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Found in Translation

A new initiative of the Catholic Church cares for the children of migrants and refugees in Israel

text by Michele Chabin with photographs by Ilene Perlman

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As lunchtime approaches, Claudia Graziano and her team usher more than two dozen youngsters to colorful, pint-size plastic tables, while seating the youngest in highchairs.

As the staff and volunteers of the St. Rachel Day Care Center warm up food and fill sippy cups, Ms. Graziano leads a singalong, ending with a short, melodic prayer of thanks before the meal, and the sign of the cross.

Staff members, a mix of Catholic laypeople and religious sisters, address the children — born in Israel to migrants and asylum seekers — in Hebrew.

“If children who live in Israel don’t speak Hebrew, they enter the Israeli school system at the age of 3 seriously disadvantaged,” explains Ms. Graziano, the program’s director, as she spoons crushed carrots into a baby’s mouth.

Of the many day care centers in Jerusalem, the St. Rachel Center is considered a model facility for the children of migrants and asylum seekers, providing education and care at a level comparable to state-funded institutions. Moreover, it does this at a fraction of the cost, as the center draws most of its funding from organizations such as CNEWA and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Even for Israeli citizens, the least-expensive centers providing full-day care cost upward of $600 a month — far too much money for migrants from the Horn of Africa, India, the Philippines or Sri Lanka, who mostly clean houses or act as caregivers to elderly and disabled Israelis. At the St. Rachel Center, parents enroll their children for just over $100 per month.

The center is the newest day care program launched by the Rev. David Neuhaus, S.J., the Latin patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, in response to the growing needs of an underserved community.

Migrant rights remain a contentious issue in Israeli politics; the country’s government does not extend to workers from abroad the same breadth of social services citizens and permanent residents enjoy. For example, a 2014 study by Kav LaOved, an advocacy group for disadvantaged workers in Israel, found migrant women reported being dismissed due to pregnancy at increasing rates, a practice typically outlawed. When not fired outright, migrant women often work without maternity leave or risk losing the job on which their legal status depends.

Such parents have no choice but to place their children into the only facilities they can afford. Often these programs “warehouse” dozens of children — who are younger than 3 years old — under the supervision of a single untrained babysitter. In these filthy, overcrowded conditions, a number of children have even perished due to lack of feeding, untreated fevers or suffocation.

The St. Rachel Center, amply staffed and immaculately tidy, could not be more different. Its bright, cheery rooms, the abundance of toys and books as well as the happy atmosphere are a testament to the people who work there.

Lay staff and volunteers play a strong role in the center’s day-to-day operations, says Sister Claudia Linati, an Ursuline sister from Milan who directs the after-school program.

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