Mesila for the Community during Covid-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic and serious impact on the community of asylum seekers and other undocumented people, who reached a humanitarian crisis and acute hunger. In the last two years, the community health, mental and emotional resilience was compromised as a result of the crisis created by the panameic.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, many of the community members were fired from their jobs, primarily in the restaurant and hotel industries. At the height of the crisis, approximately 80% of the households were without any income at all.
Acute hunger and access to nutritious foods remain formidable challenges within the community; data from a community wide survey conducted by Mesila, the Bon Appetite program at the Tel-Aviv-Yafo Municipality and the Ministry of Health, which included about 500 members from the asylum seekers and undocumented people community, revealed that 86.2% are experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity (starvation).
We estimate that in the first year of the pandemic, at least one parent has been unemployed in roughly 50% of the households.
Asylum seekers are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits or other government allowances and most of them have no savings or family support.
The severe hardship is well felt in Mesila. Dozens of individuals crying out for help have come or telephoned Mesila on a daily basis. The number of requests for assistance with food, diapers, baby formula, rent, etc. that Mesila received has risen by 1,020% compared to the corresponding period in the previous year.
From March 2020 until the end of March 2021, we distributed:
13,969 food stamps - the stamps were distributed to Mesila patients, to applicants to the Exercise Rights Center and to the various organizations and associations that assist the community of asylum seekers and the statusless.
5,196 packages of dry food and prepared food
2,523 packs of diapers
1,043 tablets, craft and play kits, schoolbags and school supplies
763 hygiene kits
Furthermore, we worked to make all the pandemic-related information accessible to the community members. The community work team prepared, translated and uploaded all the vital information about the pandemic that has been published by the Ministry of Health and other government agencies on Mesila's Facebook page, which has become a kind of news channel. The information was also circulated in WhatsApp groups shared by Mesila staff and key activists in the community.
In the first year of the pandemic, Mesila's Advocacy and Support Center received 11,072 applications from community members nationwide. The Center led the massive distribution of direct financial assistance to community members.
In addition, We also coordinated the assistance given to all the organizations in the field. Mesila is an integral part of the Control Center that includes Tel-Aviv-Yafo Municipality, Ministry of Health, Home Front Command and Israel National Security Council. Mesila also taken a significant role in the steering committee for governmental and philanthropic financial humanitarian aid and distributing the assistance to the community members in Tel Aviv-Yafo.
Mesila also took part in establishing the first vaccine center in the world for undocumented people, with Sourasky Medical Center-Ichilov Hospital, the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, and the Ministry of Health. We recruited linguistic/cultural mediators to work at the vaccine center and prepared numerous informational materials designed to encourage the community members to come and get vaccinated.
All the while, we were constantly engaged in addressing the hardships seen on the ground.
During 2021, community members began to return to work; however, the repercussions from the pandemic continue to linger. Many asylum seeker families still have difficulties paying bills, such as daycare, children’s health insurance, food, rent, etc.
In 2021 Mesila has distributed:
3,700 purchase characters
7,782 food baskets
1,010 packs of diapers and baby food
120 schoolbags and primary school supplies
470 hygiene packages
Future health insurance debts and payments have been paid to 180 families including children with special needs
We assisted with daycare and club payments for 130 families
Many dozens of strollers, cribs, cots, bottles, pacifiers, clothes and toys donated for the benefit of the community's children were distributed.
Ori Halevy, a community social worker at the Advocacy and Support Center, share the challenges:
My job as a community social worker at Mesila is typically characterized by long-term projects, comprehensive research on the needs of the community of asylum seekers and undocumented people in Tel Aviv-Yafo, and ongoing efforts to devise ways to meet the changing needs of the community. Due to COVID pandemic, the nature of my work was totally transformed when I got on board the 'high-speed train' of caring for the community during the pandemic – a train operated by Mesila that has not yet stopped at any station since then.
Overnight, our work became dynamic and unpredictable. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we are in an unending race to address the enormous hardships that the community members are facing, while adapting our services to the changing.
As soon as reports began emerging about a virus raging somewhere in China, we began thinking about what relevant information should be conveyed to the community members, who are not consumers of the Israeli media. We wanted to make the information accessible, and that is what we have done since the outbreak of the pandemic.
When the first lockdown was imposed in the middle of March, we worked to meet the most basic needs of the most excluded community in the country, who are disenfranchised and lack support systems. Each day anew, we had to identify the most critical and pressing problems and provide an immediate and relevant response to them: circulating clear information in a number of languages, which involved cultural mediation, recruiting volunteers and activists in the community for different tasks, delivering food from home to home, organizing recreational activities for the children, guiding and supporting the community in coping with the crisis and the emotional stress, and much more. We worked at an accelerated pace and our adrenalin levels were sky high, which helped overcome the fear and anxiety that often appeared when I came home to my private nest.
When community members started testing positive for coronavirus, we painstakingly gathered each and every name so we could call those who were ill or were in quarantine and ask them how they were feeling, in addition to providing support and food. I remember one case in particular. A social worker from the Sourasky Medical Center-Ichilov Hospital called and told me about a woman from the community who had tested positive when she came to have her baby delivered. Her husband was immediately sent to quarantine in their home together with their other children, and the woman was separated from the newborn baby and was not allowed to see him. I spoke with the father, who was very distressed. He told me that he and his wife had no information about the condition of the baby. Furthermore, they were not prepared properly for the quarantine and lacked basic items that would be needed when his wife came home from the hospital. It is not easy to bring a baby into the world in a foreign country, with little knowledge of the language, without a family support system, and surely not when the mother has been infected with a virus. It pained me to think about this woman who had been separated from her baby and her husband and was left all alone. We mobilized quickly and managed to provide most of their needs and ease, if only a little, the complexity and difficulty of the situation.
As time elapsed, our work became increasingly intense. In June, we joined the establishment of a municipal control center and became an integral part of it. Our close acquaintance with the community was critical to locating and assisting those who were ill or had to be in quarantine. It was also critical to our ability to convey the frequently changing restrictions and procedures to the community. It was important to us to speak personally with the hundreds of people who were sick and offer them support and assistance. Those were very long days at the office, when the line between day and night was often blurred. But I felt that our work was vital and of unparalleled importance.
Our regular work also continued with the thousands of community members who were financially affected by the pandemic. Throughout the year, Mesila's offices remained open for distributing food and other money-related assistance because countless families lost their livelihood and, being devoid of basic rights, their troubles only multiplied.
Since the start of the pandemic, dozens of people have lined up next to our offices every day. All of them are facing tremendous hardship and are in need of assistance. One of the many meetings I had with them was unbearable for me. We were approached by a single mother with three small children who was fired at the outbreak of the pandemic. She had not been working for nine months and her landlord threatened to evict them as she was unable to pay the rent. I felt that the assistance we could provide was very meager given the woman's difficult situation, and that filled me with despair. However, coupled with those feelings, there are many days when I brim with pride because our door is always open to the community and many people come to us and find an answer to their hardship and pain.
I also draw strength from the activists and leaders in the community who, despite their own personal difficulties, have been contributing their time and energy for many long months in order to help the members of their community and do so in an inspiring way.
In addition to dealing with the current state of emergency, we have continued the whole time to assess the needs of the community in all areas of their lives. Applying a great degree of creativity and flexibility, we have been trying to think ahead about what steps to take next.