Most Aid Requests by Ukrainian Refugees in Israel Are for Food, but Funding Relies on Civil Society

17.04.22, Bar Peleg, Haaretz

Asylum Seeker Community

Most requests to the government hotline for Ukrainian refugees in Israel involve food aid, according to figures from the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

According to the ministry, the figures show that there is a food shortage among refugees – who are not allowed to work and depend on Israeli host families. As of Thursday, the hotline has received 5,732, of which 3,408 involved nutritional assistance.
Last week, in response to a High Court of Justice petition, the state detailed which services it would provide and finance for Ukrainian refugees and which services would be funded and operated by civil society organizations. According to the state’s response, Israel will fund medical assistance for refugees and housing solutions in extraordinary cases. The state and the Joint Distribution Committee are funding a refugee hotline, as well as providing food vouchers and mental health services. Dozens of NGOs and civil society groups are funding leisure activities, clothing, household equipment, SIM cards, transportation and other needs.

According to professionals in the Social Affairs Ministry, the government is responsible for funding 40 percent of the services listed. In its response to the High Court, the state stressed that it is providing services temporarily, for a few months, and that most services will be operated by civil society groups. However, much of the government assistance is not yet available, with most projects in the planning or tender-issue stages (for example, medical and psychological services, as well as emergency housing assistance).

The hotline for the refugees is run by the Tzav Hashaa (“Call to Action”) administration, established by the Social Affairs Ministry last month in collaboration with the JDC and Magen David Adom. The service has 15 operators, MDA staff and social workers from the ministry, paid employees and volunteers. In addition to providing information, the administration distributes nutritional assistance and equipment collected by dozens of NGOs and private companies.
According to the hotline figures, 1,400 food packages have been distributed along with 2,219 food vouchers, valued at 700 shekels ($217) per person. Eight food purchases were made through the administration’s budget. The head of administration and strategy at the Social Affairs Ministry, Ofer Zilbertal, who also heads the Tzav Hashaa administration, said: “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs plays an important role here; at the moment most of the requests have to do with food and equipment, but soon there will also be requests for housing. This is an unprecedented national event.”

Indeed, some 14,000 foreigners who are not eligible to make aliyah have entered Israel in the span of two months. In comparison, in 2010, a similar number of asylum seekers from Africa arrived in Israel over the course of a whole year. In contrast to its attitude toward African asylum seekers, the state is attempting to aid the Ukrainian refugees.

“The hotline has changed the mode of operation for social welfare: Normally, the ministry defers the responsibility to local social affairs authorities, which respond to individuals. Here, the state is directly assisting those in need,” Zilbertal explained.

After food aid, most requests to the hotline involve requests for equipment and non-food items. As of Thursday, 1,299 requests were received. Some 800 prepaid SIM cards, donated by a cell phone company, were distributed to refugees. Clothing, household items, cribs and baby carriages were also donated. Since the fighting began, the Social Affairs Ministry has received contributions of 125 mattresses, 97 beds, 21 cribs, and 24 baby carriages, through 224 NGOs, commercial companies and organizations. Four hundred refugees were referred to WIZO’s second-hand clothing stores and several dozen clothing vouchers were distributed.

However, refugees are still under equipped. Recently, Jewish Friends of Ukraine opened a pop-up “store” for refugees in Tel Aviv. The distribution center has everything refugees may need, from diapers to hygiene products and clothing. To make a “purchase,” shoppers only need to show a Ukrainian passport.

“Refugees in Israel have to depend on the kindness of strangers,” says Ellie Torkington, who operates the store along with other volunteers. “Civil society has limited resources compared to the state. We need involvement. The State of Israel cannot deny that they need basic help, like housing, health insurance and work permits,” she added.

The third most common need among refugees was medical care. The urgency of this need does not align with the amount of time it is taking the Government Procurement Administration to fund treatment through medical providers. Last month, the urgent care clinics operated by Terem were selected to provide medical help to refugees under the age of 60. However, the tender that Terem won will only be implemented in the coming months. The state will fund health insurance for refugees over 60, but no insurance company has been selected. Only one health maintenance organization and two insurance companies have responded to the tender.
Meanwhile, as of Thursday, the hotline received 1,081 requests for medical assistance. In the absence of government-funded health insurance, refugees are continuing to arrive at the Physicians for Human Rights open clinic. These patients include pregnant women requiring follow-up, parents of children with special needs, the chronically ill who need complex treatment and expensive medications, and people who need rehabilitation after an injury or a fall. “Despite all the grand declarations made when the hotline was established, in fact, the government has yet to provide a response. The protection of refugees requires the state to provide full medical aid throughout their time in Israel,” Zoe Gutzeit, the head of the clinic, said.

The hotline has also received some 200 requests for psychological aid. The requests have been referred to a special hotline, which is operated by the NGO NATAL. So far, 172 people have been referred to the hotline. NATAL has provided 13 hours of psychological treatment and one hour of emergency psychiatric treatment. The ministry says it will soon publish a tender to provide psychological services to refugees in need.

“People came with one suitcase. They grabbed whatever was in the cupboards and came without clothes,” says Naftali Yavets, who heads the administration’s team of social workers. “There is one 8-year-old girl who saw her mother murdered in front of her. She needs help. In a situation like that, I can’t wait for a tender to be issued. So we set up a small emergency fund,” he said.
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