Below the radar

Ignored by authorities, the shuk's young Arab laborers would be invisible if not for one organization.

shuk 88 (photo credit: )
shuk 88
(photo credit: )
"We work like donkeys in the market," were Muhammad's parting words when the interview ended. Walking past a teenager lugging a backbreaking load on his shoulders on my way out of the shuk, Muhammad's turn of phrase seemed pretty appropriate. This is the hidden side of Mahaneh Yehuda - the huge outdoor market in downtown Jerusalem - where dozens of underage Arab children work 12-hour days hauling goods for a pittance. Although the phenomenon is well known, the children have not been sought out by truancy officers or security officials, but neither have the authorities provided them with shelter or schooling. "There is a total lack of manpower and resources when it comes to assistance from the municipality or the Education Ministry," says the manager of Lev Ha'ir Community Council, Uri Amedi, who has spent the past 22 years working in and around the Mahaneh Yehuda market. "They don't view the situation as important enough to spend time on." He says that the army occasionally rounds up the children in the shuk, "but all they do is return them to the checkpoints, and they know that the same kids will be back at the market the next day." The army was unable to comment, but inquiries to the municipality and the Education Ministry appeared to back up Amedi's claims. When asked why the ministry was taking no steps to return the children to school, in accordance with the law, a spokesman from the Education Ministry pleaded ignorance of the situation. "We take the allegations very seriously, and will launch an investigation into the situation," he said. "We would be happy to receive details of the children involved, and then we will work to return them to school." Amedi, however, believes the ministry is fully aware of the situation. The municipality's spokesman asserted that "many of the children do not reside in Jerusalem but rather in areas controlled by the PA. The spokesman added that "the Jerusalem Municipality and the Lev Ha'ir community center have initiated a plan that will enable those children to combine work with studies," referring directly to Amedi's work, and demonstrating that his project is the only assistance being given to the children. IT WAS pouring rain by the time I arrived for my meeting and the market was noticeably less crowded than usual, meaning there was not enough work to go around for the gang of kids seeking employment. Five of them sought shelter from the rain inside the youth club nearby - a converted bomb shelter that is opened for the children several days a week. As they drank coffee and played snooker, they were only too eager to talk about themselves, their work and the circumstances that led them to end up in the market. Anywhere between 40 and 150 underage children work in the market, depending on the season. They perform a variety of menial tasks, such as carting produce to and from the stalls or helping shoppers carry their purchases to their cars - hence their name, "Basket Children." The children - none of whom are Jewish - earn well below the minimum wage, with most of them receiving a mere NIS 8 per hour. It is not unusual for them to work 16 hours a day, and most of them live in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, there are also those who illegally cross army checkpoints to get to work, since they live in villages inside Palestinian-controlled territory. Allah, who is only 15, has eight years of work experience under his belt. His father and three older brothers are all in jail, which means that both he and his younger brother need to work to provide an income for the family. His bright eyes gleam, the lack of stubble on his cheeks a reminder of how young he really is, regardless of how long he has been working. "I don't like the work at all," says Allah, "because we're not paid anything like we're really worth." He typically receives NIS 10 per hour, carrying customers' shopping to their cars or to the bus stop. "Some of the stallholders treat us well, and some don't," he says stoically. But the worst part, he says, is waking up not knowing whether there will be work for him when he gets to the market. "I get up, knock on my friends' doors, and we all travel together to the shuk," he explains. "But we have no idea until we arrive if there'll be anything for us to do or not." Traveling from his village takes anywhere between half an hour and an hour, depending on delays at the army checkpoints. "Most of the problems are on Fridays," Allah says, as it is a day when the IDF typically imposes restrictions on Palestinians coming to Jerusalem to pray. "Some days I don't make it to work at all," he continues, "because the soldiers keep me at the checkpoint and don't let me cross into Israel." He appears very close with the other boys in the club, laughing and joking as they tease their social worker, Jawad Siyam. Himself a former child laborer, Siyam lives in Silwan, bordering the Old City, and used to wash tourists' cars as a way to supplement his family's income. Today, his work is split between the "Basket Children" and those who have come to the end of their spell in the market and are looking for direction in their lives. He gives assistance to those over 18, helping them find permanent work or advising them on national insurance, state benefits and higher education. "Most of the kids come from the awful east Jerusalem school system," says Siyam. "No one cares about them, then they leave school early and lose too much of their childhood working in the market." He adds that some families encourage their children to leave the education system and go out to work, saying that many large families decide to teach half of their offspring, while the others are sent out to bring in an income for the family. For families living in the West Bank, it is often easier - and more financially practical - to send the children out to try to cross the checkpoints, since the adults often find themselves sent back at the border. Allah speaks fondly of Siyam. "He's the first person I've met who wants to help us," he says. "He offers us many things, such as trips and courses. He even uses his own car to help us get around, and will find food for us if we are hungry while we work." Siyam blushes at the praise, but maintains that "my first priority is to protect the children. My second goal is to return them to the education system but, if they won't go, then I try to teach them a bit here." Siyam has organized a two-day trip to Eilat for the children, which they speak about in excited tones. "They have the best girls there [in Eilat]," says one youngster, with a glint in his eye. However, not every child can go, since they have to contribute funds to cover expenses, and not all of them can put aside that kind of money. Allah, for example, says he saves all the money he earns, so that he can hopefully one day leave the market and set up his own business. Another youth says, "I just want to go to the US - there's no future for us here," which draws murmurs of agreement from his friends. "God gives us life, and all we can do is work," says another, with a defeated shrug of his shoulders. They speak nonchalantly about the different ways they circumvent the military as they travel to work each day. "There's always a way through [the wall], you know?" says Allah. "It's just about spending the time doing a huge circuit, till you find the gap." Sporting a bullet head on the end of a necklace, he laughs as he tells of his many arrests by the soldiers. Some of the children are particularly good at snooker, with one boy even entering an adult competition and walking away with an NIS 200 prize. Their skills have been noted by Siyam, who plans to enter them into more tournaments, if the opportunity arises. Watching them at play, they appear to be regular, happy-go-lucky youngsters - until their break is over and they have to head back to work. "We get ripped off a lot," says one child. "We are told we'll be doing eight hours work, then end up doing 12, but only receive money for eight." However, conditions are far better in the shuk than a decade ago, Siyam says, and the reason for this is the tireless work of one dedicated Jerusalemite. "I CAME to make order in the jungle," says Uri Amedi, manager of Lev Ha'ir Community Council, when asked why he has spent the past 22 years working in and around the Mahaneh Yehuda market. "When I first got here, the shuk was the dustbin of the city - all of Jerusalem's convicts, drug addicts and other miscreants were sent to work in the market," Amedi continues, "and I made it my mission to improve the heart of Jerusalem both socially and financially." In 1998, Amedi received a prestigious award from the city, honoring the work he had done during the previous 14 years. He spent the prize money on founding a new project, Yaldei Hasalim (Basket Children), which is still in operation today. The Basket Children organization is run by Amedi and Siyam, and cares for the army of minors who work in the shuk by acting as an intermediary between them and the stall owners, providing counseling services, and maintaining a space where they can meet during breaks or off-hours. There have been some success stories - children who began as "Basket Kids" and went on to become stall owners themselves. However, Amedi says, "if I had all the money in the world, I would give it to the kids to go and learn, rather than pay them more for their work." Amedi speaks of a Muslim woman who recently came to thank him for his efforts, since her son had returned to school, and would now go on to university. Even though there have been funding cutbacks, the project continues to grow, due to the burgeoning needs of the child workers in the shuk. Help has been forthcoming from organizations such as Keren Hayesod and the Jerusalem Foundation, but there is still a shortfall. Amedi vows to continue with his work, "even though I don't know where the money will come from." A religious man with a kippa, he claims that "if you are doing the right thing for people, then the money will come." Amedi says the project has always attracted its share of opposition, even from his own family. His 19-year-old son, currently doing his army service, turned to him and said, "You're bringing up the next suicide bombers." Amedi replied: "Maybe - or I could be preventing them from becoming bombers." He admits that he still struggles to decide which of them is right. He tells the story of a local religious woman who told him "you should work with your own [i.e. Jewish] poor first, before aiding other people's." Amedi's reply centered around the story that is read on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish days. "I told her that we read the tale of Ishmael's banishment, which is where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. I told her that if God heard the boy's cries for help, then I will, too." Amedi is keen to point out that the project is not designed to foster Palestinian-Israeli relations, unlike many other organizations. The primary aim is to look after the welfare of the children working in the shuk, and "every group needs their own identity. They will be stronger as people by strengthening their own sense of identity." There are constant legal issues to overcome for the project, centering around the fact that the children are illegal workers, and thus subject to arrest by the police. Amedi has spoken in the Knesset about the children, when seeking to get the law changed. However, "the law is not enough," he says. "The solution [to the plight of the children] is a human one, not a political one." He blames society for robbing the children of their childhoods - "every kid, Jew or Arab, wants to be a kid - and we need to see them as just kids, nothing more." Through hard work and perseverance, Amedi and Siyam have created a far better atmosphere for the children to work in. "My office used to be just a crate in the market," says Amedi. "I sought out the good people in the shuk, and organized them shop by shop until we had a committee." He adds that because he used to work with the merchants, they trusted him more than they would an outsider trying to rearrange the shuk's structure. He stuck to his two golden rules - "don't be scared of anyone, and don't be too lenient with anyone" - when trying to win the respect of the stallholders. "Through this policy, you honor people, and they will come and be your partners," says Amedi. As long as the children need the work, and come seeking it in the shuk, Amedi and Siyam will be there for them. The Basket Children project is the only one of its kind in Jerusalem, according to Amedi. "The only other place I have heard that operates a similar scheme is in Turkey," he says. In the long term, Amedi sees Jerusalem as a "laboratory" for social experiments that could benefit the whole world. In part due to its rich demographic mix - Orthodox, secular, rich, poor, Arab, Jew - "Jerusalem has the biggest challenges of any city on earth," according to Amedi. "If we can solve Jerusalem's problems, then we can solve any problems in the world."