Benny Emmanuel provides inexpensive day care for migrants in south Tel Aviv

Ghanaian says 70 percent of the parents are working illegally.

african refugees 224.88 (photo credit: )
african refugees 224.88
(photo credit: )
"Barak Obama would not rise up in Israel. The opportunity just does not exist." These words were said in sorrow, by a man who knows first hand the hardships of being an outsider in Israel. Benny Emmanuel comes from the Ashanti region in the south of Ghana. Ten years ago, he came with a group of his countrymen to participate in a study program, to learn modern agricultural methods from Israeli farmers. He quickly discovered that he couldn't support himself while taking courses, so he started cleaning houses in Tel Aviv during his time off. Emmanuel received a work permit for one year and when friends who had returned to Ghana told him how they were swindled out of the payments that they were supposed to receive upon their return, Emmanuel decided to stay. As time went by, Emmanuel met a woman and soon had a child, and then another, and then a third. Living in south Tel Aviv, in an area largely inhabited by foreign workers, he witnessed the difficulties that parents had trying to make ends meet while taking care of young children. "Some of the parents, they go to work and only come back late in the evening. They clean houses and they have nowhere to put their children while they are at work," he said last week. Starting out with a small group of children between the ages of three and six, Emmanuel and his wife opened an afternoon program to help the parents and to supplement their earnings. Today, Emmanuel runs a kindergarten that provides all-day care for toddlers, and after-school supervision for older children, which he runs out of a house he rents in Tel Aviv's low income Hatikva neighborhood. During the summer, when the children are out of school, the day care center hosts roughly 40 children from early in the morning until 7 in the evening. From the outside, it's impossible to tell that the small building with the tall white aluminum fence is a kindergarten. There is no sign on the gate or outdoors swings that hint at the fact that there are children on the premises. Only when you get close and hear the singsong voices of young children, can you tell where you've arrived. The center consists of a 6-by-8 meter room and a small paved yard outside. Although clean and relatively tidy, the building is far from inviting and would in all likelihood fail to meet the requirements of the Education Ministry. Certainly few Israeli parents would choose to send their children there. Emmanuel, with the aid of his wife and an assistant, a young Ghanaian named Samuel Quayefio, whom the children call "uncle," watch over the youngsters and do their best to help them learn English, math and basic computer skills. Most of the time the children watch television or entertain themselves. Once a day, they take them to a nearby park where they can run around, play with a ball and climb the jungle gym. The parents provide food. "The average income of a foreign worker is NIS 2,400 a month, so the parents can't afford to send their children to Jewish kindergartens and after school programs. We understand their difficulties and therefore charge only NIS 250 or NIS 300 a month," said Emmanuel. "Now, during the summer, we charge NIS 50 extra, but some of the parents are unwilling to pay." All the children at the kindergarten were born in Israel, but their parents come from all over the developing world. Most of the kids look to be of African or Asian descent, but you can also see the odd blond head or pale skin indicating their parents come from Eastern Europe. The parents for the most part work at cleaning houses or caring for the elderly and the disabled. Emmanuel said that 70 percent of the parents are working illegally. "They do the work that Israeli citizens will not do. That gap has been filled by the foreign workers." He also said that salaries were dropping because of the influx of refugees from African countries who come to Israel looking for asylum. Emmanuel is a father figure for many of the children, whose real fathers were deported by the state. Tel Aviv has just experienced a wave of arrests and the Oz unit of the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority plans a massive crackdown in August. "Many of these kids are traumatized by having a parent disappear out of their lives. They start behaving wildly or fall into depression," said Emmanuel. "I know that there are drugs that can help them, but many parents don't want to give their kids the medicine because it won't be available in their home countries. They don't know where they'll end up and don't want their children to get addicted to something they can't guarantee in the future." He said that seven of the children in his care attend special schools to help them cope with psychological disturbances, social problems and learning disabilities. The only assistance that Emmanuel and the 40 or so other caretakers who run centers for the children of foreign workers receive is from an organization called Mesila. It is a non-profit organization that was established by the Tel Aviv Municipality in 1999, under the auspices of the social services authority, to provide information and assistance to the foreign workers community. Emmanuel said it helps by providing teaching aids and volunteers who come to help in the center several times a day. For Emmanuel, Israel is only a way station before he saves enough money to go back home, but for the children, Israel is the only home they've ever had. "These children are Israeli, they have the Israeli culture in their blood, they've never known anything different," he said. He's pessimistic about the children's future. "It is difficult to succeed here even if you are Jewish. I can't see any of these children making it in to the Knesset." To learn more about the plight of the children of foreign workers in Israel, visit the Mesila Web site at