Thursday, December 18, 2014

Standing up to the South Tel Aviv Stigma

Natalie Astor, from Potomac, MD, is a 5-month Internship Track participant. She is interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic, and volunteering at Kadima Wolfson, a community after-school program for children in South Tel Aviv. 

After studying abroad and interning in Tel Aviv for almost 8 months last year, I thought that I left with a deep connection to the city and a sense of understanding and belonging. However, in all my time living, learning, and experiencing life in Tel Aviv, I never once ventured into South Tel Aviv. Not only was this a place that I did not feel the need to go, but a place I purposefully tried to avoid. Being a naïve newcomer to Israel as a whole, I pretty much started on a clean slate and developed my outlook over time based off the information I gleaned from others. My first exposure to the notion of division in the city was when my friend and I were planning a trip to Jerusalem and our ulpan teacher told us not to go to the central bus station (located in South Tel Aviv), but to go to one in the center of the city. When we asked why, she simply said that it was a bad area of town that we should avoid and we would not be safe there. Another time, I wanted to buy a bike located in South Tel Aviv, but when I spoke to my friends about going to look at it, they said I should only go to look if it is during the day and I am not alone.

A year later when I told my friends and colleagues that I was going back to the city I loved and that brought me so much happiness, I was confronted with mixed reactions. Nearly everyone I encountered was supportive of the service work I would be doing, but those who were familiar with Tel Aviv advised me not to go to South Tel Aviv (or live there) and to be careful. They said it was “another world” and that it was too dangerous for me. Even people I spoke to in Israel tried to instil a sense of fear within me by telling me that South Tel Aviv, and the bus station in particular where I would be working, is not only the worst part of Tel Aviv, but the worst part of the country.

This whole time, I was basing my judgments off of the opinions of others, not any experiences or interactions I personally had. Living and interning in South Tel Aviv for nearly three months now has truly opened my eyes to another world, both positively to diverse and vibrant cultures, and negatively to the radical polarization and exclusivity exhibited by many in Israeli society. I’m currently interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic at the Central Bus Station, which offers an array of subsidized medical services to asylum seekers that are not covered by the national health insurance law, which provides universal health care to all Israeli citizens. It is a bit ironic to me that the national insurance law, affirming access to health care as a fundamental and collective right, would in reality not be universal and exclude a significant portion of the population.

The failure of the Israeli health system to include the asylum seeker population under the national health insurance law demonstrates the larger problem of the government’s unwillingness to grant this population refugee status. Though the terms are often used synonymously, asylum seekers and refugees are quite different in that asylum seekers are not entitled to the same civil rights and social benefits as refugees. While thousands of asylum seekers have fled persecution and sought refuge in Israel, only a small percentage have been granted refugee status. Not only is this distinction damaging in terms of access to rights, but the failure to grant refugee status downplays and disregards the terror, hardship, and violence these people endured before they arrived here. It pains me that after all the asylum seekers overcame to get here, they are still denied the basic opportunity to better themselves and have limits placed on their aspirations. Interning at the clinic has allowed me to interact with the asylum seeker community in a variety of capacities. I get to work with many Eritrean staff members, work in reception at the clinic, complete patient histories, and conduct research in order to develop a chronic disease workshop for the clinic. Whether I am sitting in reception trying to communicate with a mother about her baby being sick, or asking a patient about their symptoms to produce their medical record, I am exposed to the humanity and humility of individuals that want the best for themselves and their families.

 It is easy to get swept up into all that Tel Aviv has to offer (the nightlife, coffee shops, beaches, etc.) and to live in a bubble, blind to the struggles and challenges faced by those living right next door. As difficult as it is, more people need to take a step and face the harsh reality, in which the same place that is welcoming and allows so many thrive and enjoy life, can also be exclusive and stifling to others. The division of South Tel Aviv from the rest of Tel Aviv is indicative, to me, of the treatment of asylum seekers and migrant workers by the greater society; as outsiders, infiltrators, and those that are not welcome. The purposeful attempt to restrict asylum seekers acts to separate them from the rest of Israeli society and make them want to leave. Many people in Israeli society readily assign blame and hatred to the asylum seeker community, without even knowing them or giving them a chance. Characterizing South Tel Aviv negatively not only perpetuates a cycle of fear and hopelessness, but exacerbates the consequences of categorizing people as others and forgetting that they are human too. We need to stop simply putting a label on South Tel Aviv as different and integrate it into Tel Aviv and Israel as a whole. We need to put off finding a solution and recognize that the asylum seekers deserve better.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rachel Allen, from California via Colorado, is a participant on our Joint MA track with the Hebrew University. She is spending her year interning at Mesila as well as completing an MA in Non-Profit Management.
Oy, have I been busy! With school, my internship, my program and trying to maintain a life on top of it, I feel like the only reason I come back to the apartment is to sleep.

I love my grad program and find the classes to be very interesting and stimulating. Here is my class list:
Internship Workshop
Leadership and Social Responsibility
The Third Sector and Civil Society
Project Workshop
Organizational Theory for Non-Profits
Philanthropy and Civil Society
Researching Nonprofits
NGO Finances
It’s eight classes in two days. On Monday we start at 12:30 pm and are done at 6:00 pm and on Wednesdays we start at 10:30 am and finish at 8:00 pm with only 30 minutes breaks between each classes. Cap on either end of that over a two hour commute one way and it makes for some long, exhausting days. Each class assigns a lot of weekly reading and small papers as well. It’s proving a challenge to stay on top of it all.
On Sunday and Tuesday, I am at my internship. I intern at Mesila which is an NGO located in South Tel Aviv, where most of the refugee and asylum seeker community has settled. Most of the community fled from Sudan and Eritrea, walked through the Sinai Desert seeking safety in Israel. Mesila seeks to aid the children of this community. The parents work long, hard hours away from home. Because they are considered illegal, they are often exploited and paid very, low wages. They need a place to keep their children, so the community response to this has been the creation of around 70 illegal “babysitters”. What these places look like, generally, is an unventilated, small apartment that is filled with cribs. There are up to 30 children with one caregiver who only has time to look after their basic needs. There are no enrichment or development activities given to the children. All they do is eat and sleep for up to 12 hours a day. Some children get so bored, they start digging holes in the wall. They are starved of human affection and touch. It’s really heartbreaking.
Mesila seeks to address the phenomena on three levels; the individual level, the community level and the policy level. They put social workers and therapists into the babysitters to try to improve the settings for the children and also to identify the at-risk children and get them into a better environment. For instance, one social worker saw a three year old child who was not walking, only crawling. She got her to a doctor immediately and as it turns out, the child’s leg had been broken for several days and no one noticed or thought to take her in.  At the community level, Mesila tries to partner with community leaders and parents through various programs and sessions, to give them them the tools and knowledge so they may advocate for a better environment for their children. Lastly, at the policy level, Mesila is trying to spread awareness of the issue and pressure the government to take notice of the phenomena and create some reforms.
The babysitters is just the main issue that Mesila is trying to change. They offer such a broad range of services to help combat other risks that a child from this community may be exposed to, such as violence and sexual abuse.
If you would like to read more about the organization, the issue as well as see some pictures, check out this website:
My internship is working with the fundraising department. I just helped complete a grant application to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which was a lot of work but was rewarding.
Something a little lighter
My Tuesdays look like this: I go to my internship from the morning to the late afternoon, then a cafe to read and study and finally to an Ulpan class (where I learn conversational Hebrew). I don’t get home till around ten in the evening.
One Tuesday evening, my roommate and I had just finished our readings and we were gathering our stuff to walk to Ulpan when we realized we were a little early. We decided to walk to the beach to bury our feet in the sand for a few minutes to kill some time.
I have a tendency to focus on how I’m feeling right in the moment, like how tired I am or how overwhelmed I am feeling at the amount of things I am committed to in my life, that it’s sometimes hard to stop and pull myself out of it to look at the bigger picture and also notice nice moments in life.
The few minutes on the beach, I was suddenly able to do just that. I realized that I spent my morning writing a grant to the United Nations to bring in the much needed funds that would directly improve the life of a child, then I studied in an artsy cafe in the heart of Tel Aviv, and suddenly found myself on the beach looking at the beautifully lit, old city of Jaffa against the dark night sky and listening to the crashing of the waves on the quiet beach before I was about to head to Ulpan where I would discuss interesting subjects in Hebrew with people from all over the world. That was probably the longest run on sentence I have ever written but my point is, although I often get bogged down by normal life things (like I’m sure we all do), I’m really happy with what I am doing on a day to day basis and I’m writing it down here so that tomorrow when I forget, you guys can remind me! :)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Balance Between Coexistence and Justice

Sarah Sheafer is a current Tikkun Olam volunteer from Indianapolis. As a participant on the Coexistence Track, she spends her time interning at the Windows – Channels for Communication and volunteering with children in Jaffa. 

Silence consumed the room as I stared into the eyes of three teenage girls. It wasn’t until one of them blinked did I clear my throat and continue with the next activity. Being a 22-year-old Jewish American, I feel somewhat out of place. I teach English once a week at an all Arab high school in Jaffa as a participant on the volunteer program Tikkun Olam. I don’t feel out of place because of the Arabic written all over the white board or because I don’t wear a headscarf like my students. Nor do I necessarily feel out of place because I “look” different. I feel out of place because they know I’m Jewish.

As I now reflect on that day, I remember the anxious feeling that spread throughout my body when one of my students asked me in the middle of our lesson, “Are you Christian?” I had paused for a second before answering “no.” She then asked me, “Are you Jewish?” For some reason, I experienced a mixture of reluctance and guilt when I told them “yes.” I was shocked she would ask me this the first day of class, but I also expected it coming from a girl who cannot escape the religious tension surrounding her life.

Later that day, I went on a run along the coast. Usually when I run alone, I tune out the world around me by listening to music. But this time, I decided to open myself up to the many sounds of Jaffa. As I ran farther south, I began to hear more Arabic and less Hebrew. The tidbits of conversations I heard were both foreign and familiar. When I listened to people speaking in Arabic, sometimes I would recognize a word or two. After having studied a little of both Arabic and Hebrew, I knew they were similar languages, but the words I recognized weren’t just “similar” words; they were Hebrew words spoken by Palestinians to other Palestinians. For the first time, I intensely observed the people around me as I tried to remember all that I had witnessed since coming here. Experiences that had just been “experiences,” suddenly became much more than a mere moment of happiness, sadness or bewilderment. They became living and breathing insights into life in Israel and the conflict that plagues this region.
Sarah's view on her run in Jaffa

Hearing Palestinians use Hebrew words in their daily speech should have made me feel happy, and maybe at the very least, indifferent. In Jaffa, Jews, Christians and Muslims coexist, and it’s not uncommon for Palestinians here to speak fluently in Hebrew. But something felt wrong. I began to reflect on everything I had observed since being here. At the same time, I analyzed the meaning of the word “coexistence.” In Jaffa, I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable being Jewish because it is known as a place of coexistence, but I can’t help but feel like I am intruding. The degree to which tension fills even a city like Jaffa makes me wonder the authenticity of this “coexistence.” Beneath the exterior of this forced relationship - Jews, Muslims and Christians - there are many narratives unable to penetrate the surface. While Jaffa may appear relatively peaceful, I found myself asking: “How can there be true peace when there is no justice?”

I ask myself this question every day during my time interning at the non-profit organization Windows – Channels for Communication. When I first visited its office, I remember glancing upon a white board with words connected to the organization’s name. One of the words stood out: anti-normalization. The process of normalization occurs when certain ideas and actions become “natural” in everyday life, regardless if they are just or unjust. Critics against normalization sometimes call it the “colonization of the mind,” referring to the process by which an oppressed subject comes to believe their situation is “normal” reality and accepts the status quo. Windows is a unique peace organization because it recognizes the danger of a creeping normalcy. Instead, it realizes the need to promote not only coexistence, but also justice.

The organization empowers Palestinian and Israeli youth to openly speak about their
beliefs regarding discrimination and the violation of human rights. The participants engage in discussions and workshops, exploring various narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of the program, the youth produce a magazine in Arabic and Hebrew. Because of my experience with design and journalism, I am the intern in charge of the magazine’s layout. Last week, I transcribed an interview in order to write an article about one of Windows’ graduates.

The interviewee’s story left an impression on me. The young Jewish Israeli talked about the moment when she realized her life was built on the missed opportunities of others. When she was 10 years old, her mother took her to Atarim Square in Tel Aviv, pointing to the bustling place and told her, “This used to be a Muslim cemetery.” From that moment on, she struggled to cope with the reality around her. It is her desire to change this reality by addressing the Israeli education system and tackling the language barrier. While Jewish Israelis study Arabic in school, they do not study it to the extent they focus on English. Some school graduates are barely able to muster words like shukran (thank you). For those who remember the language, many never speak it to their Palestinian neighbors. There are two official languages in Israel, but one is pushed to the side.

In addition to interning at Windows and volunteering at an Arab high school, I teach English at a mixed middle school in Jaffa. During our orientation, the volunteer coordinator told us that some of the Palestinian children have better Hebrew than Arabic because all of their classes are taught in the former. Some of their parents intentionally placed them in this school because they realized a strong grasp of Hebrew is necessary to succeed in Israel. If both Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, one shouldn’t be considered secondary.

I’ve also noticed language serve as a barrier when I volunteer at Shahaf, a center where kindergarteners from all over Jaffa come and learn about the environment. Many of the kindergarteners speak only Arabic, and I find myself struggling to communicate with them. I’ve made an effort to learn a few words in Arabic, but I can’t help notice that some of the Hebrew-speaking staff members refrain from even trying to communicate and only speak in Hebrew to the confused children. If Israelis work with the Arabic-speaking community, why don’t they make more of an effort to learn the language?

I’ve only lived in Jaffa for two months, but I’ve already observed the intricacies of the issues present in Israel. I decided to volunteer on Tikkun Olam’s Coexistence Track because I thought “coexistence” meant peace. As I learn that there’s more to peace than just an absence of people shooting at one another, I’m starting to notice the need for more open dialogue and the promotion of justice. My participation in Tikkun Olam has opened my eyes to a necessary shift in social perceptions and attitudes about the conflict. We should not only be focusing on coexistence; we should be struggling for a just peace.