Volunteers surge to help South Tel Aviv kids after soldiers are told to stop
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Volunteers surge to help South Tel Aviv kids after soldiers are told to stop

Activist organization fields dozens of offers after defense minister bans IDF members from working with African migrant children

Children from families of African migrants gather at a so-called day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Children from families of African migrants gather at a so-called day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Activists who campaigned against soldiers coming to volunteer at “baby warehouses” for the children of refugees and migrants in South Tel Aviv may have done the cause a favor, after the organization that organized the trips reports being overwhelmed with requests to volunteer over the past week.

“I think this is the beautiful side of the Israeli society,” said Elifelet founder and director Yael Gvirtz, who said dozens of people have called the organization in the past week to volunteer, and a few have even made donations.

“There was a cynical, political step to use these children for an ulterior motive,” she said.

Elifelet offers support, including donations and food,to more than 650 children in the kindergartens, colloquially called “baby warehouses” because overcrowding is a serious issue. These kindergartens offer affordable childcare options to refugees and migrant workers who often have to work long hours, but there is no oversight from the authorities.

Activist Sheffi Paz, a well-known figure in South Tel Aviv opposed to the presence of African migrants, photographed soldiers volunteering with Elifelet, and Channel 10 also did a story about members of the Military Intelligence unit volunteering in kindergartens in South Tel Aviv.

On August 17, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that soldiers are no longer allowed to volunteer with African migrants. “If soldiers have free time, they should help Holocaust survivors or the needy,” he reportedly told the Israel Defense Forces chief. “Charity should begin at home.”

In an interview with Army Radio praising Liberman’s decision, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan claimed that “none of the 150,000 illegal infiltrators have been categorized as refugees; they don’t need to be extended a helping hand or be pulled out of the sea and saved from drowning.”

UN figures show Israel is home to about 53,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom entered the country illegally through the border with Egypt. Among them, 36,000 are from Eritrea and 14,000 are from Sudan.

Compared with regular childcare, which can cost around NIS 2,500 per month, these “warehouses” cost around NIS 600 per month, with the emphasis on caring for the maximum number of children in order to make a profit.

A woman feeds children from families of illegal African immigrants at a day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A woman feeds children from families of illegal African immigrants at a day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)

On August 17, a year-old child choked at one of these daycare centers in the Neve Shaanan neighborhood. Magen David Adom paramedics arrived after he was already unconscious and rushed him to the hospital in critical condition. The baby died early Tuesday morning. Gvirtz said almost 20 children have died at these kind of daycare centers in the past five years.

Sheffi Paz slammed the army for coming to volunteer in the area. “I don’t want any institution coming to volunteer here. If people come to volunteer privately, we’ll deal with them individually,” said Paz, who is part of a neighborhood watch group called “Otef Tahana Mercazit” (the Central Bus Station Environs) that has utilized controversial tactics such as harassing African children at local playgrounds.

“I met people from all around Israel; they have no idea what’s going on here, why we don’t like these Africans and that it’s a nightmare when they come here,” she said.

“We think the kindergartens are really central to the problem. They are destroying the neighborhood. We think they’re using the kids as a political tool to avoid getting deported,” she said.

Gvirtz, of Elifelet, said Liberman’s decree was “really harmful and dangerous” for the children. For the past three years, at least one group of soldiers has volunteered at the organization each week, usually members of the Educational Corps who are required to do community service as part of the course. Generally the soldiers take the kids out to a park for a few hours so they can get some fresh air.

Illustrative photo of a day-care facility in an apartment in the Shapira neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2012 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a daycare facility in an apartment in the Shapira neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2012 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Elifelet has come in for its own share of criticism, which says that the constantly changing volunteers are detrimental to the children and that the volunteers are not properly vetted. “Tell me, what is better? That children will be inside for the whole day and they won’t do anything, or that a group of soldiers will come, accompanied by our volunteers, who will take them to the park?” she asked.

She said the media coverage has attracted groups of people that generally don’t volunteer with the organization, including soldiers coming on their own private time and volunteers who are more religious. Previously, volunteers came from a “well-known left-wing activism circle” that is generally secular, she said.

She encouraged Paz and her organization to offer an alternative volunteer program for the soldiers. “Their only activities are yelling at us,” she said.

“If the army could use their position to help the neighborhoods in the south rather than just stopping it, there could be a really different outcome.”

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