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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The National Insurance Institute reached out to new immigrants from Ethiopia on Monday when its recently inaugurated mobile advice center visited the country's largest Jewish Agency for Israel-run absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem.
More than 200 immigrants living at the center, which at full capacity houses some 1,300 people, came out to greet the mobile unit and receive information and advice from NII staffers and Amharic-speaking counselors on how to obtain key welfare benefits and utilize their rights as Israeli citizens.
"One of the main problems that we have encountered is that many people, especially those from the weaker segments of the population, do not know how to get to their rights," said Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, who accompanied the mobile unit. "Our aim here is to go out into the field, invite the olim to sit with us, and for us to explain their rights to them."
Herzog, who is also the minister responsible for the NII, said the service was part of continuing efforts to improve what many see as the institute's often bureaucratic relationship with the public.
"I came here today to see if the NII could do something more to help my father," 18-year-old Adna, who moved to Israel two years ago from the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar, told The Jerusalem Post.
Adna said that her father, who had once served in the Ethiopian army, had a bullet permanently lodged in his leg and was barely able to work, let alone support his wife and seven children.
"The NII wants him to go out to work, but it is very, very difficult for him," she said. "I hope that the people here today can give me some advice on what can be done to help him and my family."
Etti Nissim, a social welfare adviser at the absorption center, said that one of the biggest difficulties facing the new immigrants was understanding and navigating the complicated system, especially when dealing with disability allowances and obtaining health benefits.
"The ideal situation would be for us to go with each one of them when they apply for their benefits, but that, of course, is almost impossible," she told the Post. "Truthfully, the NII needs to employ more Amharic-speakers to help them at the local branches, but a mobile unit like this is a great help for us and them."
"It's difficult to be a new immigrant in the State of Israel," Herzog told those gathered to utilize the mobile unit. "And the NII aims to be connected as much as possible to your community in order to teach you about your rights and how to use them."
He continued, "When Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, first established the NII, his aim was to ensure that every citizen, regardless of means or income, would be able to survive here."
Many people, Herzog added, just didn't know how to pick up the phone and ask about their rights.
NII director-general Esther Dominissini, who was also present at the absorption center on Monday, said that an additional mobile unit had already been purchased and was currently being fitted with the necessary equipment.
"The unit has a yearly schedule and is slated to reach out to various groups of people such as the elderly, students and others who find it difficult or timely to investigate what is owed to them," she said, adding that the current economic climate made it even more imperative to help people get their benefits.
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