Migrant workers demonstrate against the deportations
Photo: Gil Yohanan
Kids in Tel Aviv's Bialik School
Photo: Ofer Amram

For the sake of the children

Rotem Ilan gave up lucrative career to lead struggle against foreign kids' deportation

"No child will be deported," Rotem Ilan announces confidently. "Every citizen must ask himself which state he wants to live in. I don't want to live in a state that deports innocent children who just want to live here."


Ilan speaks from the heart. For 18 hours a day, or even more, she fights the threat of deportation hanging over the heads of some 1,200 children of migrant laborers in Israel – "my kids," as she puts it.


In addition to many expressions of support, Ilan has also faced threats to her life, which led her to file a complaint with the police.


But nothing will stop her. In order to fight her battle, she gave up a psychology degree from a distinguished faculty and work which had given her financial independence. She even went back to live in her parents' home, which became a kind of operations room.


This coming Sunday, the struggle she has been waging will come to a crux: The government is to decide whether to accept the recommendations of the committee that suggested about half the children be deported.


What if the government votes in favor of the deportation?


"I won't be able to stand it, and I have enough activists who will respond as I will."


What will you do? Protect the children with your own body?


"If it comes to that, then certainly I will. But for the first stage we have a plan. Some 250 families from around the country have volunteered to host the mothers and children slated for deportation. We won't hide them, we won't break the law, but we'll grant them a few more days of sanity. Each morning they wake up and don’t know if it will be their last day in the country of their birth.


"(The police) come to the apartments near the central bus station and take people out of their beds at 5 in the morning. When the Oz Unit gets information about a mother and children hosted by an Israeli family, they'll come at a reasonable hour and will have to respect their basic rights."


So they'll come to the host family at 4 in the afternoon with a proper deportation order and even a bunch of flowers. Then what will you do?


Ilan responds with a smile. But only someone who doesn't know her would make the mistake of thinking this woman with the feline eyes is fragile. As the founder of the Israeli Children organization, she has many plans and ideas. Thousands of foot-soldiers are merely waiting for her signal to go into action.


When critics suggest she should care for her own poor first, she bristles. "These children are also my own poor. We must care for them as we do for every Israeli child."


'We're to blame for situation'

A mere 25 years old, she finds it hard to believe that just a year ago she was leading her life on another planet.


"After finishing my degree in psychology and special education at Tel Aviv University, I was accepted into a Master's program in child clinical psychology and I thought, that's it, I've found my future."


Her life changed when she began to volunteer in Mesila, an organization working among non-Israeli communities in Israel, where she guided Filipino mothers. She also volunteered in Perach, where she met the children of migrant workers who spend their days in youth clubs while their mothers work.


"We're to blame for the situation," she says. "For 20 years Israel imported migrant laborers and treated them just as a labor force and not as human beings who are 'liable' to fall in love, get married and have children. But there was also an unwritten policy not to deport children. As a result, the fathers were deported, and a population developed of single mothers who have to work around the clock.


"Children under the age of three are thrown into community kindergartens, 40 kids to one woman. When I began going there regularly, I realized how deep the deprivation was. Each time I opened the door I received a wave of children hungry for a hug and a kiss."


Clear policy needed

The root of the problem, Ilan says, is the lack of a clear, legal immigration policy in Israel.


"A state can decide it doesn’t want migrant laborers, and if that is the decision it should close the door," she says. "After all, the workers didn't fall from the sky – we brought them here. The lack of laws creates a cruel vacuum controlled by the private manpower agencies only concerned with their own profit.


"They are permitted to charge up to NIS 3,700 ($970) as mediation fees for each worker they bring to Israel, but in reality they charge NIS 10,000 to NIS 30,000 ($2,620 - $7,850). Then the worker must labor for two years just to pay off the loans he and his family took before he begins sending money home.


"Manpower agencies have an interest in bringing as many workers here as possible, in order to charge agency fees, which has led to a revolving door policy. Only in home nursing is it possible to repeatedly renew the work permit as long as the one being cared for remains alive. If he dies, or if the caregiver flees because of harassment, she goes back to the manpower agent and asks for a new employer.


"But why should they give her one? The agency prefers to charge mediation fees from a new worker, and the woman who lost her employment becomes illegal."


And what about the claim that the children are brought into the world so that the parents can obtain permission to remain in the country?


"Nonsense," Ilan says. "If that was the case, how is it that hundreds of thousands of workers have brought less than 2,000 children into the world? In our state, where there is no immigration policy, there are protocols. One is that a woman who gives birth loses her work permit and becomes illegal. Another determines that she is forbidden a partner. Only this month two women were arrested because it was discovered they had partners, but they're humans, not machines!


"Their children study in the Israeli education system. In Bialik School there is a wonderful mosaic of immigrant children, Arabs from Jaffa and new (Jewish) immigrants. It's the same in the scouts group in (south Tel Aviv's) Shapira neighborhood.


"It is easy to dismiss the immigrant population and associate it with violence and drugs, but the data shows there is less crime among the immigrants than in Israeli society at large," she says.


'We won'

Exactly a year ago, when Ilan heard that the State of Israel established the Oz Unit in order to expel foreign children, she knew she would not make do with words. She established the organization within a day with the help of three friends and three migrant workers and started distributing information via email and Facebook.


"We said that if 30 people join us that would be a success story, yet more than 100 Israelis who were willing to fully volunteer arrived," she said. "I started to approach the media and engage in major lobbying work."


Ilan turned to politicians across the spectrum and elicited the support of several prominent figures, including Gideon Sa'ar, Avishai Braverman, Dov Khenin, Nitzan Horowitz, Limor Livnat, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.


"Each week we organized a protest, published the photos and voices of the kids who have no other country. Public pressure grew, and we won," she said. "The prime minister announced that the expulsion is being put off. Through one month of activity we managed to change a government decision."


The first victory showed Ilan and her colleagues that they must continue with their public work.


"Following the protests and rallies we organized, the prime minister formed a special inter-ministerial committee tasked with looking into the issue of the kids. They invited me for its hearings in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. I was shaking with anxiety before every speech."


Turning her attention to the children, Rotem says: "In my opinion they are the most beautiful example of an Israeli. All they ask is to prove their belonging to their country of birth which they love with all their heart."



פרסום ראשון: 07.29.10, 19:22
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