Who Will Save the Refugee Children of Tel Aviv?

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Children wake up from a nap at the Unitaf day-care center in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood, April 2, 2015.Credit: Ariel David

It’s nap time at the Unitaf day care center in Tel Aviv’s working-class Hatikva neighborhood. Dozens of asylum seekers’ children are peacefully asleep in their playpens or on little mattresses. Then, a caregiver starts playing the kids’ song “Hashafan Hakatan” (“The Little Rabbit”) and the toddlers are roused from their afternoon slumber, well rested and ready for more games and adventures – after a quick diaper change, of course.

These young refugees are blissfully unaware of the tragedies that have involved some of their peers recently, and the ensuing outcry over the conditions at other day care centers providing for the asylum seekers living and working in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Five infants have died in the last two months – including two within 48 hours late last month – due to apparent neglect at crowded, makeshift nurseries in the area. Rights groups have been flagging dozens of such cases over recent years, but the spate of deaths finally appears to have pushed state and city officials into action.

The government is set to allocate 56 million shekels ($14.2 million) over four years to build day care centers for the children of refugees. They will be based on the model implemented by Unitaf, a municipality-backed organization that works to establish state-of-the-art preschools run by members of the migrant community.

Established in 2005, the organization’s centers now provide day care services for some 160 infants aged 0-3, as well as afterschool programs for another 140 children up to age 6. However, that’s still not enough for the estimated 2,200 children who go to some 70-80 unsupervised, makeshift day cares, said social worker and Unitaf director Maya Peleg.

These pirate preschools – also known as “babysitters” in the community – are often run in private homes, in unsanitary conditions, with few and untrained staff members, poor food, and no toys or proper equipment, Peleg told Haaretz during a visit to Unitaf’s centers on Thursday.

“It’s a simple economic matter,” she explained. “They want to make money, so they take fewer workers, no equipment and more children.”

An unlicensed 'babysitter' facility in south Tel Aviv, March 30, 2015. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

There are an estimated 40,000 refugees in Israel. Most fled war, genocide or persecution in Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries, and now live in impoverished conditions in south Tel Aviv. Israeli authorities have so far failed to process most asylum requests, so the refugees, without a work permit, must eke out a living doing menial and temporary jobs.

Refugee parents cannot afford private day care centers, which can cost around 3,000 shekels per month, and instead are forced to turn to the “babysitters” – who take in children for as little as 500 shekels per month. In their overcrowded centers, the ratio of caregiver to child is around 1 to 15, compared with a national average of around 1 to 6, said Peleg.

Infants are often left in their cribs, unsupervised and neglected, for the entire day, or more if the parent has taken a job out of town and fails to pick the child up in the evening.

In some cases, since there are not enough caregivers to give them food individually, toddlers are fed by tying a bottle to their heads – a technique that caused a 4-month-old baby girl to suffocate in one of the recent deaths.

Even when it doesn’t end in tragedy, this neglect can seriously impair the children’s emotional, physical and motor skills, cautioned Peleg.

Unitaf was created by Mesila, the municipal aid agency that deals with the needs of foreign refugees. It doesn’t run the day cares itself, but helps the women who manage the unsupervised centers to bring their centers up to code.

The babysitters – mostly longtime immigrants from West Africa – are invited to transfer their day care into well-equipped facilities provided by the municipality. They are trained, supervised and supported by Unitaf’s staff of social workers, volunteers and educators. They also must adhere to a set of standards, such as maintaining a low caregiver-to-children ratio, but they continue to run the preschool on their own: they pay the bills, collect fees from parents, hire and manage the staff.

Today, there are seven Unitaf day cares and five afterschool centers located in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station and the Shapira and Hatikva neighborhoods. Charging fees of around 800 shekels per month, they provide services not just for children but for the entire family, running parents’ committees and offering courses on education and health.

“It’s a unique model that works well both socially and economically,” noted Peleg. “We transform the babysitters into teachers; we provide a safe and stimulating environment for the children; and we educate the parents.”

Helping the improvised babysitters improve their services is better than just shuttering the day cares, added Peleg.

“When you shut one down, another springs up, and you don’t even know where it is,” she said. “You need to offer alternatives.”

Smiling children

Amenlem, a mother of four from the Ivory Coast who has lived in Israel for 14 years, was the first babysitter to start working under Unitaf’s supervision, 10 years ago.

“When you work alone you are independent, you are in your own house and have authority over everything,” she told Haaretz. “But working with Unitaf is better, because the children get access to what they need, to the right number of people they need to take care of them,” she added. “And you get an educational background and, most importantly, you get to see the children smile.”

The 40-year-old teacher noted that “the children develop better, they feel at home, they are not afraid. They know that even if they make a mistake, they will be taught, not hit.”

A caregiver prepares to change a baby at the Unitaf day care center in the Hatikva neighborhood, Tel Aviv, April 2, 2015. Photo by Ariel David

Amenlem, who asked that her last name not be used, now supervises the Unitaf day cares that are spread around the Central Bus Station area. She attributed the latest deaths to the sharp increase in the number of day care centers run by untrained and unsupervised women.

“We have a lot of babysitters now, and a lot of them don’t have the spirit of, ‘I do this because I love the children, but because I love money.’ And when you put money ahead of everything, you will never succeed,” she said.

There are hundreds of children on waiting lists for Unitaf’s day care centers, said Peleg, and many babysitters are eager to work with the organization. But for now, the group’s budget – aside from the municipality-donated locations – is entirely dependent on private donations and there is no money to open new centers, she said. It is still unclear whether any of the new government funds will be channeled through Unitaf itself.

Peleg would not comment on the government’s increasing efforts to imprison or deport asylum seekers living in Israel, but said that as long as their children remain here, the country must provide them with high standards of care. “Otherwise, the country will have to pay much more in the future as a consequence of the damage that is being done to these children,” she warned.

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