A woman at an NII office in Rahat. Arabic speakers face obstacles.
Woman at NII office, which dispenses state assistance, in Bedouin town Rahat, one of country's poorest locales.. Photo by Alberto Denkberg
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Hajida does not know how to read and write Hebrew. She also has trouble explaining herself in that language. Since Hajida, 50, got a divorce from her battering husband and moved with her 14-year-old daughter to Haifa, she has been living on her National Insurance Institute stipend.

But when she comes to the NII office, she says, "They'd talk to me and I have no idea what they wanted from me. They'd send me to get some document and I'd bring the wrong one and then came the run-around again. I have vision problems and back pains. They send me letters and make demands and there's no one to explain to me in Arabic what I have to do."

The misunderstandings meant delays in receiving her NII stipend and welfare, her only sources of income.

Kidma Hevratit (Social Advancement ), a group that provides assistance and legal aid to the city's Arabs, receives dozens of inquiries each week from welfare recipients who cannot receive services from the NII because of language difficulties.

According to attorney Jumana Ighbaria Hamam, coordinator of a rights project in the association, the lack of Arab language assistance is widespread "especially among the weaker sectors of the Arab community, the elderly and women."

Hamam says the situation is "the result of an institutionalized policy directed [against] the language of the Arab minority, although it is recognized by law as an official language."

There are approximately 30,000 Arab residents in Haifa, some 11 percent of the city's population.

The NII said: "There are 200 Arab clerks working at NII branches, of which 10 Arabic speakers work in Haifa. The security chief speaks Arabic and is called on when necessary.

Most of Haifa's Arabs speak Hebrew and receive service in the front office, like everyone else. When needed, volunteers from the counseling service for the elderly help."

Hamam says that while most of Haifa's Arabs may speak Hebrew, that is not the case for the poorer, less educated members of the community. Moreover, it turns out that none of the 10 clerks in the Haifa branch work with the public. And calling in the security guard to help translate is a violation of their privacy.

"Some things are between me and the authorities, which I don't want anyone else to know about. It's embarrassing," Suzanne, 31, who has had to have the security chief translate for her at the Haifa NII branch, says.

The NII also said: "The Haifa branch has recently hired Arabic-speaking clerks for its various departments as needed. But if it is possible to hire additional workers, the management will give priority to speakers of Arabic and other languages, in keeping with Civil Service regulations."