Foreign worker fears for daughter's fate
"She feels that she's Israeli," said Evelyn Yeboah, an illegal Ghanian worker, of her eight-year-old daughter Wendy who has never set foot outside the country. "She speaks in Hebrew. She writes in Hebrew."
Wendy's interest in Spanish, though, might be a better yardstick of her national identity: the language is all the rage among kids hooked on Argentinean TV programs. Pinat Or, Katantanot, and Hamordim are Wendy's favorite shows.
And the Spanish lessons she takes are something only available to her here. They are part of the after-school enrichment services offered to disadvantaged children near her South Tel Aviv home. In Ghana, Evelyn explains, "It all involves money," and therefore wouldn't be possible.
The Spanish classes, not to mention her Hebrew-based existence and Israeli friendships, might all come to an end if Wendy is not among the children of illegal foreign workers allowed to stay here.
The government is expected to decide shortly just which children, if any, will qualify for residency, since the state has indicated it would present its guidelines ahead of a court hearing scheduled for June 20.
An interministerial committee headed by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz has been deliberating for several months on the criteria for the one-off granting of permanent residency, which could perhaps lead to citizenship. Poraz and ministers from religious parties are pulling in different directions, touching on various formulations that put 10 or 12 as compromise ages. There's some chance that eight-year-olds could make the cut, but the most recently discussions reportedly centered on limiting eligibility to those in junior high or above.
That would leave the Yeboahs out of luck. "I'm praying to see if God will touch their hearts so that my child will be among the chosen ones," Evelyn said.
When she arrived on a Christian pilgrimage in 1995 before starting to work illegally as a house cleaner, she was four months pregnant.
"When I delivered here here, I was happy. [I thought] as long as I deliver my child here, I will get a visa," she said. "Later I found out that Israel isn't like other European countries... I felt so bad. I was astonished."
She also describes being taken aback by the manual labor she ended up doing to support herself and her family – including two older children – back home. In Ghana, she worked as a receptionist and a saleswoman.
"It was very, very hard. I regret not going back. I deeply, deeply regret it," she said. But, after all these years, her daughter wants to stay.
"It's the country I was born in, so I should live here," said Wendy, who shares her mother's wide eyes, round cheeks, and broad smile. She dismissed the idea of moving to Ghana with rolled eyes and glib Hebrew slang.
Besides, this is where she has her friends, her singing group, and her favorite foods – pita, olives, yellow cheese, pizza.
Those opposed to granting Wendy and other foreign workers' children status here cite concerns about the population being a drain on an already fragile economy and damaging the religious character of the state.
As Nahum Ido, spokesman for Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev, who has been negotiating on the issue with Poraz, put it, "Israel is a Jewish state."
But Sigal Rosen of the Hot Line for Migrant Workers objected to the notion that granting citizenship to these children would affect the state's make-up. She points to the 600 school-age children – only half of whom are older than 10 – before asking, "What's the big deal?"
She argues that most will leave for other Western countries when they get older, as have other non-Jews from Third World countries who have been granted Israeli passports.
She additionally contends that current enforcement levels – as compared to the non-existent efforts of a decade ago – make it impossible for future illegal workers to stay here long enough to put a child into first grade.
That's the point at which both Rosen and Yeboah think it becomes necessary to let foreign children stay.
Now that Wendy's spent her childhood here and knows only this culture, "it will be a disaster for her to go back," according to Rosen, who knows the family well.
"A child like Wendy, who answers her mother in Hebrew and has the Israeli chutzpa, will never fit into African society," she says. "She's not a polite girl who respects adults like African girls are supposed to. When she goes back to Africa, she will have a very hard time."
Indeed, when Evelyn tries to gussy up Wendy, she bounces around the small living room and tries to evade her mother's ministrations.
Still, the girl has a simpler argument: "I don't think they can just put me here or there. I'm not a toy. I'm a human being."