MKs criticize NII for not speaking immigrants' language

Among the 3,500 NII workers nationwide, only 251 are Russian-speakers and less than 30 speak Amharic.

Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee chairman Michael Nudelman (Kadima) slammed the National Insurance Institute Wednesday for not providing enough information and assistance to new immigrants who do not speak Hebrew, especially those from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. During a committee session, Nudelman heard from the institute's director-general, Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom that among the 3,500 NII workers nationwide, only 251 are Russian-speakers and less than 30 speak Amharic. According to a spokesman for the NII, there are many institute employees who speak fluent English at mother-tongue level, although he said there were no exact numbers. However, Ben-Shalom asserted that there is a handful of volunteers within the NII available to assist those who do not speak Hebrew to navigate the bureaucracy, and that in the coming months a telephone hot line offering help in five languages would be launched. "We agree that it would be better if we could hire more," said Ben-Shalom. "Without appropriate representation of Russian and Amharic-speaking immigrants in the NII, it is impossible to provide services to elderly and disabled immigrants who don't speak Hebrew," said Nudelman, who himself emigrated from Ukraine in 1991. "There is no doubt that there is a serious shortage of Russian-speaking employees in the institute." Nudelman gave the example of Ashdod, with 70,000 immigrants and only one Russian-speaking employee in the local NII office. "I call on the chairman of this committee to put pressure on state representatives and the finance minister to increase the numbers of immigrants working in the NII," commented MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima). "The number of Russian-speaking workers needs to be doubled and Amharic speakers should be tripled." Ethiopian rights advocate Danny Admasu, Director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, also spoke at the meeting, highlighting the problem in Netanya where there are more than 7,000 immigrants from Ethiopia and only two Amharic speakers in the NII offices there. "We would be happy to offer volunteers to the NII in the form of Amharic-speaking students, who could help out translating vital information for the Ethiopian public," Admasu told the committee, adding that in Beersheba there is not a single Amharic-speaking employee. Ben-Shalom promised the committee that, with the help of the IAEJ and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the NII would immediately recruit the services of Amharic and Russian-speaking volunteers.