Young Immigrant Drug Addicts Have Nowhere to Go for Help

Revital Shichman became addicted to drugs at the age of 11 - four years after coming to Israel from Azerbaijan. She says her addiction was prompted by the move to Israel.

"It happened because of a lot of things. My parents' frustration and crisis, my own immigration crisis, being unaccepted by society, the need to deal with a very different mentality from back home. You lose yourself on the way. There are also social pressures and it's terribly easy to get drugs," she says.

Shichman is part of a wide trend. Drug consumption among immigrant youth is much higher than among Israeli-born youngsters. According to the police, 43 percent of the immigrant youths who have dropped out of school take drugs, compared to 28 percent among Israeli-born dropouts.

The number of dropout immigrant youths is estimated at some 35,000. In addition, 11 percent of the immigrant youths who are in school take drugs, compared to 9 percent of other Israelis in this category.

Immigrant youth also tends to use hard drugs more than others. According to Absorption Ministry data, the worst drug problem is among non-Jewish immigrant teenagers, who are dealing with an identity crisis and hostility from their environment.

A recent survey of the Israeli Association for Immigrant Children indicates that every third immigrant youth does not graduate from high school. Also, the number of criminal files opened against immigrant youths is twice as high as the number among Israeli-born youths. Association Chairman Eli Zarhin, an immigrant himself, is an education adviser in the Joanna Jabotinsky school near Gedera, whose pupils all speak Russian.

Zarhin draws a direct connection between the data and drug use. He says there is also a growing trend of abusing substances that are not classified as drugs but are no less dangerous, such as medicines. Zarhin says the austerity program will aggravate the drug problem further. He says one of the problems that create this situation is the lack of special rehabilitation centers for immigrant youth.

These centers must operate in Russian and in a cultural context that has meaning for the immigrant youth. "These youngsters do not believe the Israeli establishment, and sometimes their Hebrew isn't good enough for a therapeutic meeting," he says.

Shichman, today 19, managed to kick the habit. Some three years ago she entered a rehab program. She has been "clean" for exactly two years and a month, although she admits that every day is a new battle. She is enrolled in an monitored educational course for teenage girls in distress at Tel Aviv University and in Shatil leadership training for communities and or organizations, focusing on youth with drug problems.

"Today I know how to do it," she says. "I come from the same background and I know how to help a young immigrant out of it."

When Shichman finished her rehab course, she started operating a club in Kiryat Gat for two groups of immigrant drug abusers - teenagers who recently started taking drugs and adults who need post rehab support. She wanted to share her personal story with them, show them the options and take them every now and then to the cinema or for a walk. In a short time the youngsters' group grew from five to 25. The adult group, aged 18 to 27, has five members.

Shichman received assistance to operate the club from the Kochav David immigrants' association in Kiryat Gat. "They were the only ones who didn't ignore me. A friend of mine, a former addict who works with me, was told in the municipality that there is no drug problem among immigrant youth in Kiryat Gat. It made me laugh - you can see them everywhere."

A short time later, the residents living near the shelter they were given received a warning that drug addicts were roaming the neighborhood. When a school gave them an alternative room to meet in, they were driven out by the principal.

Shichman and her friend asked the municipality to let them use an abandoned caravan in the town's compound for treating drug victims. They do not need money, only a place to gather in. In the three months since the request was made, the group of young drug users fell apart, and Shichman says that every day the teenagers ask her to resume the activity. In the second group, 10 out of the 15 adults have relapsed into drug abuse.

"This is a bureaucratic state," says Shichman. "The authorities don't see us as human beings. For them we are "Russian-speakers' or part of the statistics. I know these youngsters. They're intelligent, they can contribute to the state in the future, but the state is giving up on them."