The public bomb shelter in Kiryat Shmona is in a basement that, during normal times, serves as the Golden Gloves boxing club. There are posters on the walls, boxing gloves scattered here and there, and equipment lying about in the corners. The club, which has already groomed a few local stars, is run by a Russiam immigrant on a volunteer basis.
But lately the shelter is being used for another purpose: Elderly immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States have found refuge there, huddling on the narrow cots, which they hardly ever leave - even during a lulls in the rocket barrages. When there are no Katyushas, the city shudders from incessant mortar fire from Israel Defense Forces positions on the outskirts of town. The local military commander has suggested to Kiryat Shmona Mayor Haim Barbibai that he ask the government to distribute ear plugs to the town's residents.
It would be difficult to find a starker contrast than the power that radiates from the aggressive posters on the walls of the subterranean boxing club, and the weakness of the elderly immigrants crouching beneath them.
The immigrants from the CIS, normally some 23 percent of Kiryat Shmona's population, are at present the overwhelming majority there. The veteran Israelis left long ago for points south. Mostly retired, and with a high proportion of single mothers, the immigrants have nowhere to go and no way of getting there. They do not own cars and are completely dependent on public transportation, which has stopped.
This, however, is not the end of their story: Even with the wave of warm hospitality emanating from families in the center of the country, there is little interest in inviting older folks who do not speak Hebrew into the home. There is also little willingness to absorb single-parent families from "outside the fold."
"The situation stinks," says Anna Vernik, the immigration coordinator at a community center in Kiryat Shmona. "The war sharpens the socioeconomic differences and our structural weakness."
If things are hard for all residents of the north, it's particularly difficult for the immigrants. Their foreignness, their limited command of Hebrew, the lack of a social and family network for them around the country - all these are now additional obstacles, which are not faced by veteran residents. It is not easy being old and sick these days, all the more so if someone is elderly, ailing and an immigrant. It is particularly difficult to be a single parent mother with no "safety net," no aunt in Petah Tikva or nephew who has not been in touch for years, but has now offered to help.
Immigrants have none of these. They are newcomers. Everything is difficult for them. That is why a group of then are stuck in this boxing club-shelter, day and night, preferring it over staying at home, where they have to decide alone whether the horrible "boom" was one of "their" Katyushas or "our" mortars. Even on Friday, in the short lull between attacks, they preferred to stay in the shelter.
Maria Zhitomirsky sits crying. Her husband, a disabled World War II veteran, shuffles around, angry. Rivka Yudin is reading a Sherlock Holmes book, and only her husband, Grigory, says that everything is all right, all we have to do is win the war. He is also certain this is possible.
Abandoned in Tiberias
The situation is similar in Tiberias, Mayor Zohar Oved told Absorption Minister director general Mirale Gal at a meeting last Friday. His report was interrupted by a siren, followed by the tense wait for the landing. Only afterward could the mayor continue explaining the unique situation facing the immigrants in his city, who are sequestered most of the time in shelters, not realizing that others have abandoned them, and the city.
Even without such awareness, which will eventually hit them, a deep feeling of being refugees permeates the shelter in the absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in Tiberias. The shelter, part of which is a converted storage room, now holds some 270 people, half of them children, in a surrealistic atmosphere.
A strange dimness hangs everywhere; the fans scarcely alleviate the stifling heat and the oppressive crowdedness. The shelter's single television blares the latest news in Hebrew. Gadi, a veteran immigrant, translates for those whose sense of isolation increases their anxiety.
One group in the shelter only arrived in Israel on July 6, barely a week before the war erupted on their new doorstep. Theresa Mutoko and her two daughters spent seven years in the transit camp in Addis Ababa. "It was harder there," she says. "There was no war, but we wanted to come here so much. Here they are taking care of us. God is taking care of us."
Perhaps there is something in her words. While we were conversing in the cramped shelter, a Katyusha landed in the empty soccer field at an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in Haifa. The building was damaged, but no one was hurt.
Apart from divine providence, there are some individuals and organizations that are helping the newcomers. Indeed, immigrants who live in concentrated groupings in apartments or absorption centers are in better shape than others. Here there are support systems close at hand. The others, tens of thousands of residents of the north, are all alone. One elderly couple from Carmiel, for example, were alone in a building that was hit until they were discovered by Deputy Mayor Rina Greenberg, who moved them in with another local family.
"The immigrants have a special problem," she explains, drawing on her own rich experience. "The Soviet regime taught them not to trust and not to rely on anyone. So they don't trust anyone here either. Sometimes it is hard to overcome that lack of trust."
Refuge in the Gush
Some 200 immigrants from Carmiel are currently staying in Gush Etzion. Some are being housed in the dormitories of hesder yeshivas (which combine army service and religious studies), while others are being hosted by families. Suddenly "the territories" are a safe haven.
Svetlana and Maxim Packard, along with their three-year-old son Igor, arrived in Israel to settle in Carmiel just a week before the fighting began. "Everything happens in life," they say philosophically, thankful to their hosts in Gush Etzion, who are enveloping them with love.
As time goes by, some problems worsen, while others disappear. A week into the fighting, the Home Front Command appointed a Russian-speaking spokesman to relay information to Reka, the radio station broadcasts in Russian. The Absorption Ministry has also found a way to transfer payments to new immigrants, even though its offices in the north are closed.
But what about the elderly cardiac patient recently released from hospital after an operation, alone now in Kiryat Shmona without his medication? Or the fact that the Russian-language newspapers are not reaching their readership, adding further to their feelings of isolation. Where will the money be found for some fun outing for children who have not had a break from the furor and noise, and are too shell-shocked to go anywhere without their parents?
While traveling from one Katyusha-damaged town to another, Gal searches for immediate solutions to these problems. Every time she solves one, another crops up in its place. The municipalities, which are actually functioning very impressively, are now beginning to collapse under the burden, and sometimes from the complaints.
There are some towns in which the veteran residents are envious of the aid being extended to the immigrants. In mixed Jewish and Arab towns, the help given to the immigrants bothers the Arabs.
Even the feeling of a shared fate and the impressive wave of volunteerism cannot dispel the constant social tensions that still exist, and which may actually be the only remnants of normalcy left.
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