The Lost Girls

Six girls sat around the table, chatting, laughing and eating. At first glance, they looked like an idyllic family, but in fact they were at a center for immigrant girls at risk, located in a distressed neighborhood in Haifa.

After the meal at Bayit Ham - Pina Balev (A Warm Home - A Corner in the Heart), one of the girls was charged with washing the dishes, and the others gathered around a lecturer who had volunteered to produce a short film with them. The lecturer asked the girls to suggest a subject for the film. "Maybe drug addiction?" proposed N., 16. "It's a real problem in our lives, in the neighborhood." The others nodded in agreement.

Every day, N. comes to the center, which the Absorption Ministry runs in the afternoons. This is part of a network of ministry centers aimed at helping immigrant adolescent women. N. says she immigrated to Israel with her mother at age 5, and that she dropped out of school in eighth grade and began roaming the streets.

"My mother works in the evening, I don't know at what," she says. "A hot meal? It's not our habit. I would roam the streets, and it wasn't good for me. I hung out with men, at age 12 or 13 I had a police file for drugs, vagrancy and other mistakes I made."

But the center changed all that. "From the moment I arrived here, I stopped roaming the streets and returned to school," N. says. "Here there is a feeling that even if you make mistakes, you can come and talk about it, and they will listen and help. Here I have support, a hot meal, someone who teaches me limits and to take care of myself."

E., 16, chain-smokes and looks troubled. She had been expelled from several schools and also had taken to roaming the streets, when the center staff intervened and enrolled her in 11th grade at a day center for at-risk youth. But even at the new school, E. is frequently truant. The center's staff has told her that if she continues going out with men who endanger her instead of going to school, they will have to take her out of her home and send her somewhere for her own protection.

E., whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia, has a hard time talking about herself. Her father died when she was 8 and she lives with her mother, a shift worker who is away from home for many hours at a time. "I'm not sure how many brothers I have," she says. "Ten, I think. None of them are at home."

The police opened a file on her when she was 12. She has had many run-ins with the law since then. "I don't know how many, for violence or something like that," E. says. She says she comes to the center because "at home I would go crazy from being alone, having to make food for myself and not having anything to do or anyone to talk to."

Neglect and isolation

Immigrant girls are more likely to be at risk than those in the population at large, according to Welfare Ministry figures. This reflects the difficulties they face. In 2006, the ministry handled 19,000 girls aged 12-18 who suffered from neglect or who were in the process of dropping out of school. About 4,300 of them - 23 percent - were immigrants or daughters of immigrants. About 70 percent of the immigrants were from the former Soviet Union, while the remainder were from Ethiopia.

Immigrant girls from the Former Soviet Union have high rates of drug and alcohol use, delinquency and vagrancy, the ministry reports. Many of them spend time with adult men and have unprotected sex, and one in 10 have had sex in return for favors or have had an unwanted pregnancy, a ministry survey showed. Among the Ethiopian girls at risk, many live with unemployed parents who have difficulty providing for their basic needs, and with whom they often do not communicate. The police say that of the 1,100 cases opened against girls in 2005, about one third involved immigrant girls.

"Many immigrants go through through neglect, loneliness, sexual exploitation and self-mutilation, and need a female role model to help them integrate into society," said Sarah Cohen, director of welfare services at the Absorption Ministry. "Adolescent girls respond to tension and distress in a way that often does not receive the attention it deserves. After immigration, when the family is liable to suffer from economic distress, the parents are busy making ends meet and have trouble providing emotional support. Then problems arise with social adjustment and schooling, which isolate the girls and hurt their integration into society. A dearth of economic or personal resources is liable to increase adolescent girls' dependency on their sexuality."

After it became clear that the number of girls at risk was increasing, said Cohen, the Absorption Ministry initiated a unique aid program. About a year and a half ago, the ministry began tailoring 16 "warm homes" for adolescent immigrant girls at risk (the Welfare Ministry operates another 60 such centers for girls who are not immigrants). As with other welfare programs, the absorption and welfare ministries operate the centers with the Sacta-Rashi Foundation and Ashalim, the Association for Planning and Development of Services for Children and Youth at Risk and their Families.

The centers for immigrant girls are open daily from noon to 6:30 P.M. Each has a social worker who is assigned to the girls, gets them talking and listens to their problems. The centers' enrichment programs try to help the girls build a positive feminine image and enrich their world.

"The girls feel they have a home here," says Sarah Tzabari, director of the Girls Unit at the Haifa Municipality. "They come from a difficult family background and have experienced a difficult absorption process as immigrants. Their peers at school ignore them, their parents don't know how to help them with their schoolwork, and the girls often have to become adult-parents and miss out on their childhood. This house gives them an uplifting atmosphere, providing a strong female model, and is aimed at rescuing them."

Individual tutoring

On a tour of Be'er Sheva with Shai-Yehiel Cohen of the non-profit organization Yedidim (Friends), one sees some of the risks young immigrants face. On a sparse patch of grass in Neighborhood 11, between apartment blocks inhabited by immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus, the girls meet Bedouin boys in the evening.

"They are living in poverty and the boys offer them gifts - cigarettes, a mobile phone, jeans. That's how they buy them," says Cohen. "The girl gets tempted and quickly discovers she is sexually serving a group of boys, without realizing this is sexual exploitation."

Then comes the park in Neighborhood 4, where drug deals are carried out. "The drug dealers here tend to use girls, because they aren't considered delinquents and don't arouse suspicion," says Cohen. "It is from places like this that we try to rescue them."

Nine years ago Yedidim founded an aid project for immigrant girls, where female students offer individual and group tutoring, in order to provide them with a role model. "In their attempt to enter Israeli society, many of the immigrant girls get lost," said Shimon Siani, the organization's director. "It is difficult to identify them. Sometimes they are just about to fall or start with a police record. Others are on the agencies' radar, but find it difficult to trust them and accept treatment."

Sela - a Hebrew acronym for "Help for Immigrant Girls" - operates in parallel to the government aid centers in 166 locales in Israel. It is funded by the local councils, the Absorption Ministry and donations raised by Yedidim. Under the program, tutors come to the homes of the girls, get to know them and their surroundings, and build a friendship. In addition, the girls meet in a group for enrichment programs and volunteer activities in their communities.

S., 16, is one of the participants in the project. She immigrated with her parents from the Former Soviet Union, but both of them currently are unemployed and are barely scraping by on the National Insurance Institute guaranteed income allotment. "I don't have a room of my own. I sleep with my mother and my sister. My father sleeps in the living room, and my brother in a separate room," she says. The alienation between her and her parents is palpable: "I speak Hebrew and I refuse to speak Russian, and my parents speak only Russian," she says.

But the distress does not end at home. S. says she felt rejected, insecure and lonely at school. "When I was 13, a man would follow me home from school." S. relates. "He harassed me and one time he attacked me and raped me. By chance my brother passed by afterward and suspected something had happened. He took me to the police and I filed a complaint, but I have no idea what came of it."

S. dropped out of school in eighth grade and started roaming the streets and spending time with older men. "I had been violent at school and I didn't get along with anyone," she says. After she did not show up for an appointment with a social worker, a Yedidim activist took S. under her wing. "Since then I have gone back to school and I have been getting along with classmates, doing well on tests and meeting with the social worker. All of a sudden someone is supporting me, teaching me and helping me feel like I am worth something," S. says.

Cohen says, "It touches my heart each time how, with the simplest of means, like attention, a positive role model, support and the sense that someone cares, it is possible to save girls' lives and let them enter society as equals."