Once a Week, the Gift of Human Dignity

On any given day, Tel Aviv's old bus station teems with female drug addicts who work in prostitution.

Galit really wants to attend. The Health Ministry vehicle is parked across from Tel Aviv's old central bus station building on 1 Finn Street, and two workers from the Revi'i Nashi ("Women on Wednesdays") project are looking for female drug addicts, working in prostitution, in an attempt to bring them to the nearby center operated by the Anti-Drug Authority. There they will get a chance to have a shower, a hot meal, clean clothing and counseling.

"I want to come with you, but first I have to get over this withdrawal crisis," says Galit, as her entire body writhes in pain and sweat. "I won't make it," she mumbles again.

After 20 minutes, she can be seen on the street, looking for clients. It seems as if she is handcuffed to the drug dealer who gave her a fix, and who is waiting next to her for her to pay him back.

The time is noon and the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, where some 250 to 300 female addicts work in prostitution, is bustling. The light reveals all: the open trade, the injections, the crack smoking, the customers who arrive in cars and the tottering drug addicts who peddle sex.

The two women who run Revi'i Nashi: Rani Halabi, the field coordinator for the Levinsky Clinic, which is located near the bus station; and Sara Boano de Mesquita, a social worker, continue to gather the addicted women. They circle the building at 1 Finn Street, walk into the brothels whose entrances are sometimes on street level but end up on a dark and lower floor, survey the yards where the female addicts are strewn around on the ground in a daze, and stop beside each prostitute, call her by name, and embrace her for a long time, without being put off by the bleeding wounds and the bubbling abscesses.

"Rani, look, I think a rat bit me while I was sleeping in the yard," says one addict, revealing her wounded leg and consulting about further treatment.

In the Finn Street building, which Halabi and de Mesquita enter alone, they ask 29-year-old Na'ama, who is three months pregnant, to join them. She is contorted from pain and in the midst of a withdrawal crisis. After numerous attempts at persuasion, she agrees and gets into the car, writhing in pain. Ya'ara, 29, runs to the vehicle from nearby Erlinger Street, laughing.

"I heard you calling my name and looking for me and just then I was with a client," she says, "I rushed him: 'Here comes the Health Ministry vehicle. Finish, finish,' and he panicked and ran away in the middle. I made NIS 100 shekels the easy way."

Na'ama loses patience, "I have to get a fix to get over this," she says and tries to get out of the car. "I'll buy you a fix when we come back," Ya'ara promises her. The Health Ministry vehicle makes one last spin around the old bus station in an attempt to collect a few more prostitutes.

Undernourished and sleeping rough

The Revi'i Nashi project emerged from the realization of the staff at the Levinsky Clinic, which operates a mobile clinic at night for the general drug addict population, that the women suffer from severe neglect and their situation requires special treatment.

"These are women who may be defined as homeless," explains Yifat Ben-David, the director of the sexual-health clinic operating on Levinsky Street. "They sleep in yards and on the street, are undernourished and don't have anything, sometimes even the clothes on their backs are torn, they are rejected by their families and by society, lonely and exposed to the extreme dangers present on the street: they are raped frequently, beaten by clients, pimps and drug dealers and by users.

"The Tel Aviv complex currently has no place where they can sleep and have a break from the street, even if only for a few hours, and that can provide them with basics such as food, a shower and a bed, whereas for male addicts there are some centers operating that provide such services." The project operates in collaboration with Avner Cabel, the coordinator of the Levinsky Project, for the Anti-Drug Authority, which operates a center to assist drug addicts in the area. The Anti-Drug Authority enables the Revi'i Nashi team to use some of the center's rooms.

"We noticed that on the street, the girls don't feel comfortable talking to us because of their fear of the drug dealers and pimps," says Halabi. "We wanted to give them the chance, at least once a week, to get a little attention, experience the feeling of a warm and supportive home, and connect them to the basic needs of every human."

According to Halabi, the project's goal is to provide the women with preliminary rehab treatment, "but more than anything else, the project is meant to tell them that we know them, know their names and see them as human beings."

"In Israel the treatment of women engaged in street prostitution is neglected," says de Mesquita, "these are women who have no faith in the welfare institutions and in the community, they sometimes feel that they don't even deserve help. They are disappointed, hurt and are afraid to accept treatment or help. If a social worker comes to them, on the street, from a nonjudgmental place and out of a desire to help, she can bring them back into the circle of communal services."

13 out of 83 were referred to rehab

So far 83 women have participated in the Revi'i Nashi project and 13 of them were referred for immediate free rehab treatment with the Anti-Drug Authority and half of them are now in some rehabilitative framework. Each week, some five or six women on average take part in the project.

"Our goal is for the project to operate on a daily basis," stresses Ben-David, "and not once a week. So the female addicts will be able to have a hot meal and a chance to shower every day."

The addicts get out of the Health Ministry van and enter the building. Upon their arrival, a hot meal awaits them and they eat with gusto. The hunger is apparent. After the meal, the support group starts, led by Cabel, with the participation of de Mesquita and Halabi.

Do you want to share with us what's been going on with you, Cabel asks the pregnant Na'ama. She nods restlessly and bursts into tears. "I feel bad, I want a rehab program."

Cabel: "So far you've been in rehab programs three times, let's go through why it didn't work, so you can understand the weak points and succeed the next time."

Na'ama: "My weak point is in jail right now."

Cabel: "What do you mean?"

Na'ama: "My partner is there. From the day he went, everything got harder."

Cabel: "I'm going to ask you and you don't have to answer, we're talking about the one who would beat you and take your money?"

Na'ama: "The one who beats me, yes, but he didn't take my money; he didn't want me to work in prostitution. Every time I was in rehab I ran away to him."

Cabel: "When you're in rehab you forget about the suffering and the violence and the hell of living here and you run away. I'm touching on this because it may happen again during rehab, if you don't grasp that you're running away from the emotional struggle that rehab floods you with." "The main issue that comes up in the support group is motherhood," says de Mesquita, "there is a very great sadness, nearly every woman talks about it, about the failure and guilt because her kids were taken away from her and how will she be able to get back custody of the children.

"They talk also about the rapes they suffer on the street, the violence, about a wish to die, the daily fear of street prostitution and of their low self-image and that they feel scorned and sub-human because of their engaging in prostitution." "It's important for us in such a framework to bring them in and encourage them and not to have them come out of the support group more exposed and vulnerable," notes Cabel. "The goal is to instill hope, to let them onto the street with inner faith that they can change their fate, that there is somewhere that accepts them as they are."

Toward the end of the meeting, the Levinsky Clinic staff relates that the incidence of sexual diseases in the vicinity of the bus station has been on the rise recently and they ask the women to exercise caution and make sure to use condoms.

Sexual intercourse for NIS 5

"Let me tell you what's been happening lately," says one woman who works as a prostitute. "New girls show up who are willing to have sex for NIS 5 and NIS 10, and for NIS 20 offer the works, without a condom. So when I ask a client for NIS 50 for a blow job with a condom, he laughs and explains that he can get it for less and without a condom."

The drop in prices stuns the staff. "We know that there is competition and a fight for survival and that you need your fix, but try to protect yourselves. If the client refuses to use a rubber, put a condom on your tongue and refrain from swallowing the sperm," they tell the women.

Halabi and de Mesquita part from the women with a warm embrace. "It's sad to discover that the women who power the sex industry and provide services to all the men 24 hours a day are so thirsty for a hug and basic human contact," says Halabi. "In the past when we hugged them, they would be put off and feel uncomfortable and ask, what you're not disgusted? Today they already run up to us naturally and hug us," she says.

The women go back to the prostitution enclave. Ya'ara wants to buy a fix for Na'ama, but the quantity isn't enough for her to ease the withdrawal pains. Na'ama collapses on the bed in her room, stamps her foot and vomits. "Maybe I'll get an abortion," she says suddenly, while the women of Revi'i Nashi search for documents in her room in order to transfer her to a rehab program.

In the meantime, other addicts spot the staff women and run over to hug them. "We didn't remember that today is Wednesday," they say disappointed, "too bad we missed it. Do you have any food to give us?" they ask.

To donate food, clothing, shoes, underwear, makeup and feminine hygiene products, send an email to yifat.bendavid@lbr.health.gov.il.