South Tel Aviv's shame

Children of foreign workers residing in Israel are forced to languish in pirate preschools.

By HAVIV RETTIG
October 1, 2006 01:17
4 minute read.
South Tel Aviv's shame

foreign workers kids 88. (photo credit: )

A two-year-old waddled toward the newcomers and hugged the nearest one tightly. "What's your name?" asked a middle-aged municipal worker, part of a large delegation of city officials, MKs and journalists participating in a visit late last week by the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers examining the conditions of foreign workers' preschools in south Tel Aviv. The child remained silent, but clung tightly to the stranger as the group walked through a barren four-room hovel, one of the pirate preschools that dot the area. "Clinging to the first stranger he sees is not the action of an emotionally healthy child," Tamar Shwartz, head of the tiny municipal aid organization Mesila, told the group. "These kids wander around bored all day, untouched, and they jump on the first person who relates to them kindly." The preschool visited by the committee, categorized by Shwartz as "one of the better ones," was completely bereft of toys, laughter or color. The only poster on the white walls was a drawing of a human skeleton. Toys, Shwartz explained, cause fights among the children, a situation the caregivers are simply unequipped to handle. In the afternoons, the four small rooms hold up to 65 children. Since the two staff members, themselves foreign workers from Africa, can't supervise so many at a time, the children are often kept locked in their playpens. This situation can last as long as 16 hours at a time, since many of the children's parents work double shifts. The children don't suffer merely emotional neglect, Mesila workers told the MKs, but were also exposed to real physical dangers due to the lack of official regulation and oversight in educational institutions for children three years old or younger. In the backyard of one preschool, cement slabs from the broken floor lay strewn across the ground, while no fence divided the children from nearby building materials and other apartments. Attracted by the promise of sunshine in the course of a colorless day, children wander around the backyard, often completely unobserved by adults. For Shwartz, the worst part of the situation is that her staff knows how to solve the problem, and the solution is surprisingly affordable. According to a Mesila estimate, 400 children spend their days in the pirate preschools of south Tel Aviv, and could be properly cared for if the municipality established 10 preschools to care for them. Since operating a preschool costs approximately NIS 10,000 a month - before rent, Shwartz emphasized - an annual budget of just NIS 1.2 million would solve the problem. As for the space to house the preschools, committee chairman Ran Cohen promised that he would personally ask organizations such as WIZO and Na'amat to provide it. For now, the only light at the end of the dark tunnel is a donation to Mesila by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. The fellowship adamantly refuses to get involved in questions related to providing permanent solutions for the problem, or campaigning for government funds for Mesila. "We don't get involved in the politics of the issue," IFCJ President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein told The Jerusalem Post. "Our only role is to help, particularly the children," in a way that leaves them "as well-adjusted as possible," he said. The IFCJ gave Mesila NIS 161,480, allowing the group to hire a fourth staff member, social worker Ariella Fogel, to manage its activities in the pirate preschools, including identifying special needs among the children and counseling preschool caregivers on issues related to child development. In addition, the donation funds three weekly hours of professional counseling for parents of special needs children. Yet, while Fogel's work is "phenomenal," Shwartz said, Mesila needed at least three more full-time social workers to properly care for the children. To explain the urgency, Shwartz related the story of one of Fogel's regular visits to the preschools. During the visit, Fogel noticed that a little girl was being repeatedly stepped on by the other children, while those running the preschool didn't even notice the infant lying helpless on the floor. Fogel lifted the girl off the floor and examined her, soon diagnosing her as autistic. Today, the child attends a preschool for autistic children and is "flowering." The IFCJ donation, which constitutes about a third of Mesila's annual budget of NIS 470,000 and allows the organization to conduct the most basic supervision and counseling, will run out in the coming weeks. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Shwartz emphasized that four full-time social work positions were the bare minimum needed. At about NIS 150,000 a year for each social worker, Mesila was seeking an additional NIS 600,000 for the coming year. The figures quoted by Shwartz - NIS 1.2 million for the preschools and NIS 600,000 for the social workers - were only a fraction of what she truly hoped to bring to the children, she said. After-school clubs that would keep the children occupied, stimulated and fed while the parents worked double shifts were also needed, along with more hours of paid psychological support for the parents and more training for the preschool staff. But with Mesila's government budget dropping annually - down NIS 50,000 since 2003 - Shwartz will settle for the basics. As things stand right now, she told the Post, many of the children "are so neglected that they have given up crying."


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