By Tyler Fishbone, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa
Every Sunday, as part of my volunteering with Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, I spend 3-5 hours at a daycare facility for migrant workers.
Tel Aviv plays host to a majority of the almost 300,000 migrant workers and refugees in Israel. These people have a tough time getting jobs because many of them do not have legal status. The jobs they do end up getting don't pay a lot, and thus they have to work long hours in order to stay afloat, especially if they have children.
As any parent knows, there is a time when you have to decide whether or not one of the two of you is going to take off work to be with the new child, or if you are going to send your baby to daycare. My parents took care of me for months upon months, and then sent me at the age of two to a wonderful daycare called Child Garden. I was one of the lucky ones.
Israel will provide free public education to any child from age 3 onward. It doesn't matter who you are--the child of an illegal immigrant or Netanyahu's son, you've got a place to go to school. Until the age of 3, however, you're on your own.
Normal daycare centers in Israel are very expensive, and so migrant workers and refugees have no chance of being able to afford them. Thus, a vital, but sad, institution is set up: the unlicensed daycare. I volunteer in one of them.
Usually run by African women who are themselves refugees or migrant workers (and who are really very sweet), the day care costs about 500 shekels ($130) dollars per month. I've never personally paid for day care, but I'm guessing that those who have would regard this as a pretty good deal. Because of how cheap it is, the women must accept a lot of children in order to make their business viable (viable, not profitable), and usually run them out of their own homes.
The daycare center where I volunteer is a narrow, two-story house with an accessible roof. The babies under one year-old are on the first floor, and are in a space that's about 20x20 feet. When I say this, I mean there are 20 cribs in this space along the walls, and the middle is the play area.
When I have been there, there has only ever been one woman working this room (a wonderful African woman named Grace). The reason there aren't more is that there are around 15 more kids upstairs, all between ages 1-3, and thus all are full of energy. There are usually two women up there. They have two rooms that probably combine to about 30x30 feet. This is not enough space for either floor.
The situation in these places is severe. They are almost always understaffed, and what staff there is, for all their good intentions, usually has no formal training in child care. A couple of months ago, a baby in a similar daycare center died from choking on its own vomit. No one saw because there were too many kids to keep track of.
In an attempt to provide services for the migrant worker and refugee populations in Tel Aviv, the city government formed an agency called Mesila. Among the services they provide, Mesila offers training to the operators of these unlicensed daycare centers, and tries to place volunteers (like me) in them to increase the amount of adult supervision per-child.
I mostly work on the baby floor. I haven't spent that much time around babies in my life so it has been a very intense experience so far - 20 babies in a room with me and a woman who is basically changing a diaper every five minutes... It smells great in there.
Although the babies make me unbelievably happy (really, it's like some sort of drug) the condition you find them in is often sad. Because there are only one or two women down there, only a couple of babies can be out of their cribs at any one time. And most do not like their cribs at all. They do not go outside during the day and, because of the noise, or fears about the immigration police, the front windows cannot be open.
I wish we could let them run around in an open grassy field where it wouldn't hurt if they fell, but field trips rarely happen at places like this.
As you read this, no doubt a sad image is conjured, and that's good because it really is a sad state of affairs for these kids. I do want to say, however, that I have met several of the parents of these children--low-income workers themselves--and they have all been very warm people.
Another very cool aspect that grows out of this is that there is no definite ethic identity inside there. There are Russian babies, Indian babies, African babies, Arab babies, Asian babies, and one that I swear looks like an Eskimo. It's nice to see kids raised in such a diverse environment, even before they understand what diversity is.
The time I've spent with them has made me genuinely happy; seeing them smile, making them laugh, feeling their strong grip on my finger or my shoulder when I pick them up. It has made me unbelievably excited to have a kid for myself.
Sometimes I feel a little funny knowing I have a college degree worth more money than I'd like to admit, yet here I am spending my time playing with kids a couple months old. But I've found, so far on this trip with people of all ages, that they just want to be looked in the eye and smiled at. It's really amazing how much you can communicate like that.
I am exhausted and satisfied every time I walk out of this place.
Tyler Fishbone, of St. Louis, is currently a participant on the Social Action Track of Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a 5-10 month volunteer and study program for English-speaking college graduates from around the Jewish world in Israel. More information on Tikkun Olam can be found at http://www.tikkunolamisrael.org.