Living in the Margins An Israeli High School Student Struggling to Provide for Her Family

Like most high school students, Maya is facing matriculation exams. But unlike her peers, she is too busy earning money for her family to find time to study.

Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai
Orly Vilnai

Yesterday, the 17-year-old high school student took the matriculation exam in physical education. Tomorrow the history exam awaits her. But she doesn't have time to study. Her daily routine isn’t like that of her friends. On her back she carries the burden of supporting her family, motivated by the strong desire to help her father and relieve the distress at home a bit.

“I’ve been through difficult years with my father and I only want to see him happy,” says the girl, who we will call Maya. “I have to help. I have to save my father and the situation at home.”

It all began in 2002. Maya's father was working in the kitchen of a large hotel in central Israel when his finger was cut off by a food conveyor belt from which the safety protector had been removed by mistake. The nervous system in his hand was damaged and when the pain did not subside he was diagnosed with reflex sympathy dystrophy syndrome, a chronic pain condition that erupts mostly after an injury. It means insufferable pain, disproportionate to the injury.

It turns out the hotel that employed her father had not purchased personal accident insurance for him and therefore he became dependent on the National Insurance Institute. For five years Maya’s parents fought for the institute to recognize his disability. The NII did eventually concede that a disability existed, but the syndrome itself does not appear on its list of definitions (which for the most part were formulated in the 1950s), and therefore it struggled to figure out how to provide compensation.

Only after her parents came before a public committee headed by a judge was her father granted a 90 percent disability as a result of a work accident, which meant a stipend of about NIS 6,000 that allowed the family a decent existence.

“For 12 years my father was at home,” says Maya, “suffering from horrible pain and being treated with medical marijuana and narcotics. As the years went by his psychological state deteriorated.”

An industrious person accustomed to working all his life, Maya's father suddenly found himself facing not only sharp pain, but long, empty days at home. He sank into a depression. His wife and daughters threw themselves into persuading him to return to work, and eventually he decided to try.

“Last year, in an attempt to rehabilitate himself, my father managed to open a small butcher shop in Rishon Lezion, after a lot of effort and with the help of loans, while he was still suffering from pain. He is an honest citizen, so he informed the NII of this.”

The NII sent an investigator and then sent a letter declaring that his stipend would be cut off. But Maya's father was still grappling with terrible pain, and he missed many days of work. The business failed. The family sunk into debt, took on a huge loan to pay off that debt, and realized that the dream of standing on their own had vanished.

Maya’s father went back to the NII and asked them to recognize his disability once again. The condition remained unchanged, and he brought his doctor to testify, but she was not allowed to enter the committee meetings. The family requested a pain specialist be present on the committees, but they were rebuffed.

The NII approved him for only a 28 percent disability agreement.

A 28 percent disability means a stipend of NIS 1,132 per month and even that has been seized by the NII as have his monthly child stipends (Maya has a 14-year-old sister). The problem is that her father has been deemed capable of working, so the NII is demanding back payments for their previous handouts.

“We are in a very difficult economic situation,” Maya says. “My mother is the sole breadwinner at the moment and I – who throughout the whole period of the matriculation exams have had to work – am still not earning enough to really make a difference in the situation. My father’s mental state is continuing to deteriorate and now the economic situation is adding to this. He is in a deep depression. And in addition to that there is the pain from the terrible syndrome.”

Maya’s mother is a municipal worker and earns NIS 6,000 a month. She works a ton of overtime so that she can pay the mortgage every month and not fall behind on debts, but after paying all the bills there is nothing left for her family.

“We have worked all our lives, we aren’t the kind of people who live off stipends,” says the mother. “We are working people. We don’t complain. But I don’t really know how to go on. My daughter is working so hard. She cries when she does not earn enough. To my immense sorrow, she is carrying the burden of supporting an entire family on her back."

Maya’s family is not asking for charity. They are only seeking what they are entitled to. If the NII recognized the father’s disability originally, why don't they anymore? If he was entitled to compensation for the work accident, why has it stopped? And why is the system that is supposed to be there precisely for such situations – to give support when there is a fall – once again turning out to be a broken reed?

“I'm only 17," Maya says. "I don’t have any way to fight or to help, other than working as much as I can, but everyone can see that this situation doesn’t really make sense. We don't have the basic quality of life that Israeli has promised to all its citizens."

The NII, for their part, say that they determined how much disability to grant Maya's father “relative to the physical damage and to the fact that at the time he had lost the ability to work in his trade as a butcher," they said in a statement. "In the wake of an opinion of an NII doctor it was decided on an examination to determine his current medical condition. In March of 2012 he was sent a notice of the re-opening of his medical file, because he had returned to work in his trade. Moreover we informed him that he had been filmed using both hands with full functioning."

The NII added that after learning Maya's father had returned to work, they called him before a medical committee and decided to downgrade the severity of his condition. He appealed, and the degree was raised to 28 percent in October 2012.

"He has the right to appeal to the Labor Court and he has chosen not to do so," the statement said.

The National Insurance Institute.Credit: Lee Kurzweil

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