A little girl in a daycare center in Tel Aviv. Photo: Invisible Kids
Yael Gvirtz, 60, was scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed one early Friday morning in April 2012 when she saw a post that would change her life. The longtime Tel Aviv resident stopped at a photograph of a burning building in the south of the city, just a 10-minute walk from her neighborhood.
The building, she learned, was a daycare located in a part of town that has struggled with poverty for decades. It was for children of African migrants who were part of a desperate flood of refugees who have poured across Israel’s southern border in droves over the last few years, and it became the target of a Molotov cocktail. Twenty-one children were asleep when the firebomb set its walls ablaze at 2 a.m. The flames were put out before reaching anyone, but the building was damaged beyond repair.
South Tel Aviv is peppered with ad-hoc daycare facilities for children of African migrants, whose parents—often single mothers struggling to raise several kids on their own without legal status in Israel—work off-the-books jobs far from home and are gone for days at a time.
“Babies and children were sleeping here, and he was aiming to kill them,” Gvirtz says of the arsonist. “I was just completely shocked. For nearly two hours I sat at my computer, thinking, I know how to write things sharply. But how can posting something about this possibly make a difference? I have to have another sort of reaction.”
Gvirtz is a longtime journalist and political activist in Israel. Just one year earlier, when Israel was rocked by social justice protests in the summer of 2011, she turned vegetarian and joined the crowds marching weekly to demand a better standard of living for Israel’s struggling middle class. Gvirtz gives lectures on harnessing social media and political journalism for social change. But she admits that until she saw that post on Facebook, she hadn’t really understood the scope of the human crisis unfolding for these refugee children, just a short bus ride from her own apartment.
She hunted down the address of the firebombed daycare and went to see it herself. When she knocked on the door, she says, the caregivers—a Nigerian couple who had come to Israel as refugees themselves—were afraid to let her in.
“They said, ‘We’ve been here for almost five years, and you’re the first Israeli who knocked on our door with good intentions,’” Gvirtz says. “The children inside were all so frightened. Here was this woman, she has two babies of her own and she is keeping 21 other babies in her house. It was so miserable and dirty, and the kids were so traumatized.”
The majority of children were from either Eritrea or Sudan, two nations that have been ravaged by conflict and civil war, leading to their citizens fleeing, often on foot, in a desperate mass migration across the globe. UN figures show that Israel is now home to about 53,000 African refugees and asylum seekers, 36,000 of whom are from Eritrea and 14,000 of whom are from Sudan.
Mostly, they come into the country illegally across the border with Egypt. Many of them have entered Israel since the beginning of 2015, reversing a trend of decline in the steady stream of illegal migrants through Egypt in 2013 and 2014.
Israel’s government has responded to the influx with a series of conflicting laws and reluctant policies. After the number of refugees swelled in 2010, the state began building a fence along its southern border with Egypt to keep out migrants, and also began rounding up the thousands of Africans who had slipped across the border in previous years and housing them in two detention facilities in the Negev desert.
A number of anti-infiltration laws that criminalized illegal entry to Israel were summarily passed, struck down and amended, and the government also began brokering third-country repatriation deals with African nations, in which refugees in Israel were paid a sum of money in exchange for a one-way ticket to either Rwanda and Uganda.
Meanwhile, despite its status as a signatory of the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Refugee Convention, the state has granted fewer than one percent of its asylum-seekers’ requests for asylum. The social and political status of illegal African migrants in Israel, a tiny Jewish nation surrounded by enemies, remains to this day a hotly controversial and intensely politicized topic. In south Tel Aviv, where the vast majority of refugees have settled and built a community, crime—the unhappy cousin of poverty and hardship—has skyrocketed. Many citizens, noting that 20 percent of Israel’s populace is Arab and the country remains surrounded by Muslim countries sworn to its destruction, are fearful that an influx of Africans will tip the nation’s already tenuous Jewish majority. Tropes of casual racism, xenophobia and paranoia run deep.
Gvirtz, for her part, says she understands the societal issues at play. But when it comes to a two-year-old child, born to a mother who was raped, fled genocide and is now simply trying to sleep through the night in a room crammed with other children, she says the individual youngsters matter.
She got to work, posting a call for assistance on Facebook and mobilizing her friends. Pretty soon, she had more than 200 volunteers ready to help.
“We said, ‘Okay, we know now that it’s possible for people to burn a kindergarten in Tel Aviv, but maybe it’s also possible to build a new one.’”
Three years later, Gvirtz became the leader of Elifelet, a recognized non-profit overseeing 10 daycares and two after-school facilities for migrant children in south Tel Aviv. Working with teachers from within the migrant community, they now take care of some 400 children and infants from more than 70 kindergartens, babysitters and afterschool “HomeMade” educational centers in Tel Aviv, and have hopes to double or triple those numbers. The children are born without records because of their complex legal status and are thus unable to obtain Israeli national rights for free medical care; their levels of hunger and physical distress due to poverty vary.
Gvirtz is one of a handful of local women in Israel who has decided to shove aside the politics of Israel’s refugee population, and instead dive headfirst into the humanitarian crisis that has spiraled out of it. Her work has drawn a local team of volunteers. Among them is Julie Fisher, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro.
“Asylum-seekers and their children face serious challenges. Many of the women have survived torture and other terrible experiences as they fled from dangerous situations in their home countries,” Fisher says. “The children of asylum-seekers face insurmountable challenges.”
Fisher is now a regular face at one of Elifelet’s daycares in south Tel Aviv, delivering supplies, talking to teachers and giving the children some cuddles.
“I try to do whatever is needed,” she says. “Sometimes I hold the babies, who might spend hours and hours in their cribs without being held.”
But there are still dozens of “pirate daycares” operating in Tel Aviv. They are converted one- or two-bedroom homes that are stuffed with children, with babies as young as three months who are left in cribs or car seats for days at a time with no entertainment, no social interaction and little in terms of diaper changing, feeding and safety oversight. There are exposed plugs, staircases without banisters and windows that either don’t open or don’t close. The mothers who leave their children here, Gvirtz says, are not negligent but rather desperate; these daycares—which cost about NIS 300 (about $79) per month compared with the NIS 4,000 or 5,000 ($1,056 – $1,320) that accredited caregivers will charge in the city’s better neighborhoods—are their only viable option.
Early this year, five babies died inside of pirate daycares in just eight weeks, a string of crises so shocking that the Israeli media, which often ignores the slums of south of Tel Aviv, ran a series of articles on the issue. This got the attention of Michal Stemmer, a 36-year-old mother of three who read about the deaths while pregnant with her youngest child.
Stemmer, a fundraising executive who moved from England to Tel Aviv six years ago, is active in the community organization Tel Aviv Mothers Make A Difference, a volunteer network of mostly affluent moms who work to improve the lives of low-income families around the city. A group of the volunteers decided to go see these pirate daycares for themselves, and Stemmer, nine months pregnant, insisted on joining them.
“I was ignorant to what was going on at my doorstep,” she admits now. “I went and I felt sick when I walked in. You don’t need convincing.”
Stemmer and her friends saw two daycares that day—one that is completely independent, and one that was receiving funds and help from Mesila, an arm of the Tel Aviv Municipality that works to provide social, educational and health assistance to the city’s refugee and migrant community. While neither was in good condition, the difference between the two was striking. But Mesila, which isn’t authorized to grant interviews to the media, is a small operation run out of a renovated trailer in south Tel Aviv. Stemmer decided to raise money and help them out.
She put together a website and a business plan, launching Invisible Kids, which raises funds to be delivered to Mesila for the sole purpose of improving the daycare situation of Tel Aviv’s migrant children. In its four months running, Stemmer has raised around NIS 30,000 (about $8,000), which is enough cash for Mesila to take a pirate daycare and renovate it, bring it up to code, train its teachers in best practices and provide bedding, food and toys for the children. She hopes to do the same about 10 times over in the next year.
“Mesila are the experts and they know what they’re doing, so I am raising money for them,” Stemmer says. “People run marathons because they like running and are good at training. Well, I’m good at fundraising, so I’m raising money in the way that I know how.”
Meanwhile, Mesila reports that the city of Tel Aviv has committed NIS 14 million (almost $4m) for the next three years to build a number of supervised daycare facilities, a move they hope will bring an end the deaths of and illnesses plaguing children.
It’s a great development, Gvirtz says, but one that also adds urgency to Elifelet’s goals of afterschool programs, because a city-funded daycare will be shut down if it operates outside of business hours, and for so many children in south Tel Aviv, parents simply aren’t always available for afternoon pick-up.
“The hardest part for me is when I see children wandering around in the streets late at night,” added Hadas Gur, who oversees Elifelet’s educational program. “I believe anyone who does work like we do, who volunteers, is in need of something in their own soul, and by giving to other people I am filling up my own heart.”