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'Illegal' toddlers pack Tel Aviv's pirate nurseries

by Daniella Cheslow

TEL AVIV, June 9, 2011 (AFP) - Blessing Okpara normally looks after 11 children in her cramped two-bedroom Tel Aviv apartment, but even with just five toddlers charging around the place looks fit to burst.

In this small, worn home Okpara runs a "pirate" nursery, one of dozens in Tel Aviv offering cut-price daycare to illegal immigrants.

Okpara herself entered Israel illegally, crossing the Egyptian border two years ago while pregnant, hoping for a better future for her child.

Now the 36-year-old charges fellow illegal migrants $115 (400 shekels) a month to leave their children with her daily in a dirt-poor southern Tel Aviv neighbourhood.

Okpara pays no taxes, is not supervised by the municipality, and she and her charges are at constant risk of deportation.

Some 100,000 of Israel's 220,000 foreign workers are in the country without permits. They and their children are considered illegal immigrants.

Last year, Israel's Interior Ministry said it would offer permanent residence permits to the children of illegal immigrants -- if the children had lived in Israel for more than five years and spoke Hebrew.

The decision meant 800 children would be allowed to remain in Israel, while the remainder who did not meet the criteria faced deportation in a process which began earlier this year.

Among those earmarked for expulsion are 120 children at Bialik-Rogozin school, a free public school for children of foreign workers, which was the subject of a film that won this year's Oscar for short documentary.

For Okpara, the daycare is a welcome source of income, even though it raises barely enough to pay her bills, let alone repaint the scuffed, mouldy walls.

Wearing trousers and a yellow T-shirt, she lowers the toddlers into two high chairs with split seats at lunchtime. The children taking turns to sit and eat pasta while watching Israeli cartoons on television.

Precious, a 15-month-old dressed in an oversized Spiderman jacket stares at another toddler whose nose drips as he rides a tricycle around the small apartment.

"This is a small place, and what I can provide is what I can afford," Okpara says while pulling one of her charges away from an open window.

The local municipality and non-governmental organisations say pirate creches like Okpara's can be improved.

Mesila, a group that seeks to help foreign workers in Israel, offers them training and money to renovate and equip their businesses.

With a staff of 10 social workers and an annual budget of two million shekels, 20 percent from the municipality, the organisation hopes to improve the options available to foreign workers.

"It's not a child's fault he was born illegal," says Mesila director and social worker Tamar Schwartz. "Mesila must take care of him as a person."

One block away from Okpara's apartment is a nursery that Mesila helped improve.

It is run by 37-year-old Ruby Austria, who came to Israel from the Philippines in 1996.

Mesila sent a trainer to Austria's nursery for two years, spent about $18,000 to renovate the space, and donated tables, chairs and toys, Schwartz says. Austria now charges $150 a month per child, including meals.

The contrast with Okpara's daycare is stark. At Austria's nursery, 15 children sit comfortably at low tables, chanting their ABCs to the rhythm of a tambourine aptly wielded by a helper.

Afterwards, the children colour. Kyle, a two-year-old wearing a bright blue shirt, using a blue crayon to trace the outlines of an Israeli flag.

"We give out our best for these children," Austria says. "If we don't give them attention, when they grow up unfulfilled it will be a problem for our community."

Shlomo Maslawi, a Tel Aviv city councillor and a critic of the government's policy on migrants, points out that Austria's daycare is an exceptional success among at least 50 pirate preschools known to authorities.

"These 'preschools' aren't 'preschools,' they are prisons," he told AFP. "The city has to find a budget and create preschools in the strong areas of Tel Aviv."

At present, there are no public preschools for foreign children in Tel Aviv. Subsidised private daycare is off-limits to non-Israeli citizens, and foreign workers cannot afford to send their children to unsubsidised private schools.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour works with Mesila to close nurseries considered unsafe as the threat of deportation looms ever larger.

"All these children meet the criteriat for deportation," Austria told AFP, pointing to a group of toddlers lying on blankets. "As their teachers, it really hurts us."

For now, Mesila hopes to continue reforming the shadow daycare system, with plans to help 30 more nurseries.

With enough funds, Schwartz says she could reform all 30 within two years, but Mesila faces growing pressure on its largely donor-funded budget.

"We built two new preschools and had to stop renovations on a third because we didn't have the money," she says.

"I have to turn to donors to give children their basic rights."


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