the past, everyone had to be part of this huge melting pot in Israel, and now people are starting to have their own place for their own culture."