Faces of poverty

Individuals share their stories of how poverty has taken a grip on their everyday lives.

Poverty 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Poverty 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It is not easy to agree to be interviewed for an article on poverty, to become the face of all the poor in Israel. It is not easy to admit that somehow you lost control of your life and it didn’t turn out quite the way you had planned. But then, at least for a moment during an interview, it seems as if someone will still listen to you, as if someone might still care.
'In six or seven years, I will be able to breathe'
David , 41, was married for eight years and was just recently divorced. He and his ex-wife, who is deaf and blind, had no children. He asks that his real name not be used. Standing next to his refrigerator in his 30-square-meter apartment – a renovated space which clearly was meant to be a storeroom for a much larger apartment in an upscale neighborhood in Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, which his current employer helped him find – he holds out a small plastic tub of rice and another of mixed vegetables, which he bought on Friday for his Shabbat eve meal.
Lucky for him, he says, an acquaintance has taken to inviting him over for Shabbat lunch every week so he gets a full homecooked meal once a week.
David was not always thrifty with his spending during his eight-year marriage, he admits. He’s hard of hearing and has not been able to replace his hearing aids for the past five years – they normally need to be replaced every year – because of their high cost, he says. He can’t afford payments for supplemental health insurance, which would bring the price down. At the moment he does not have any hearing aid and makes due with lip reading and asking people to speak loudly to him.
He pays NIS 1,900 ($500) in rent, including utilities, and earns NIS 5,000 a month at his current work in a printing press. His former wife used to receive NIS 2,400 in disability payments from the National Insurance Institute and they had managed to scrape by – even taking a few vacations to Eilat and Tiberias. They were the first vacations he took in his life, he says.
“When we were growing up we did not have much money, but there was always food on the table,” says David, who is the second-youngest of six children. His father, who had worked in a factory and had been able to modestly support his large family, died when David was seven. “My father always worked hard and I learned that from him. I am like my father. I have always worked hard, but there are times when I did not find work,” he says.
After leaving the kollel, a yeshiva for adult men, at the age of 28, David worked in various low-paying manual positions with video and DVD production companies, finally landing a job at a printing press that eventually went bankrupt. During the year and a half that it took for him to receive his back pay and compensation, David was unable to find work and accrued a debt of some NIS 83,000 and NIS 27,000 in bank loans and credit card debts that he was unable to pay. He is now attempting to straighten out payment terms through the courts with the assistance of the social assistance group Yedid.
“Prices are going up but the salaries are not and there is more poverty. I am experiencing this myself,” he says. “My mother was never in debt. I hope the courts can help me organize my debts.”
His wife took most of their belongings, he says, and he has had to start all over again. He uses a small portable gas range to cook and prepare his hot coffee and tea – which he drinks a lot of during the cold Shabbat afternoons he spends in his apartment. His siblings are spread across the country and are not in touch with each other very often, he says.
“Every month now I look at my budget and figure out how much I can spend for my necessities,” says David, perched on his neatly made single bed that takes up one of the walls of his apartment.
He still uses his wedding shoes as his good Shabbat shoes and he was able to buy himself a new set of holiday clothes on Sukkot with the holiday gift from his current employer, says David.
“I believe that in six or seven years I will finish off all of my debts and then I will be able to breathe,” David says.
'Now I can't get out from underneath this all'
While David still holds on to the hope that he will be able to get himself back on his feet again, Svetlana, a 39-year-old single mother who is living in a 2½-room apartment with her five children in the center of the country, is near despair.
“Sometimes I don’t even have the energy to cry,” she says, her younger children playing in the background. “It hurts so much that sometimes I don’t even feel like opening my eyes. I wonder if this will be the day they finally cut off the electricity. Thankfully, they are not allowed to turn off the water.”
She owes thousands of shekels on both her water and electricity bills and fears what will happen now that the weather is becoming colder. She didn’t even have blankets for her children, she says, until Yedid came into the picture and donated sheets and blankets.
“The social worker told me there were some women with 10 children who are working. I know that but I can’t,” says Svetlana, originally from Bukhara. While her two oldest are teenagers, two of her children are still in elementary school and the youngest is an infant. “I want to work but I am alone and my children get out of school at 2:30 p.m. Who will I leave them with? My mother is old. I can’t leave them alone.”
She worked for a while in a factory, she said, but most of her salary ended up going towards child care so she stopped.
After a string of bad luck in relationships – she divorced her abusive first husband and her second partner died unexpectedly leaving her with two additional children, and now, after another short-lived relationship, she was left with another baby – Svetlana admits that she made some wrong decisions in her life, starting with marrying young when she and her family arrived in Israel 20 years ago.
Her first husband was controlling and abusive and did not allow her to go out or study. She regrets never having done army service.
Eventually she left her first husband, taking their two children with her to a women’s shelter to try to rebuild her life. With her mother’s help she took out a mortgage to buy a small apartment. But then the apartment turned out to be unsound and she was forced to leave it because she was unable to pay for the necessary repairs to make it livable. She was still stuck with the mortgage payments, which her elderly mother is still paying off. She had even thought about selling a kidney so that she could keep her home, she says.
Now she has found a 2½-room apartment for her family, but is in arrears of six months’ rent. The landlord is understanding and patient with her, she says, and she tries to pay off part of her rent with the small salary her oldest son brings home. But, the bottom line is the landlord needs to get his payment, and she often can’t make it. Her monthly rent rate is NIS 2,700.
“If he kicks me out of the apartment what will I do?” she asks.
One of the most humiliating things about being poor, she says, is having to deal with all the government bureaucracy and government social workers.
Soon her oldest son is slated to go into the army. Her oldest daughter would like to take a cosmetologist or hairdresser course but she can’t afford to pay for it, says Svetlana. She doesn’t have spare change to give her older children pocket money so that they can go out with friends occasionally.
“I dreamed of having a perfect family like my parents – of my son coming home from the army and a nice warm meal waits for him on the table,” she says. This is the time in their lives they should be going out with friends, and having fun.” Svetlana muses on how she reached the situation she is in today.
“I come from a perfect family. Back home, my father was very wealthy. When we got here it was very difficult for us,” she says. “This is a life? This is how it has come out for me, it was my fate. I just wanted to live my life. Now I can’t get out from underneath this all.”
'I want my children to have the things that I didn't have'
It is the first night of Hanukka and Hassan, who asked that his real name not be used, is staying late at work. Having come in at 9 a.m., it will be close to midnight before he returns home from his job at the supermarket.
“It’s been a very long day, but they pay me for the extra hours,” he explains.
A 30-year-old father of three and a resident of one of the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods, Hassan has no choice. His salary barely reaches NIS 4,500 ($1,200) a month, so the extra income earned during overtime helps him pay the bills. His wife stays at home to care for their children, all under the age of seven.
“When there was only one child, it wasn’t so hard. Now with three children and with my salary, the truth is that it is very difficult,” he says, noting that nowadays he spends three times as much at the supermarket as he did six years ago and lives with a constant overdraft at the bank. Half of his salary goes to pay his NIS 1,700 rent and utilities, he says, and with whatever is left over he needs to juggle payments for food and the school fees for his two older children.
The public schools in his neighborhood are not good, he says, and so he sends his children to private schools where they will get a good education. That way, Hassan figures, they can go on to get better jobs than he or his father – a store employee who raised seven children – ever had.
At the end of the month there is no money left, Hassan says, but his children’s education is an important sacrifice he is making for the sake of their future so they can get out of the poverty cycle he finds himself in. He makes sure they are well fed; whatever is left over after that goes towards paying the bills.
“The most important things are my children. They come first. With God’s help they will become doctors or lawyers,” he says. “I want my children to have the things that I didn’t have.” •