The children in our midst

With immigration police at the door, dozens of daycare centers around Tel Aviv - for foreign children - operate in substandard conditions.

daycare 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, Meir Maman)
daycare 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, Meir Maman)
From the street, nothing distinguishes this particular apartment building from the other equally dreary ones in South Tel Aviv. But as you approach the door of one of the ground-floor apartments you hear them - children's voices. Yelling, crying, laughing. Snippets of broken English and Hebrew both float through the barred, curtained window. I ring the doorbell and the door swings open, as if by magic. I look down and see that it has been opened by one of the kids who spends her afternoons there, at this nameless gan (kindergarten) run by a Filipino immigrant and her husband in their small, two-bedroom apartment. The school - really, it's more of a daycare center - has kids of all ages, from babies who spend the whole day there to school-aged children who spend their mornings in Israeli schools and their afternoons in this tiny apartment near the Central Bus Station. Some days there are as many as 20 children there, others there are as few as 10. "Shalom!" I say, doing my best to muster a cheerful voice. Every week, it's a shock to see the nursery school's condition; every week, it's a fight for me to be upbeat. She smiles shyly. "Ma nishma (how are you doing)?" I ask her. She smiles again, this time a little bit more warmly. "Beseder (fine)?" She nods and then throws her arms around me. I give her a tight squeeze and let her go. She runs into the next room. "Tita!" I hear her say, "Mya's here!" Tita - which means "aunt" in Tagalog - is what the kids call their metapelet, the woman who cares for them on a daily basis. I put my purse down on the couch in the small room that serves as their kitchen, dining room, and living room. I take off my shoes and tuck them under the couch with the kids' strewn-about pairs with Velcro straps and cheerful images. But the images in the gan are not so cheerful. The room where the children spend their time is very small, probably 2.5 by 4 meters square. With cribs lining the walls on either side of her - three on the left-hand side, four on the other - Tita sits in a plush but worn recliner by the door, gently bouncing and cooing to a baby in her lap, watching over the room. The room is bereft of the usual signs of children. There are no toys scattered about, nothing to provide enrichment for the young minds. On the opposite wall, next to the open window, there is an entertainment stand. The TV is blasting a Disney cartoon. The children - some in cribs, some on the dirty, carpeted floor - don't really pay attention, save for one dark-headed boy who stares up at the colorful scenes on the TV, and the sounds coming from the cartoon just add to the din. The worn cotton curtain, pink and threadbare, breathes with the wind that passes through the window's bars. It's snack time - most of the kids have just woken up from their nap - and they're munching on Bamba and cookies. Tita's got her hands full with the baby, and the kids are on their own. The younger ones are confined to cribs - sometimes two to a crib - and the older kids sit on the floor, where they eat the pieces of the food they've dropped onto the carpet. I move aside the sheet that serves as a door to an adjoining room, where some of the older kids are still napping on the double bed Tita sleeps on at night. I step into the dark room and see five kids crowded onto the bed, then back out quietly, so as not to wake them. Some of the children are saying my name, some are saying "down," and some simply stand with their arms outstretched, fingers straining. Some of them whine as they reach for me. No matter how they choose to communicate it, the message is the same - they want and need attention and love. One by one, I start to lift them up and out of their cribs. "Mya! Shalom, Mya!" one of the children calls to me. She's just turned five and spends her day at an Israeli gan and her afternoons at Tita's. "Shalom, Marrria!" I say, trilling my r. She laughs in delight at our private joke. It started months ago when she taught me a Hebrew word and I'd mirrored her slight Tagalog accent, including the trilled r. She'd let loose a spectacular, joyous laugh. Now I always roll the r in her name. Many of the kids don't speak Tagalog or have names that reflect their Christian background. While all of the children at the gan are of Filipino descent, many of them have Israeli names and speak only English and Hebrew at home. "How was your day, Marrrri?" I ask her as I lift the most restless of the toddlers up and out of their cribs. Some of them have spent the entire day in their crib and their eyes are trained on my hands. They grow more insistent with every other child I take out. One of the boys is starting to climb out of the crib himself. I rush over to him - he's halfway out already, straddling the bars. He's teetering precariously and I grab him. "Beseder," Mari replies. "You went to school this morning?" "Ken (yes)," she says, munching on Bamba. "And what did you do today?" Mari launches into a lengthy Hebrew explanation. She does what kids do when they've got a lot to say - there's that happy lilt at the end of her voice, like every sentence is ending with a question mark. Her Hebrew is better than mine, so I stop her now and again and double-check my English translations with her. When I don't understand her, she repeats what she said again, slowly. Sometimes it clicks, "Ah!" I say, and then I translate into English. "Ken," she confirms when I'm right. When I just don't understand, she gives up and switches to English. And then she continues, with dogged determination, to speak to me in Hebrew. "What will we do today?" Mari asks me. Every week, I come to the gan with an activity. This is an important part of my visit, because this is typically the only structured activity the kids get. This week, I've brought large Lego-type building blocks. One week, I brought English books to read to the kids. One of the older boys regarded them tentatively. He is seven years old and he goes to Israeli school during the day and comes to the gan in the afternoon. The first afternoon I spent at the gan, he asked me repeatedly in disbelief, "You're going to be here every Sunday?" On the day I brought English books, he took one from me and opened it, leafing through the pages. "Can you read it?" I asked him. "A little." "Okay. Let's try together," I said. We sat on the floor together, and painstakingly went through the words, one by one. Eventually, he closed the book and sighed. He looked up at me. "Can you bring me books in Hebrew?" It is a challenge to find an activity that will keep both toddlers and school-age children engaged. They have different needs and different desires. Some just want to be held - I am always amazed by how much the children want physical affection. They want to be touched, they want to sit on someone's lap. So, each week, we spend some time just being together. I talk to the older kids. I take the toddlers out of their cribs and I hug them. Week after week, it is clear to me that Tita is doing the best she can. It's also clear to me from the way she interacts with the children that she cares deeply for them. But being only one woman with as many as 20 kids to deal with at a time, she can only do so much. Sometimes the parents drop the kids off at seven in the morning and don't return until eight or nine at night. Tita can keep up with only their physical needs; she can only ensure their physical safety. THIS IS the story of one gan, and there are 30 such currently receiving volunteers and other help from the organization Mesila - Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The gans' conditions are very poor, sometimes shocking. Often, the apartments - always the home of the metapelet - are not suitable for children. Usually, there's no basic equipment - chairs, tables, or bathrooms. In the worst cases, the gans pose safety and health hazards. One had no indoor toilet. I saw this one - an African gan, with the bathroom outside the apartment, in a dark hallway near the stairs. But what I saw was the improved version. Initially, the woman had no access to the hallway toilet, as her lease didn't include it. At night, she was living alone in a cement block of a room, with no sink or running water; by day, she was running a gan there. All the gans are very crowded and the days are long. Typically, one woman cares for 20, sometimes 30, kids. It's chaotic. There is no daily routine; in the best cases, the structure revolves around feeding and changing. There are no activities for the children. Many spend entire days of their formative years in their cribs, their young minds getting no stimulation during the period in which they need it the most. Their physical safety is guaranteed, but their intellectual well-being is at risk. Many of the metaplot are illegal immigrants. They've fled dire circumstances, seeking refuge and a better life in Israel. The money they make caring for children - $100-150 a month per child - is their lifeline. Mesila, which receives about half its funding from the city and a significant portion from the American-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, offers services to foreign workers and immigrants from around the world. When confronted with a "new" gan, the first issue the organization tackles is the physical condition and safety concerns the apartment may present. Each gan that Mesila works with receives at least one volunteer. These volunteers usually spend one afternoon a week at a gan, spending time with the kids and engaging them in some sort of structured activity. Once a year, Mesila, in cooperation with Seminar Hakibbutzim, offers training for the women who run the gans. Recently, Mesila has begun a pilot project of pedagogical tutors in five of the gans. The tutors give weekly on-the-job training to the women who run them, teaching them about communication, nutrition, and the importance of a daily routine. ONE WEEK, I went to Tita's and I was met with tight lips and a stony silence. Usually she's talkative, so I knew something was wrong. I could feel a weight in the air. I could feel the tension. I asked Tita how she was doing, if everything was okay. Finally, she spoke: "The immigration police were here last week. They came at one o'clock in the morning," she told me. "They asked for our papers, they searched the apartment," she waved her hand around the room. "They turned everything upside down. They said they were looking for drugs." With this last sentence, her expression changed from irritation to indignation. "My husband and I are scared to be caught together. He is sleeping every night in the car now." Tita, who has been in Israel for nine years, sends money back to the Philippines to support her own 19-year-old daughter and grandchildren. She also has a five-year-old daughter, Yael, who was born here. Yael, who speaks Hebrew and celebrates Jewish holidays, was woken up in the middle of the night - by immigration police in her own home. And while Yael is not now in danger of being deported - the government does not deport children - she might be deported as an adult if she does not gain legal status. What will happen to Yael if she is cast out of Israel? She would be sent to the Philippines - a country she has never been to. A country that is not her home. ONE EVENING, I leave the gan and I pass a group of Filipinas on the street. They chatter away in Tagalog. They appear no different than any other Filipinas I've walked by hundreds of times everywhere in the city. With one exception - one of the women is wearing a delicate silver necklace with a silver star of David. What does this symbol mean on the neck of this particular person? It is unlikely that she was born Jewish; the vast majority of Filipinos are Roman Catholics. Has she converted to Judaism? Or does she wear the Magen David as a symbol of Israel - her adopted home? What about the children, like Yael, who are born here and who know Israel as their only home? These children are growing up immersed in the Hebrew language and Israeli culture. Does this make them Israeli? The slippery slope of identity is a complex issue, both for individuals and the nation. What makes one Israeli? And on a national level, what is important to Israel's identity as a nation? Do we struggle to preserve a Jewish state whether or not our reality is in synch with that? And in this struggle, do we deny Israeli citizenship and basic human rights to children who grow up here and who are more Israeli than I - a Jew from the Diaspora - will ever be? Do we want the world to see us as a country that deprives children of citizenship and a place in the world? If Israel chooses to turn a blind eye to their plight, what will happen when these children become adults and find themselves disenfranchised and marginalized in their home country, but with nowhere else to go? Whether or not official demographics reflect their presence, the Filipinos - and other foreign workers - are here. Their children are here. Whether or not demographics reflect it, these children are Israeli. And as such, they deserve the acknowledgment of and help from Israel and its citizens. To donate or volunteer, contact Mesila at: (03) 687-9727.