Keynote Address by Israeli and Foreign Activists: Foreigners in the Community – Refugee Youth

Yael Gvirtz, CEO, Elifelet – Citizens for Refugee Children

Karyn Thomas “Small Projects” (Istanbul)

Yael Gvirtz

By profession, I am a journalist and a biographer. About four years ago, my life changed. I was shocked when I heard that Molotov cocktails had been thrown at refugee children in the Shapira neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv. I decided to go there myself. Afterwards, the refugees told me that in more than four years in this country, I was the first Israeli to reach out to them with well-meaning intentions

I learned about the “children warehouses” in southern Tel Aviv. Thousands of children spend the day in cellars, in life-threatening conditions, neglected, and cramped. We faced a challenge and understood that we needed to organize towards action. We started at the end of 2012 with nothing. Today we run 14 “babysitter” centers, staffed by volunteers. In all, 250 people regularly volunteer their time. Among them are developmental specialists, doctors, dentists, teachers and teens. It is an island of civic caring.

In the past, soldiers also volunteered at our centers. But regrettably, the Minister of Defense [Liberman] decided to terminate the program. It’s unfortunate twice over: the soldiers made a significant impact, and it was a healthy psychological experience for the children. The refugee children fear anyone in uniform, and meeting soldiers was a positive experience for them.

Politics stoke whatever hostilities exist on the ground, which I find a shame. Reality is always quite complex. Even the media doesn’t bother to come see for themselves, thus contributing to the problem rather than to the solution. On a daily basis, people live together and over time they get to know each other, get used to each other. In many aspects we witness acceptance and understanding. I encounter a lot of kindness.

We must create safer environments for these children. We constantly examine reality and try to provide answers to whatever needs exist. The Tel Aviv municipality is trying its best to assist, but currently the only ones caring for these babies and children are civic organizations. The municipalities are deteriorating, and [besides not doing the work] there is neither documentation nor follow-up.

Children should be kept out of political debates. They are helpless and we must help them. I don’t know how we can get on with our lives when “children’s warehouses” exist in our midst, as a direct outcome of policies.