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 center 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Volunteer with Eritrean toddler at community center 390
(photo credit: 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 to.
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 Topaz.
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 infant.
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 pregnant women.
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 information.
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.
I sat with Tirhas for about an hour, and learned that she had been in Israel for seven months.
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 Israel.
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.
I 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 abortion.
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 later.
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 same.
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.
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. 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 and Miriam.