Caring for the stateless

A medical clinic in Tel Aviv provides basic treatment free of charge for migrants who have no insurance.

Terem Public Health Clinic (photo credit: WWW.TEREM.COM)
Terem Public Health Clinic
(photo credit: WWW.TEREM.COM)
“PEOPLE WOULD cross the border and would be bused immediately to south Tel Aviv. Some would arrive bleeding from gunshot wounds saying they crossed just two hours earlier and needed help. Imagine, up to 80 people, and you have to choose,” recalls Orel Ben-Ari, the driving force behind the Terem Public Health Clinic in south Tel Aviv.
“I vividly remember there was an older man who came a number of times saying he he had pain in the lower back.
I told him to sit and wait and ‒ if there was room ‒ we’d see him. He came four times over a two-week period, waited quietly, but didn’t get to see a doctor.
That fourth time, when he got up from his chair it was filled with blood. He was literally bleeding to death but kept quiet and didn’t complain.
“That day, I said to myself, ‘What on earth is happening here! How can it be that all these people need help and we don’t have a way to help them?’ I simply felt that every person in Israel has the basic right to be seen by a doctor, at least for some sort of basic treatment.”
The 35-year-old Ben-Ari’s life direction changed as a result of that particular patient who attended the clinic at a time when he was volunteering. They had minimal resources and he, despite no medical training, was the one who had to choose who would and wouldn’t get to see the doctor.
I came to see for myself this migrant facility located in the central bus station.
It’s an area I had not visited, indeed had sought to avoid, for around 20 years.
On the face of it, little has changed. It’s still hopelessly run down and decidedly seedy, but the demographic was obviously different to that of two decades earlier. There are a lot of Africans, Filipinos, Thais, Indians and other people of color. It’s a far cry from the multimillion- dollar luxury apartments and cafés of the better parts of central and north Tel Aviv just a few short minutes away.
I struggled to find the migrants’ clinic, so I enquired at the information desk of one of the major bus companies.
“Could you tell me where the Terem Center is?” I asked.
“Never heard of it,” barked a disinterested, sullen 50-something woman.
“It’s a clinic for migrants. I’m told it’s close to the No. 5 bus stop,” I continued.
“They should send all those blacks back on the next bus,” she suddenly raged. “They shouldn’t be here. We’ve got enough trying to feed our own.”
Just when I thought she’d finished her rant, she got a second wind.
“I suppose you’re one of those leftists, aren’t you? Get out of here! Get out!” A few things immediately struck me after her verbal barrage ‒ aside from the fact that she had been rather too presumptuous of my political views.
One was that I wouldn’t be asking her advice on anything ever again. The second, was that if, as she was suggesting, the district was so overrun by Africans, how was it she had never noticed ‒ as I established shortly after without being verbally abused ‒ that the very busy Terem clinic was actually less than 100 meters from her desk? Her reaction had, however, demonstrated one important aspect of the story.
The other revealed itself when I finally found what I was looking for. There are those Israelis (not few in number it transpires) who feel obliged to do what they can to help those less fortunate regardless of where they come from, why they came, their race, color or religion.
No questions asked.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have sought asylum in the Jewish state in recent years, ostensibly claiming they are fleeing war or repression in their homeland. Many arrive here having been tortured; both men and women have allegedly been raped; and some bear gunshot wounds from their dangerous quest to reach Israel that took them through Jihadist territory in the Sinai and which some relatives and friends did not survive.
A recent statement on Eritrea from Human Rights Watch highlights, “[A] dismal human rights situation, exacerbated by indefinite military conscription, [that] has led thousands of Eritreans to flee every month.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea concluded in 2015 that the Eritrean government engages in “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” carried out in a “context of a total lack of rule of law.”
THE FLOOD of predominately Eritrean migrants at the start of this decade has slowed to a trickle of late, due mainly to heavier security measures, but some still get through. These breaches raise serious questions about Israel’s security on the extensive Sinai border where ISIS and other terrorist organizations continue to look for opportunities to cross and cause havoc.
Now, allied to the existing community of African migrants in Israel, a new but seemingly growing flow of illegal immigrants has emerged from Eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, most apparently entering Israel legally on tourist visas and then simply failing to catch the plane home.
Anecdotal reports indicate painfully slow processing of asylum applications, a situation which, according to Israel’s Interior Minister Arye Deri, has been made worse by the recent flood of applications from Eastern Europeans.
However, the black African migration to Israel hasn’t gone down at all well with some in the already depressed areas of south Tel Aviv, where most asylum seekers have flocked and seek to get by. The overwhelming majority of migrants, I soon learned, wish to move on to other countries but are trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare that has left many vulnerable and in need of help from wherever it is offered.
Ben-Ari, the clinic director and formerly a youth social worker, has personally overseen the rapid growth of the Terem medical facility, a clinic that opened its doors a little more than six years ago, and now treats more than 45,000 people on an annual basis.
“Our main objective is to help these people, and all our manpower and budget goes in this direction,” Ben-Ari tells The Jerusalem Report. “The bottom line is that the people who need help come here, mainly by word of mouth as we don’t have a website.
“Stateless people such as these basically have three options: The first is to go to the hospital and spend 650-1,000 shekels ($170-$270). The moment they are released from the emergency ward they are told to come to us next time. The second option is to go to Doctors for Human Rights, which is open a couple of times a week in Jaffa, and the third option is that they hear about us and come here directly.”
Dr. Michael Dor, director of general medicine at the Health Ministry, originally opened the clinic, calling on doctors and nurses to volunteer one day a month of their time to help out. The long established and respected Terem organization receives the ministry funding, then passes it on directly to the clinic in the Tel Aviv bus station that bears its name but is run on a day-to-day basis by Ben-Ari. When he first volunteered at the clinic in 2010, there was just one room, a table and three chairs.
“There was no computer, no inspection gloves, etc.,” he recalls. “The very first donation I managed to arrange was from Mega [the supermarket chain], which sent us some cups, coffee, tea and sugar. Until then, even the doctor had to go outside and buy himself a drink when he was thirsty.
“Over the years, the clinic has grown and the Health Ministry has increased the budget, but the activities here remain overwhelmingly in the hands of those volunteering their time. It’s a good combination of what the ministry is able to give and what individuals in the field are able to offer. The ministry pays] for the rental of the clinic and the wages of the few permanent staff and also provides most of the equipment.”
The day-to-day staffing is made up of a roster of around 100 volunteer medical professionals from all fields. Ben-Ari’s office is partly filled with boxes of donations of medical supplies and other goods, some of which arrived during our conversation.
I suggested that one of the main reasons the ministry might be supporting the clinic is that it relieves the burden on already overflowing local hospitals and helps reduce social tensions. At the same time, it offers a place where the migrants can be treated without being stigmatized by some Israelis who feel they shouldn’t be here in the first instance.
“I think they do it because it is the right thing to do,” suggests Ben-Ari. “The question of the migrants is very political. People jump to conclusions and say this happened because of this, this happened because of that. Ichilov [Sourasky Medical Center] might say this clinic is here because they sent emails to the manager of the Health Ministry because of the financial burden it caused; Doctors for Human Rights might say that the clinic was opened because they demonstrated; and Wolfson Medical Center might say the clinic opened because of something they did or said.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why ‒ there isn’t one particular reason. The ministry treats stateless people who might have TB or malaria, for example. There is a program to treat those with HIV, all the children who are born in Israel are able to go to the tipat halav [well baby clinic] free and receive inoculations; and the ministry opened the Levinsky Clinic, which offers HIV and sexual health services, without charge. [These things] are for the good of the patients and of public health. Whatever the bottom line is, the point is that we are here and what do we do to help?”
The Terem Clinic is open 12 hours a day, six days a week. It offers a range of medical services, including general practitioners and some specialists, physiotherapy, a women’s clinic that provides pregnancy services, a dental clinic and, imminently, an optical clinic.
ONE OF those who made it from Eritrea via Sudan and the Sinai is Nasser, a 39-year-old male midwife who has worked alongside Ben-Ari for four years, helping many of his fellow Eritreans. He has a scholarly, gentle air about him as he tells me a little of his experience in Israel in softly spoken English.
“I come from a town in the highlands of Eritrea. Everyone has left there now. I don’t like the dictatorship and how the people are treated. Working in my profession with mothers and children I saw the government wasn’t helping and the system is very compromised.
You see this when you have sick mothers. The situation there is hopeless.
“It has not been so easy in Israel,” he says, “but, fortunately, I have been working here and am lucky to be able to help my people. Many have problems with diabetes and blood pressure caused by the Western diet. The weather is very hot here, too, and most Eritreans live in the highlands, which are much cooler. We originally had a lot of people suffering from asthma and from infections, as well as dehydration and skin illnesses from the climate and the food.
“No one wants to stay, but they don’t have many other options,” Nasser explains. “Everyone is searching to leave. I plan to join my wife and children [ages nine and six] in Sweden. I don’t have any rights here, and my wife and children cannot come. I haven’t seen them for six years. It is hard for all of us.
“Personally, I have never experienced any problems with the people here. The opposite, actually. I like the Israeli people. The problem is with the bureaucracy.”
At the front desk, I met Taylor Bell, a 22-year-old Penn State undergrad from Pittsburgh. Through the MASA organization, she heard about Terem and decided to volunteer for five months, getting experience ahead of her return home and a start at physicians assistant school.
“I knew I would be working in a refugee clinic and expected it would be very different to what I’m used to,” Bell tells The Report. “But, I’ve actually seen a surprising amount of similarities to the US health care system, having shadowed a physician’s assistant at home – people without insurance, similar health problems, people looking for treatment for their kids rather than for themselves. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and impressed that they give such good and inexpensive health care here.
“Before I came over, I felt bad because I didn’t even know that Eritrea existed. In the US, we don’t learn too much about small African countries. I felt guilty for not knowing.
I think it’s great that Israel is so accepting of the refugee situation, despite all the issues their being here raises.”
Ben-Ari expects there will be a growing number of white Eastern European illegal migrants in the foreseeable future, and knows there are those who find it difficult seeing them, whether they be Christians or Muslims, on the streets of south Tel Aviv.
Again, he makes a point of avoiding racial issues and politics, but, looking back, feels things have come a long way in a short period of time.
“When I first told the Health Ministry that I hoped the clinic would be open six days a week from 8 till 8, they laughed. I decided to aim as I high as I could though, and recently I looked around and saw that almost everything I had hoped for has been achieved.
“But, on the other hand, there is so much more that can be done, and so many people who need help. This clinic shows the great side of Israel, where local people and students come from all over the world to volunteer.
“What we have achieved is to restore the self-respect of the people who come to us, who, at the end of the day, are people, just like anyone else.” 

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: