Baby Formula and Molotov Cocktails: The Day-to-day Struggle of a Tel Aviv Daycare Center for Migrant Kids

Having survived a firebombing, Nigerian woman Blessing Akachukneu's preschool faces further distress as the government prepares to start incarcerating African migrants.

At around 11:00 A.M., in a work day that usually starts five hours earlier and ends by 10:00 P.M., Blessing Akachukneu was preparing for another round of feeding, diaper changing and attempts to play with the migrants' children in the preschool she operates. Some 25 children, most of them a year or two old, crowd into the roughly three-square-meter room in south Tel Aviv. Blessing, 30, is patiently feeding two of them pudding. Around her are all the other children playing, eating and shouting. A girl wearing a flowered skirt and Dora the Explorer T-shirt is blowing her a kiss, and another girl copies her. Blessing smiles and a little kiss-blowing game ensues. "There is happiness in every moment, even when all the children are yelling and crying," she will say about two hours later, during her first break.

There are more than a few moments of grace like this one at Blessing's preschool - those shared by the children, those shared between them and their caregiver, and those that include the dozens of Israelis who have enlisted in the cause and contribute and assist in every way possible to maintain the daycare center. All of this activity takes place against the background of the daily distress experienced by the children and their parents, who came from Sudan and Eritrea and whose entitlement to refugee status is not being seriously considered by Israel. In addition, there is an abiding fear of what might happen once the High Holy Days are over. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has promised that on October 15, the Population and Immigration Authority will begin arresting and incarcerating nationals from the two countries in "residential facilities" - prisons in less laundered jargon, that are now under construction alongside the established Ketziot Prison in the Negev.

The progress of construction will determine the scope of arrests to be made. Deportation to Sudan and Eritrea is not feasible, and the incarceration is intended, as Yishai put it a month ago, to "make the lives of the infiltrators bitter, until they leave."

Five months ago, on the night between April 26 and 27, Molotov cocktails were thrown at three apartments in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, all of them the homes of African migrants. One of the apartments served as Blessing's preschool. She and several children from the daycare who were sleeping with her were not harmed, but heavy damage was caused to the apartment.

According to Tel Aviv municipality estimates, there are about 50 childcare centers for migrant children similar to Blessing's that currently operate in the city. These centers serve a population of over 1,000 children up to age three. According to Yishai's plan, the children - including those born in Israel - can expect soon to be confined with their parents in a tent prison in the desert.

A bottle and a little doll

In the aftermath of the Molotov cocktail attack, Blessing's new daycare center is better protected. Little backpacks with superheroes and cartoon characters on them are hanging by the entrance, and sandals are piled on the floor. In one of the daycare center's three small rooms stand eight cribs. The babies, three months old and up, lie in the cribs for hours on end, not always sleeping, each with a bottle of formula or water and a little doll.

The second room serves as the children's primary playroom. Most of them are two or three years old. Social games, big Lego bricks and toy cars were arranged in boxes when the day began, but it didn't take long for them to be spread across the floor, as at every preschool. There are also a TV and a DVD player. The children's favorite movie, at least the day we visited, was "Adventures of Tarzan in Africa" - an animated movie dubbed into Hebrew, devoid of black characters, which flickers in the background on a practically continuous loop.

The pile of DVDs includes episodes of local Israeli shows: "Rinat Vivio," "Uncle Haim" and "Holiday Play Songs." Placed on specially installed shelves high up on the walls are little mattresses, where the children nap in the afternoon. Some of them bear the names of former owners: Emma, Michal, Uri.

The younger children may be found in the third room, usually when they are taken out of their cribs. At the entrance hangs a large children's blanket that serves as a divider. Volunteers painted the walls of two rooms blue, then added cartoon characters to them. There are toys everywhere, even in the small courtyard that adjoins the apartment, where you find a large dollhouse, kitchen appliances and also a few Hebrew-language children's books, including "We Are All Born Free" - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures."

Blessing came to Israel from Nigeria with her husband three years ago, having escaped a Muslim massacre of Christians. In Nigeria she had worked with young children; that is the only training she has. The Tel Aviv municipality's aid organization for refugees and foreign workers, Mesila, has for several years offered training for daycare workers in the preschools that cater to migrant children. But Blessing hasn't done this training yet. As a rule, there is barely any supervision of these preschools.

In the mornings, there are about 25 children in the daycare, but another 10 or 15 arrive in the afternoon hours. The latter group is a little bit older than the others, and have already begun attending public preschools, kindergartens or first grade. Most of the children here come from single-parent families. Some were born in Israel after their mothers were raped by their Bedouin guides in the Sinai on their way to the border. Some of these mothers sought to find security through new spouses, who do not always have any great interest in caring for or paying for children who are not their own. Most of the mothers work until the late evening hours, and then pick up their children. The latest pick-ups each day are at 10:00 P.M.

Every night, about five children sleep over at the preschool with Blessing and her assistant, Vivian. The reasons vary: their parents found work outside Tel Aviv and only return to the city every few days; their parents work at night, as well; their parents are afraid of xenophobic attacks. In some cases, there is no suitable place at home for the children to sleep because their parents, finding it harder to rent apartments these days, have moved into crowded apartments with other adult migrants. The children who stay overnight sleep on mattresses spread across the playroom floor, and go to their own homes only once or twice a week. Until a few days ago, there was a two-year-old boy at the preschool whose mother brought him in one day, and then vanished. Two months passed before Blessing found out that she had been hospitalized. She asks parents for NIS 500 a month - but not always get it - to care for their children, and slightly more if the kids spend the night. The daycare is not an orphanage, but for a large proportion of the children it constitutes their primary family, practically the only home they have.

Breakfast is a bowl of cornflakes and a hummus or white cheese sandwich. At noon, Vivian puts up a big pot of pasta and tomato sauce. On other days, she prepares meat or rice. After lunch, the children go to sleep, but at around 2:00 P.M. the older kids arrive and sit down to a hot lunch. At 4:00 p.m., everyone gets another sandwich, then dinner is served at 7:00 p.m. It includes hot dogs, corn, vegetables and a variety of sandwiches. The caregivers also have to find the time to look after the little babies, including feeding and bathing.

In the afternoon, Blessing gets together all of the children who don't sleep, sits them down in the little hallway and hands out homemade ice pops. Hassan and Faisal, two first-graders, join the circle of children and sing what they learned at school: "On Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah, a rose blossomed in my garden," and "Next year we will sit on the balcony." Competition for Blessing's attention can be fierce, at times cruel. In the endless race to feed, clean up and straighten up the preschool, she cannot get to each child, and certainly not play with them individually. The language spoken here is a jumble of English and Hebrew. "Don't tarbitz (hit )," she shouts from time to time.

A Molotov at night

Blessing prefers not to elaborate much on the night the Molotov cocktails were thrown at her previous preschool in Shapira. "We were sleeping in the apartment, and didn't know what happened. Only when the firemen were knocking on the door did I see that everything was burning. I can only pray to God that we will not be victims again," she says. Immediately after the attack she'd told Haaretz: "The children understand what happened. They asked 'Why did someone burn everything?' I told them that they wanted to kill us. They asked, 'Why?' And I told them that I don't know."

After the fire-bombing, the owner of the apartment told Blessing to leave the apartment immediately. Following a lobbying effort from various quarters, he agreed to push off the eviction until the end of June. It was then that the search for a new home for the daycare began, with the assistance of a network of Israelis who had been outraged by the arson attack. Blessing and the Israelis soon found out how hard it could be to find an apartment in south Tel Aviv at the height of the early summer incitement campaign against the African migrants. The few apartments offered to them were at very high rents or in deplorable condition, or both.

Four days before the eviction, a new location was finally found, but it was in need of massive renovation. Outside the real estate agent's office, Blessing and her husband stood together with the journalist and biographer Yael Gvirtz. "People were running in the street with bottles of beer in their hands, and were trying to get others to join their demonstration against the foreigners," Gvirtz recalls. "A couple of times they said to me, 'Give us these two.' They were standing there, holding a bag of money in their hands, looking at each another. Blessing's husband said, 'We have to decide what to do: we can take the small amount of savings that we have and save ourselves, or we can stay with the children.' It took them two minutes to decide in favor of the daycare. They were two human beings who made the decision of their lives. It was then that I said we have to help them as much as possible."

A small army of dozens of Israelis, recruited via Facebook, prepared the new daycare center on that last weekend in June. It was a marathon effort that included whitewashing and repainting walls, supplying mattresses, mattress covers, clothes, toys and food. On Saturday night, June 30, the work was done, and Blessing's preschool reopened the following day. A few days later, when her son took ill and she was compelled to be with him, Israeli volunteers took her place until the boy recovered.

The Israeli network continues to provide assistance, including payment of about one-third of the rent, and the ongoing purchase of food and diapers. Not long ago, the aid was extended to two other migrant daycare centers in Tel Aviv.

"Even when she was facing tremendous personal distress, Blessing did not forsake the children, but continued to care for them," says Gvirtz. "Now Yishai is planning to throw them into a prison with substandard conditions. You have to disconnect yourself for a moment from the attitudes toward refugees and 'infiltrators,' and bear in mind that we are talking here about babies and little children. Instead of crushing them and their families, the government should see who is entitled to receive refugee status and can work, and who is not."

"Yishai's decision is simply harrowing," adds attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "These are people who will be thrown into jail because they cannot be deported, after life has been made unbearable for them. The government aggravated their situation, incited the population against them, and now a magic solution has been discovered - imprisoning them in a detention facility for migrants, which will be the largest such facility in the world."

Blessing says she tries hard not to think about the future - neither the distant future, on which she has already given up, or the nearer future. "No one knows if the children and me will be imprisoned tomorrow. I know that I have a skill, of caring for children, and maybe that is also my purpose in life. I pray a lot. That is how I get through, from one day to the next."

Blessing Akachukneu and kids in daycare center.
Daniel Tchetchik