Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tikkun Olam in Action: Support for pregnant asylum seekers

Sarah Mednick, a current Social Action Track participant from upstate New York, wrote about her experience helping an asylum seeker from Eritrea seek medical care for her newborn baby.  

The author (far right) with her fellow Tikkun Olamers

As part of my volunteering with Tikkun Olam, I work with a unique organization called Brit Olam, which provides support to pregnant African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv through the Hagar and Miriam project. Most of the women that seek assistance from Hagar and Miriam are young (in their early 20's), from Eritrea, and first-time mothers without their own mothers or other female role models to support them. As a volunteer, I am helping with three main tasks: grant-writing, weekly intakes, and post-birth visits to check on the well-being of the new mothers and their babies.

A few days ago I did my first post-birth checkup with a client from Hagar and Miriam. Her name is Tsega and she's from Eritrea. She speaks a little English, a little Hebrew, but not so much in either language that she feels very comfortable going to doctors and navigating the healthcare system on her own. Her baby Asema (a girl who was born prematurely, but has enormous brown eyes and is simply beautiful) needs surgery, so there's a lot she has to do.

I went with her to a clinic to get all the right referrals, get a basic checkup for the baby, and generally make her feel like she's not alone. I was extremely nervous because I had no training for this whatsoever, but it went pretty well. A lot of it is just repeating things for her to calm her down, write them down in a simpler way, and make her feel like we'll be capable of getting things done. For my part in dealing with the Israelis who run these kinds of offices, the best thing is just to pretend that I know exactly what I'm doing. It makes everyone feel better, and it works out in terms of getting the information we need. If they think I know what I'm doing, they'll also be nicer to us. Fake it till you make it.

After Tsega and I left the clinic, she insisted that I go over to her house for lunch. I tried a few times to resist, but her response each time was “Ok! But come over.” Her neighborhood and house were pretty run down; she lives in an area of South Tel Aviv where a lot of asylum seekers live. As far as I can tell, Eritreans are very warm and kind (and not just to guests). They seem to be very sweet to each other, very friendly, and happier than I imagine I would be after going through what they've gone through.

When Tsega brought me to her home, she introduced me to a lot of people who were thrilled to meet me, excited to practice English, shook my hand a million times, and thanked me for helping her. Her husband gave me a soda from the store he works at and made us “Taita,” a spongy pita with meat and spices inside. It was absolutely delicious. Tsega and I chatted, she teased me about my paltry appetite and showed me pictures from her wedding. 

The experience was tough and confusing at times, both for me and for Tsega, but it felt great being able to help her and being able to see how much she appreciated it.  I can't wait to visit her again!

Applications are currently available for Tikkun Olam's Spring 5-month session, beginning February 12.  Click here to apply now!

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