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Time for Life

Last updated: 2005-01-16

Louise Blustin in South Africa

Louise Blustin in South Africa

Three young members of the Jewish Community have just returned from Argentina and South Africa where they spent three months delivering aid to fellow Jews living in economic and social hardship.

SomethingJewish finds out what they did as participants on the Time for Life international volunteer programme run by the overseas humanitarian aid charity World Jewish Relief,

Gil Rabbie, 23 and Jocelyn Boorman, 22 both graduated from university last year and travelled to Buenos Aires, where they helped support the local community recover from the terrible economic and social crisis which has ripped through the country, destroyed the middle class and seen the emergence of the “New Poor”. The Jewish community was a previously prosperous one, but families have been savaged by having had savings wiped out, losing jobs and even homes on an unprecedented scale in the last couple of years. The volunteers worked in a number of different welfare institutions.

Their medical aid work involved sorting donated medicines at the Central Pharmacy for distribution to clients at the 75 Social Assistance Centres around the country. The Ariel Job Centre, part-funded by World Jewish Relief, was established during the height of the crisis. Its objective is to assist the thousands of unemployed members of the Jewish Community who have backgrounds in professional sectors such as law, finance and trade by helping them find jobs, start new businesses and gain confidence to re-enter the job market. Gil and Jocelyn aided this process by teaching them English several times a week. Due to the strong influence of American multinationals in the area, speaking English is crucial to improving job prospects; however, pride is also a key factor amongst this community who once had so much, only to see it taken from them. Many were left with nothing overnight. Maintaining one’s dignity by obscuring what is really going on behind closed doors is common among these people. Jocelyn’s insight from having worked among the community is revealing:

“I didn’t know what to expect before I came here but what I have found is a lot of contradictions. For the majority of Jewish people, their poverty cannot be seen by looking at them, they are well groomed and still living in the same apartments they lived in before the crisis. Yet some people are really struggling”

They also gave out the basics; food and clothing. Yanina is a single mother they helped support; she struggles to make ends meet with three children and does not have a fridge that works. Visiting the family home, it was obvious that she was finding life very difficult, not only because of her financial difficulties but because each of her children has health problems. Her 11 year old daughter is overweight because she has stuffed herself full of bread to satisfy her hunger, the 6 year old has been having convulsions and the baby has to be monitored closely by doctors. Yanina receives support in the form of vitamins and other essential goods for her baby, as well as second-hand clothes for her and her children.
Fulfilling the Talmudic principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), they also gave important support to non-Jewish children living in absolute poverty in shanty towns by teaching Information Technology in a local school.

Gil sums up his experience by saying:

“It has been an incredible experience that has required hard work, versatility and emotional sensitivity on a daily basis. In return we have been rewarded with sincere gratitude and an immense sense of satisfaction. The reality of Argentina in 2005 is a dark one and the Jewish community here is in no way immune. Our work has been productive and well targeted but nevertheless, only a drop in the ocean compared with the magnitude of what is needed. We are not expecting to solve the world’s problems, but we are bettering the lives of some. As Jews, we must commit our aid in their time of need. That time is now.”

Louise Blustin, 22 of Radlett in Hertfordshire, has had an altogether different but equally rewarding and enriching experience. She was based in Johannesburg where although there is no short-term immediate social crisis, the country is trying to rebuild its society and construct a fledgling democracy. However, Jews (like all whites) are being discriminated against in the Job market as part of a nationwide Government strategy to reverse the trends set by the racist apartheid era. Louise explains

“The policy specifically dictates that black people applying for jobs have to be favoured over whites – i.e. positive discrimination.  When I asked my students about the policy the majority said even though it is making it harder for them to find jobs, they agree with it, seeing it as something necessary. I have the feeling however, that to say otherwise – to call out against the policy – would be so politically incorrect, that many people in fact are not happy and do not agree with it, but they simply do not say so”.

The Government has set a target for all businesses and organisations to “accurately reflect the national demography in terms of the racial backgrounds of staff in their workplace” by 2006. This means that in just over a years time, 80% of staff must be black, and 20% white, with huge fines and other penalties for those companies who fail to meet this criteria. The current trend among skilled labour is in exactly the opposite proportion which means that Jews (and whites in general) are being laid off on a massive scale and those currently out of work are virtually unemployable. The aid that Louise provided was education and training focussed and she ran an I.T. course for those Jews who need to be re-skilled to aid their chances of getting work.

Another element of the programme involves working with Black disadvantaged communities to help them overcome the poverty, lack of skills and opportunities, offset by the legacy of apartheid. These placements include participating in Aids and HIV awareness and other work in townships. Another project she worked on involved facilitating the co-ordination of local women's groups to run small entrepreneurial businesses. She had to try to motivate and instil in them the confidence to use the skills they had learned in order to work themselves out of poverty by creating, packaging and marketing native art products.

Louise described the problems she faced; “At the beginning it was very hard to make them realise their own potential. When I first told them they had the potential to start up a business and make money for themselves, I might as well have been saying that they could walk on water.  However, after asking them to raffle off some of their goods they saw that people would pay money for them, and they started to believe me, and in their own abilities.”

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