Woman Brought Over by Israel to Raise Her Orphaned Nephews Faces Deportation

'My problem is only that I’m not Jewish. But does that mean I’m not a human being?' asks Elsa Kodrashova.

Elsa Kodrashova with her nephews at home in Haifa.
Gil Eliahu

Israel is refusing to grant resident status to a woman 14 years after it summoned her from Russia to raise her two Israeli-born nephews after her sister died.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority recently turned down the woman’s residency application, and its reply suggests it intends to deport her once the younger nephew turns 18, in six months.

Elsa Kodrashova, 53, recalls the day that changed her life abruptly. It was March 8, International Women’s Day, in 2002.

“I was with my daughter at my mother’s, celebrating,” she recalls that day in Siberia. They telephoned Kodrashova’s sister in Israel, Margarita, to wish her happy holiday.

“Other people answer us. We ask where’s Rita? They say Rita’s dead. Mother fell on the floor. So did Father.”

Margarita immigrated to Israel in 1991 with her husband Alexander, who was entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return. Their two boys were born here. In 2000 Alexander died of a heart attack and two years later Rita also died suddenly. The children, aged 3 and 6, were orphaned with no relatives in Israel.

The Israeli authorities contacted Kodrashova and asked her to come to Israel urgently to look after her nephews.

“Kodrashova was called by social services to look after the children after their mother died,” the Haifa municipality wrote in a letter. Kodrashova rushed to Moscow, got a passport and the Israeli consulate issued her a visa. She landed in Israel a week after her sister died.

Since then she has been raising the children. They both call her mother. She left her only daughter, aged 19 at the time, her parents, home and work. Despite this, Israel refuses to give her a permanent status and has issued her a temporary foreign worker’s visa, which must be renewed every six or 12 months.

“I never dreamed of leaving Russia,” Kodrashova tells Haaretz. “I had a life, a job, friends, family, everything.”

She planned to take her sister’s boys back to Siberia and raise them there. “But for a whole month the kindergarten teachers, social worker, all the neighbors told me not to take the children to Russia. They all kept telling me that in a year or two I’d get citizenship,” she says.

Kodrashova and her nephews live in Haifa. The elder boy is a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. His brother, an outstanding athlete who represents Israel in international competitions, will graduate high school this year. Kodrashova cleans houses to support the family.

“To me, Elsa is my mother,” the younger son says. “She’s been my mother ever since I can remember myself. It will be hard for me in the army if she’s not here. We’re afraid she’ll leave and we’ll be left alone.”

Kodrashova’s visa permits her to work. But in the absence of permanent status she was unable to become the children’s legal guardian. She is not entitled to government health insurance, and must pay for any medical expenses out of pocket. She was allowed to open a bank account but not to have a credit card.

She has no pension, and over the years she has spent thousands of shekels to renew her work visa every six or 12 months.

Had Kodrashova been the children’s biological mother, she would have received resident status, even though she is not Jewish. The immigration agency grants this status to the parents of immigrant soldiers who are otherwise ineligible for citizenship, and they can undergo naturalization later. But Kodrashova is not eligible under the terms of this protocol.

In October 2012 Kodrashova applied to regularize her immigration status for the first time, but received no response from the immigration authority. In May 2013, after three additional attempts and threats to take legal action, her case was submitted to an interministerial committee with a request to receive resident status on humanitarian grounds. She attached recommendations from social workers and other officials and the boys’ school.

In December 2014 her request was denied. The authority said she’d been given a visa to stay with her nephews while they were minors. “At the end of this period her status will be examined according to the relevant circumstances,” the reply said.

Fearing deportation, Kodrashova appealed to the Law Review Tribunal in Jerusalem, through the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s legal aid department.

“This is a rare case in which a foreign national was asked by Israel to sacrifice her personal life and move to Israel to look after minor relatives, Israeli citizens, who had been orphaned,” wrote attorneys Nicole Maor and Naomi Kassel in the appeal.

The tribunal ordered the Immigration Authority to reexamine Kodrashova’s application. She and the boys were summoned for interviews. Some three weeks ago her request was denied again.

“Most of the applicant’s affiliations are to her state of origin,” the response says. The interministerial committee “considered the applicant’s steady ties to her nephews... but these facts provide no justification to upgrade her status in Israel,” it says.

“It’s incredible that the state asks a woman to put her life on hold in order to come here and raise her orphan nephews, then tells her you’re a foreign worker, the children are grown, we don’t need you anymore,” Maor says.

“In August [the younger boy] will be 18. They say they don’t need me anymore. As though they don’t need a mother anymore,” says Kodrashova. They’ve already lost their parents. Must they lose their mother again? I’m their family... Have these people no heart? My problem is only that I’m not Jewish. But does that mean I’m not a human being?”