Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Let the Volunteering Begin

Dear Family, Friends, and devout followers, I sincerely apologize for the delay in posting. But fear not, I am back and ready to fill y’all in on the past 3 weeks.
Let’s see, what the heck have I been doing???

Ulpan has been filling up the majority of time in my weekly schedule whether it be trekking to and from the Jaffa apartments, the Shapira Community Center, or remaining in Tel Aviv. Ani lomedet harbeh ivrit kol hazaman, I am studying a lot of Hebrew all of the time! No doubt my Hebrew is improving, but living with a bunch of Americans is not ideal in using the language outside of the classroom. Sure I’m able to order food and ask the driver where the bus is headed, but as far as conversation goes, simple sentences only please. Oh right, can’t forget the popular answer to what I’m doing in Israel: Ani meetnadevet, I am a volunteer. It’s OK, I’ll be here another 9 months.

Aside from memorizing intensive verb conjugations and pulling my hair out when I can’t remember the difference between ka-day, in order to, and ka-die, worthwhile, (seriously, I just asked a classmate what the difference was) I’ve been spending a lot of free time at the beach. The weather though, is finally starting to cool down. This past Friday it rained for the 1st time in months! It was glorious and a little less humid afterwards. The rain was strong and didn’t last long, but it was great. Someone in the Jaffa apartments mentioned that he even heard some people yelling in the streets “Baruch Hashem!” “Thank God!” when the droplets fell. So refreshing. Since Friday, rain has hit the streets of TLV a few more times, but nothing to write home about.

Sunday marked the 1st week of volunteering. Finally, what I came here to do. After having visited all of the places where I could volunteer, I met with my volunteering coordinator to discuss my options. Although I came to work solely with African asylum seekers and refugees, I was informed that I needed some variety. It was already difficult enough to narrow my choices down to 3 or 4 places within the African community, and then to be told to choose a place outside of it was even tougher. However, I succeeded. Ultimately, I chose to work at Ironi Hey, a high school in North Tel Aviv tutoring English, Mesila, a day care center for refugee children in South Tel Aviv, and the ARDC (of course) in South Tel Aviv. Each place, I know, will be a challenge, but I’m confident I made the right decision.

Last week another volunteer and I paid a visit to Ironi Hey, the high school in the North, in order to meet with some of the English teachers with whom we will be working. A fence surrounded the school and since we had never been there before, the security guard sitting on the top of the stairs made his way down to the gate. Since my Hebrew is a bit better than the other girl I went with, I decided to take the reins. There were misconceptions and errors all over the place, but in the end we understood each other and we made our way to the teacher’s lounge. Looking around the halls of the building, I was almost surprised at how nice it all appeared questioning what I was doing there. But then I remembered why the students needed extra help in English. The majority of refugees and new immigrants to TLV live in the South of the city and with the influx of people, the schools have reached capacity. Therefore, some of the students that should be going to schools in the South have to take the bus up to schools in the North. As in many other aspects when comparing the North to the South of TLV, the school system is much better in many ways, including teachers, lessons, supplies, etc. Thus, by the time the students from the South find themselves in the northern schools, they are often behind their classmates, including in English. That’s where we come in. I’ll be working one-on-one or possibly two-on-one with high schoolers in English. My 1st day is this Thursday. Hopefully all goes well.

Sunday was my 1st day at Mesila, the daycare center for underprivileged children. There are 2 groups found within the center, babies and toddlers. The babies are roughly between a few months and 2 yrs old while the toddlers are 3 to 4 or 5. The kids are absolutely adorable and just so obviously want to be loved. Mesila is an organization run by the Israeli government that gives aid for migrant workers. I’m not sure what the regulations for running a daycare center are, but I am positive the condition of these centers is unacceptable. During our tour of each of the volunteer places in Sept., we stopped by the specific daycare center where I’m working (there are approx. 40 different ones throughout TLV), and as our guide entered the building, we figured we had made a wrong turn somewhere. The tall complex was only a few minutes walk from the secular yeshiva, our home base for the program, and looked like it belonged in the Projects. We climbed the stairs to the 3rd floor and as soon as we entered the room, every single child ran towards us, smiling, laughing, tugging at our clothes, wanting to be picked up and played with. I know I’ve never studied psychology, but I knew that behavior wasn’t typical for a child; strangers coming into their safe place. It was obvious they needed attention. From that moment, I knew I needed to work there.

I worked out a schedule with another volunteer, Julie, since we have to work in pairs in Mesila because of how stressful the work is. Also, 3 hours is the maximum you are allowed to work there per week. I decided on 2. When we arrived for our 1st 2-hour segment of baby volunteering, the kids reacted in the same exact way they had on the day of our visit. Except this time, it was only Julie and me. We were practically mauled down by rambunctious toddlers. We tried getting them to stop, but it was no use, they had to calm down. After probably 5 minutes of kids jumping on our backs, trying to climb up our legs, and literally pulling our shirts off of us, Julie and I practically ran and hid in the baby room. Two rooms are lined with cribs with babies sleeping, bottles in mouths, diapers changed only when 1 of the 3 women who work there have a free minute. The baby room is even more heartbreaking than facing the fact that the toddlers need someone to give them attention. When we walked into one of the baby rooms, 1 little girl was crying on the floor so I made my way over and rocked her until she stopped. I decided to sit down on the floor with her still in my lap while some other precious babies made their way over to see who this big stranger was. One little boy came over, rested his head on my shoulder, and literally fell asleep standing up. I noticed he was asleep when he started slipping down my arm. It was so cute, but it was such a harsh reality realizing he just wanted some kind of affection in order to fall asleep for his nap. After he was placed back in his crib, it was feeding time. Each baby is sent to the center with his/her own lunch, which became apparent to me when the 1st meal I fed to a baby girl was heated mashed potatoes. Another boy’s lunch consisted of pasta. These are babies who need well-balanced meals and last time I checked rice and hard-boiled eggs do not qualify. The rooms are also filthy with barely any toys or supplies; I’m seriously questioning when the Israeli gov’t last checked this place out.

Some of the other volunteers are working at a Multipurpose Daycare Center, filled with mostly Israeli children (if not all Israeli, I’m not sure), and they come home telling me how well the kids are fed. They read books with them, play games, watch TV, normal daycare activities. The reason why they are working there is because these children have difficult home lives so they work with social workers considering some of them are only one step away from foster care. Of course I support and admire the program available to these children, but where are these services for the babies in Mesila? I know this is only the beginning of the truth yet to be fully discovered, but my anger has already started to build.

Next, I was off to the ARDC. I became a part of the Humanitarian and the Education Teams. I am currently co-teaching an intermediate level English class to 3 men from Sudan and 1 man from Colombia. They are all so nice and eager to learn. At the end of each class they shake both the other teacher’s hand and mine and thank us profusely for teaching them. It’s really a lot of fun, but I must say, props to all you teachers out there, it is tough.

As a member of the Humanitarian Team, I will be working hands-on with refugees both in and outside of the office. When I arrived to the ARDC office on Sunday afternoon, I met another volunteer, Dani, from a different MASA program that I will be working with. After a few minutes of conversation I asked if she was from England. She informed me that she lives in Sydney, Australia. Really? I couldn’t tell the difference? A little embarrassing. But I digress. Upon arrival to the center, there were a few people in the waiting area, and I was quickly informed that Dani and I needed to register 1 of the women who was visiting the ARDC for the first time. So, 1 woman from America, 1 from Australia, and 1 from Africa met in a small room in South Tel Aviv. Dani and I immediately learned that this woman spoke no English or Hebrew (or French or Spanish or Mandarin) and therefore we had no way to communicate with her except through miming and drawing some pictures. It’s funny how this happens, but you can’t help it: Whenever it’s impossible to communicate with someone in your own language, instead of just not talking, you end up talking extremely slowly like that’s going to help. Totally did that and no, it didn’t really work. But we were able to fill out some information on this woman’s folder. Although she said that she was from Sudan, “Eritrea” was written on her visa. Also, she was definitely reading information in Tigrinya (the most commonly spoken language in Eritrea) and not Arabic (that spoken in Sudan). We were able to understand that she was 6 months pregnant, though, and completely alone in Israel. She couldn’t have been older than 30 years old. There was no way to communicate why she was here and with that, we started to collect the necessary items everyone receives when they first register at the ARDC. Some clothes, a pair of worn-out shoes, a toothbrush, a sheet, a blanket, soap, etc. Everything given out to the refugees is either a public or private donation.

Then, it was off to the shelter. Talk about jumping right into things on my 1st day. The ARDC owns 2 small apartments in the neighborhood of Shapira, located next door to my neighborhood, Kiryat Shalom. I have actually been walking a few streets from their location for the past month on my way to the central bus station as well as the secular yeshiva completely unaware of their existence. First impressions of the apartments: smaller than what I had expected and in worse condition. I can’t remember the number of people living in the larger of the 2 shelters, but I do know that it is far too many for such a small place. The living conditions are horrific, feeling as though I had stepped into a third world country in the middle of the most vibrant city in all of Israel. What was going on here? When we walked in the door, we were met with another woman who has not yet been registered at the office. I'm not sure who brought her to the shelter, but she had been living and sleeping in the park next to the bus station for the past few days. Also alone. Also 6 months pregnant. With the arrival of the new woman we had just registered, there were no more empty beds. Our boss, Nick, left promising to figure something out. But what? Around the corner we entered the smaller of the 2 shelters to check in on some of the 11 residents who currently share 1 room. One woman was asleep on one of the many bunk beds, one toddler was taking a nap on the floor, while another pregnant woman was watching 2 women’s babies who were out at the moment. When asked how everything was going, the only complaint that she mentioned was that she didn’t think it was a good idea for her to continue to sleep on the top bunk anymore considering she is 8 months into her pregnancy; something she shouldn’t have even had to say. We left the shelter in shock and feeling determined to help as much as we can this upcoming year.

Back at the office at around 4pm, somewhere between 10 to 15 women showed up for their weekly food distribution. Since the ARDC can only give as much as it receives, when the rice rations ran out, all we had to offer was flour. Diapers ran out as well leaving the young women questioning us what they were supposed to do without work. We also had to take away clothes they persistently tried to pull from the storage room. Writing this now is bringing back some of the helpless feelings that I have already experienced working at the ARDC.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the living room of my apartment with some of my roommates talking about our volunteer placements and why it is we are all here. After remaining relatively quiet for most of the conversation, Oren, our only Israeli roommate, broke his silence with a puzzled look on his face: “Who would have thought that an American woman and an African man would come to meet in Israel?” 


  1. Marissa, it's great to see that you're in a position to do so much good for people who need it most. How can we help from over here?

  2. Marissa, I spoke with you about all of this, but reading it made it more real, I'm crying, love, M

  3. Hi Marissa:

    Thanks for the new blog. Glad to hear that you are well. This is going to be a stressful experience.

    Conditions for the refugees are a pity. Are you allowed to seek help outside the program? This Government is not likely to be much help, especially with Shas espousing immoral positions about deporting refugee children. Are you able to appeal to the programs of the New Israel Fund, for example? Can you reach out to neighborhood organizations or political parties? North Tel Aviv has been one of the bastions of Labor and Meretz and (ironically) is considered wealthy/upper class and liberal. There may be community/neighborhood groups that might be willing to help if they know that refugee children are attending their schools. Meretz and/or Labor might have some limited interest in improving the refugee's condition if they think doing so will help portray Israel to the international community as a carrier of progressive values. If you cannot reach out, can you suggest that program officials do so?

    Good luck. Let us know if we can help.

    Uncle Mark