UNITAF – combating “pirate” kindergartens

A little haven in the central bus station of Tel Aviv

The last thing you’d expect to find in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is a daycare centre. When walking near the station, it’s hard not to be struck by its ugliness. In fact a Ha-aretz article describes it as “ a gigantic cement maze” and calls for it to “be wiped off the face of the earth”.  As the second largest bus station in the world, housing a shopping mall with over 1000 shops, 29 escalators and 13 lifts, it is pretty imposing. The original anchor tenants have all gone out of business and have been replaced by seedy looking stores selling cheap products to the surrounding trade of new immigrants.

You would be forgiven for thinking its not the most likely place for nurturing kids. And yet…

When I arrived at the bus station to meet Ofra Paz, she led me to a place that shattered all expectations. Having struggled through roughly 16 of the 29 escalators, about half as many lifts, crossed bridges over strange chasms and stumbled through tunnels, Ofra showed me the light. Round a corner and through the door, we arrived at UNITAF. Here I discovered toddler utopia. Over sixty little faces of diverse nationality and races, peered happily at me and shouted out greetings from their colourful and cozy little centre.

This is their story.

After the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel closed its borders to the Occupied Territories. As a result of the now labour shortage, an influx of migrant workers from countries like China, the Philippines and India began. Then, in 2007,  Israel suddenly found itself part of a world-wide phenomenon – a place to which a small percentage of the 15 million refugees from around the world, would flee. Thousands of asylum seekers were streaming across the Egyptian border from African countries.

By the time, the Israeli authorities had formed its Immigration Police and started to create laws to deal with the influx of asylum seekers, families and communities has been established.  Today it is said there are over 30 000 African asylum seekers in Israel, many of which are children.

A significant number are refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These folks fled civil war, armed conflict and persecution in their native countries, arrived at the Israel-Egypt border on foot, and sought asylum from IDF soldiers.

Unfortunately, while many (about 85% of the total number of asylum seekers) have been given Group Protection status and cannot be deported, they are not eligible for the national educational, healthcare and welfare benefits normally allotted to Israeli citizens. (See article about Hotline for Migrant Workers). Their children however, while not receiving any status, are entitled to go to school from the age of 3. (See  the website about the award-winning film Strangers No More) But many parents, with kids under 3, who need to work to survive, often as cleaners or in hotels, are stuck.

Up until recently, the only option for many parents was to send their infants and toddlers to makeshift, communal babysitting facilities, which have been set up in dilapidated buildings in South Tel Aviv by untrained (yet enterprising) women from the foreign community.

Nicknamed “pirate kindergartens,”  there are said to be over twenty such places, many of which have just 2 adults to watch over, feed, change nappies and manage over forty children from 8am-8pm. Needless to say there is no educational work that is being done with these children. Poorly-equipped and over-crowded, with children often “caged” in cribs and playpens, this is clearly not a happy situation. Apart from hygiene and safety hazards, the repercussions on the development of these children have been predictably frightening.

In order to rescue the children languishing in the makeshift facilities and in order to provide working parents with an alternative, in 2005, a private fund, together with the Municipality of Tel Aviv, started UNITAF.  Today, UNITAF has two state of the art daycare centers for refugee and foreign workers’ children, as well as two after- schools programmes for children aged 3-6, added in 2010. Over 200 children are cared for in all of UNITAF’s branches.

At the centre in the bus station that I visited, children are cared for by women from the foreign community who have been especially trained by Israeli educators to run the daycare facilities in a professional and compassionate manner. The environment is pleasant and learning-conducive. Each child receives three nutritious meals a day, individual attention, mental stimulation and emotional support.

Experts are on hand to diagnose potential developmental problems and to arrange treatment if necessary. Care is given to create a pluralistic atmosphere where children from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds can spend long hours together and flourish.

In the Unitaf centers also emphasize the work with the families of the children offering parental guidance and social and emotional support. In many cases, the social workers of UNITAF are the only source of help for these underprivileged  families in times of trouble or need.

Even though progress has been made, it is only a beginning. The two existing UNITAF centers have a maximum enrollment capacity of 160 and cannot possibly accommodate the hundreds of children who are still languishing in makeshift babysitting facilities.

More UNITAF centers are needed before developmental delays often associated with sub-standard childcare become irreversible. A third UNITAF Center accommodating an additional 60 children is the next step. To accomplish this, a new facility, also located inside Tel-Aviv central bus station is currently being established.

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IF UNITAF WERE TO WIN  $1000 it would use it to furnish the new centre which is currently being completed inside Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

Read an article about UNITAF in Haaretz from 10 May 2012

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