For four months, Sofia (a pseudonym), 39, has suffered from deep anxiety. She wakes at 5 A.M. every day for her commute to Tel Aviv, where she works two consecutive shifts, until 10 P.M. Twice a week she spends time with her son, who is 10.
“We go to a movie, to the beach or just sit and talk,” she says, her eyes shining. “Those are my little moments of happiness.
For years she could only dream of even momentary happiness. Sofia was a victim of human trafficking, brought to Israel under false pretenses for sex work. Only after a long period of being traded between pimps, forced to provide sexual services, did she extricate herself from that world and establish a family.
Now, the fragile fabric of the life she managed to weave is unraveling. After years of trying to settle her status in Israel, four months ago her request for residency status was denied; she would have to return to her native Russia and leave her son here with his father. Because she is appealing, she is allowed to remain for now, but without legal status and without much hope.
Sofia’s story is painful and complicated. When she was 17 her father had a stroke and the family was thrown into economic turmoil; they sold their home and were left with nothing. When she was 19 she answered a newspaper ad promising $1,000 a month for taking care of old people abroad. She was given a choice of going to Germany, Turkey or Israel; when she chose Israel she was promised a plane ticket and good conditions. She was instructed to say, when she arrived, that she had come for a vacation in Eilat. “I was young and didn’t imagine it was all an act,” she says.
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She arrived in 1999, when trafficking in women in Israel was at its height. Her first “bosses” forced her to provide sexual services for an escort service in Bat Yam. Later she was “sold” to the owner of a brothel in Tel Aviv.
“We were trapped,” she said. “We were six women, victims of trafficking, and we each had 30 johns a day. A client would pay 150 to 200 shekels ($40 to $50), and of that I got 10.” From the money she brought in, however, the trafficker sent $1,000 a month to her family so they wouldn’t get suspicious. At some point the trafficker opened a classier brothel in Be’er Sheva, and Sofia was sent there.
The police raided the brothel several times, but the drill always repeated itself — arrest, a short stay in lockup and release — to the pimp who held her prisoner. Eventually she was sold to a third trafficker, based in Eilat, where she worked for six months. “It was a catastrophe,” she says. “Twenty years have passed, but to this day I have post-trauma and fears. You can’t ever really get past it,” Sofia says.
She managed to escape from Eilat to Tel Aviv with the help of a man who helped several prostitutes there escape that life. But when she got to Tel Aviv, she had to start from scratch, not knowing the language and without a passport or other identification.
“She didn’t know she could request protection as a victim of human trafficking,” says Galit Lubetzky, a lawyer who represents Sofia and her family. “Anyway, after the police previously returned her to her pimps, she didn’t believe she could trust the authorities to help her.”
After settling down in Tel Aviv, Sofia met Nadav (also a pseudonym), a native-born Israeli, and the two fell in love and married. “I didn’t know then that she was a human-trafficking victim,” he says. “To survive the trauma she suppressed it, she didn’t share it with me.” It was only after she suffered postpartum depression after the birth of their son, “that it all came out. To this day I have a hard time hearing what she went through. It’s inhuman.”
Shortly after they married they began applying to regularize her status. She received a temporary residence visa which she renewed from time to time.
When they moved from Tel Aviv, the Interior Ministry decided to move their file to ministry offices in Hadera. They soon learned that the file was lost, and never arrived. In addition, Sofia and Nadav say, the Hadera office director at the time, Moshe Hazut, was very hostile. He claimed their marriage was fictitious, Nadav says, and told Sofia that she’d never live in Israel.
“We were in shock,” Nadav recalls. “In [the Tel Aviv office] they recognized our relationship was genuine and real, and to suddenly hear something so rude and out of nowhere was aggravating and also caused Sofia to collapse emotionally and withdraw, and her mental state seriously deteriorated.”
In 2011 the situation got worse; Sofia’s emotional state continued to deteriorate and Nadav, who had been a well-to-do businessman, went bankrupt. As the two were struggling financially, Sofia had a psychotic episode during which she tried to commit suicide. She also went to the Interior Ministry and declared that she wanted to leave Israel. The process of dealing with her status was halted and she was admitted to a mental hospital. Upon her release she flew to Russia in an effort to recover.
The break helped somewhat and she returned to Israel determined to finalize her status once and for all; the couple submitted a new request in 2014. But because Sofia was still emotionally unstable, she and Nadav decided to separate. Under their agreement, their son remained in his father’s custody; Sofia sees him twice a week and they maintain close contact. After the separation, they informed the Interior Ministry of the change.
“From that moment I’ve been excluded from the process and they haven’t allowed me to help Sofia, the mother of my son,” says Nadav.
Now that she was no longer the partner of an Israeli and had never been recognized as a trafficking victim, Sofia’s request was shifted to a different track; she was referred to a humanitarian committee, which is meant to deal with situations that aren’t defined in the law. She was thus required to write out a request in Hebrew that would tell the whole story of how she had arrived at her situation.
“No one explained to Sofia at any point that this humanitarian request is critical and that it has to be based on evidence and documents and be broad and comprehensive,” says Lubetzky. “No one told her she could have a lawyer; no one told her how it had to be written. Instead, she was told to prepare the request, on the spot, immediately.”
Sofia, whose Hebrew isn’t fluent, turned to a random taxi driver, who wrote out her story in a concise fashion, which she copied into her own handwriting and submitted. In October she was informed that her request was denied and given 30 days to leave the country. It was only then that she and Nadav turned to Lubetzky, who appealed of the decision. Until there is a ruling on the appeal, Sofia can remain, but she was not even granted a tourist visa.
“I have no health insurance, no identity card or national insurance and no work permit — how can you live like that?” Sofia asks. “I’m afraid to lose my job and it’s upsetting me.”
The fact that her son was born in Israel and has citizenship doesn’t help Sofia at all. “A person without status cannot acquire it just from the fact that he’s the parent of an Israeli child,” explains Lubetzky. “The procedures that allow for obtaining status in Israel for family reasons are related to a marital relationship. If the relationship ends, the process is stopped.”
But Lubetzky still questions the refusal, saying that state agencies are supposed to make a decision based on the facts, not a hastily written and incomplete summary. The lawyer says her request to submit a new request to the humanitarian committee was refused.
“The Interior Ministry is standing on its hind legs and insisting that it isn’t prepared to reexamine a request by a trafficking victim, married to an Israeli citizen, the mother of a 10-year-old boy, who has lived here for 20 years and was going through a family unification process for years. The Interior Ministry is shutting its eyes to the needs of a 10-year-old boy, an Israeli citizen, when it decides to deport his mother.”
The Population, Immigration and Border Authority said in a response that Sofia “entered Israel for the first time in 1999 on a tourist visa and remained in Israel illegally until she married an Israeli citizen in 2006 and began the process of regularizing her status on grounds of marriage to an Israeli citizen. The couple stopped the process and renewed it only in 2014. The process was stopped again when the couple separated.
“After an examination by the interministerial committee it was decided to reject the request for status. An appeal was filed by the applicant and when a decision is made on it she will be updated. It should be noted that the applicant will not be removed from Israel until the end of the proceedings in her case.”