Twirling her long, straight hair around her fingers, Mariana Antoniuk says, “Everybody thought I was crazy.” Though Antoniuk, a 26-year-old Brazilian native, speaks English with a lilting South American accent, the meaning is clear.
Born and raised in Sao Paulo, holder of both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the prestigious Catholic University of Sao Paulo, she was working as a high school principal when she decided to come to Israel and volunteer to help Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees living in south Tel Aviv.
What prompted her to give up her comfortable life in glamorous Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, for the difficult conditions of south Tel Aviv, known for its high crime rate?
The answer lies with three generations of her family – her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother – and their post-World War II wanderings.
Antoniuk’s great-grandmother grew up in Romania, and was interned in a concentration camp in Ukraine. Her grandmother was born in the camp, and was hidden for a year. After World War II, her great-grandmother and grandmother went briefly to Romania, then moved to Belgium, where they lived for three years. They continued to South America, first to Bolivia, where they stayed for a year and a half, before finally settling in Brazil in April 1953, where they were officially accepted as refugees.
Antoniuk’s mother and father, who is not Jewish, were born in Brazil. She grew up in a supportive Jewish environment, attending Jewish schools through her elementary and high school years. Both her mother and grandmother have been deeply involved in the United Israel Appeal of Brazil. Her grandmother, now 78, is the director of fund-raising, and has worked there for over 40 years, and her mother works in fund-raising for the organization as well.
“I always grew up hearing a lot about Israel,” Atoniuk says, “I always had a connection with Israel. But for me, I needed to come here to do something that would be meaningful for me at the same time.”
Antoniuk lived in Israel for a brief period in late 2005 and 2006. Her mother, divorced from her father, had moved to Israel with her and her younger sister to Kibbutz Ginegar in the North, near Migdal Ha’emek. However, when the Second Lebanon War broke out in July 2006, they returned to Brazil because her father was concerned for their safety. At that time, her life in Israel was difficult. No one spoke Portuguese, her native tongue, nor English, which she had studied in school, and she missed Brazil a great deal.
She says that the fact that she grew up in a family of refugees influenced her decision to come to Israel to help people in need. “I felt a responsibility. She told me stories about being in the concentration camp and the difficulties that she had, and going to Sao Paulo and how my grandmother was able to study in university.... We had a better future than she had after the war.”
Arriving in Israel in August of 2015, Antoniuk joined a 10-month Masa program, arranged through the Mesila organization, which helps migrant workers and refugees living in Tel Aviv.
Until the age of three, children of migrant workers and asylum-seekers are not eligible for placement in subsidized daycare centers. Unofficial daycare centers and kindergartens are available in private homes in the area, and Antoniuk worked with children and provided guidance to teachers in these schools. She also volunteered with children in first and second grades in the Bialik school in Tel Aviv.
Antoniuk lived in the nearby Kiryat Shalom neighborhood, which she says taught her about both the good and the bad of living as an Israeli. She says that she feels much safer walking the streets of Tel Aviv than she did in Sao Paulo. The bad part, she adds, is that the country doesn’t receive these foreign workers as they should.
“It is hard for me,” she says, “because my family were refugees in Sao Paulo.” She argues that while Israel has its own limits and cannot absorb an unlimited number of refugees, once they are here, they need to be taken care of.
When Antoniuk’s Masa internship ended, she decided to stay, and in June 2016 received her Israeli ID card. She began working full-time at Unitaf, which provides daycare and after-school programs for children with no Israeli status. She is the director of community development and the coordinator of one of the daycare centers.
Antoniuk takes her work seriously and, speaking about the foreign workers, says, “They suffer a lot of racism, and it is very hard. But I want to show them that there are Jews who are concerned about them.” She says she can see the difference in the families when children “are in a good place.”
Masa served as the springboard not only for Antoniuk’s professional life but for her personal life as well. In November 2015, she met Justin Peedin, a fellow Masa participant from Columbia, Maryland. They are now engaged, and are planning a February wedding in Brazil.
Peedin, 28, is the director of operations at the Israel Association of Baseball, which attempts to advance and promote the sport in Israel. The IAB can claim at least one success in this area – Antoniuk – who says that when she first met Peedin, she found baseball to be quite boring, compared to soccer, which she enjoyed watching when growing up in Brazil. Now, she says, her opinion of baseball has changed.
Antoniuk says that they share a common value – their desire to help people and bring love to the world. She feels that not only does her work advance this objective, but Peedin’s attempts to promote baseball in Israel can also accomplish a similar goal. She mentions the Baseball Le’Kulam (Baseball for All) program, which aims to bring Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli children together to play baseball and learn about one another.
Antoniuk’s original Masa program was titled “Tikun Olam,” which means “repairing the world.” Working with Eritreans and Sudanese children, she feels that through her efforts, she is making Israel, and the world at large, a better place.
“If I can use my life to help other people,” she says, “that’s what I want to do. The moment that I am taking care of them, I am helping the State of Israel, because they are also people living here.”
Repairing the world can be a long process, but, slowly, Antoniuk is fixing things, one day at a time.
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