Beth Franco kissed the ground when she arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in 1999. Though she never imagined she would be in the land where Jesus had once walked, she was eager to start this new chapter of her life. Back then, the beach city of Tel Aviv reminded her of Manila, in her native Philippines, but she has seen the skyline grow into jagged peaks as skyscrapers have shot up over the last two decades; and Ms. Franco has now lived almost half her 45 years in Israel.
Like many Filipinos who move to Israel, Ms. Franco entered the country on what is known as a caregiver visa. This allows foreign workers to stay in Israel temporarily, usually to care for elderly or disabled Israelis. Since she moved to Israel, Ms. Franco has lived with two different families during some of the most difficult parts of their lives, working for them through illnesses and deaths. Ms. Franco frequently saw her employers more often than they saw their own families. She is now working for her third family in Israel, this time as a housekeeper. But because of Israel’s strict rules about visas, she labors without the proper documents, putting her future in Israel at risk.
By becoming a mother while living in Israel, she violated the visa terms, which strictly prohibit workers from marrying or having children in Israel. She has no clear path to permanent residency or citizenship. She always knew this could happen, but she describes forming relationships and having children as almost inevitable for longtime workers in Israel. “Can you imagine yourself not having a child at my age?” she asked. “Of course you fall in love, and then eventually you have your own child,” Ms. Franco said. “I’m not a robot.”
Often without family members of their own nearby, workers like Ms. Franco often adopt the families under their care as their own. “You are entrusted with a person, a human being, a life,” she said. “The more years you spend with them, the more you love them. Because you don’t have your grandpa with you, you don’t have your grandma with you.... You look at them as if they’re your own family.”
Even though she is Catholic, Ms. Franco visits the synagogue on high holidays. “I have a belief in one God,” she said. When wished a happy Easter earlier this year, she responded, “Chag Pesach Sameach,” meaning “Happy Passover.”
Despite these deep connections to Israeli society, Ms. Franco’s future in the officially Jewish state is at risk, even despite becoming a mother to a child born in Israel. This child, Yael, now 12, identifies as Israeli. Yael says she feels more Israeli than Filipino. Hebrew is her first language, and she has never left Israel. “In every sense of the word she is Israeli,” Ms. Franco said, “and that’s the way she feels as well.”
Still, Ms. Franco and her daughter are at a higher risk of deportation now than ever before.
Ms. Franco’s conversations with Yael about their possible deportation have been difficult. She says her daughter tells her: “You can go back to the Philippines if you want, but I can’t. This is my country, this is where I was born. How can I leave?”
Ms. Franco is heartbroken by the prospect of losing the life she has built. She feels it is unfair that she is unable to have her own family in Israel when she has spent decades caring for the families of others.“I don’t understand—you’re not allowed to love,” she said. “How can it be, when we’re giving our own lives?”
The Israeli government has deported undocumented babies and young children for decades. The mothers could choose either to leave with their children—in which case they would lose their visas—or send the children home to live with relatives. Until recently, in something of a compromise, authorities allowed undocumented children who were enrolled in school to stay in the country. After a plan to deport school-going children in 2008 was later abandoned in response to a public outcry; for example, 800 children of migrant workers were granted amnesty.
Often without family members of their own nearby, workers like Beth Franco often adopt the families under their care as their own.
Last year, however, immigration officials began to detain Filipino mothers and ask them to sign documents that said they would be deported with their children by the end of this summer.
“I am very sad that they are doing this to our children,” Ms. Franco said. “This is not the fault of our children.”
Outsiders Residing in a Jewish State
When Filipino workers arrive in Israel, they find themselves in a nation whose culture, politics and laws are thoroughly Jewish—even though all its residents are not. That brings about some unexpected consequences for the Filipino Catholics living and working abroad in Israel. Some stop going to church, though in other cases, church becomes an even more important community than it was in the Philippines. Caregivers are surrounded by, and often partake in Jewish customs around the Sabbath (Shabbas), and some attend synagogue (schul) with the families they care for. A small number even convert to Judaism. As a result, caregivers describe feeling connected to Judaism. But no matter the lengths Filipino workers in Israel go to assimilate—and they must assimilate, to some extent, to do their jobs well—there is almost no possibility that they will become permanent residents of Israel.
Questions about who can become a permanent resident of Israel are not confined to Filipinos. The debate about rights for long-term foreign workers takes place against the backdrop of an older, bloodier and more complicated conflict, in which Palestinians are either unable or struggle to live in the places their families lived for generations, places they consider their homeland. Only a fraction of Palestinians are eligible for Israeli citizenship, and parts of the land Israel occupies are disputed by the United Nations. This year, at least 300 Palestinians were made homeless after Israeli forces demolished their homes. In this context, Israel is reluctant to grant non-Jews residency or citizenship, citing security, religious and cultural reasons.
And in recent years, the Israeli government has been criticized for refusing to allow refugees from countries such as Sudan and Eritrea to live and work in Israel. In the case of migrant worker families from the Philippines and elsewhere, like Ms. Franco and her daughter, the Israeli paper Haaretz reports President Reuven Rivlin of Israel considered acting to prevent their deportation. But he decided not to intervene on advice that it would “create a precedent for Israel to allow other groups of foreign nationals to stay in the country.” Knesset members such as Ofer Cassif, of the Hadash Party, and Michal Rozin, of the Meretz Party, have publicly denounced the deportations.
On the other hand, people who are Jewish, or married to or related to a Jew, can live in Israel long term. The Law of Return of 1950, which allows for all Jews to gain citizenship in Israel, is seen by many as a way to provide refuge for the Jewish people. The government was forced to define who is a Jew when, in the 1960s, a Catholic priest who had been raised Jewish in Poland attempted to claim Israeli citizenship under the law. He was refused. A Jew came to be legally defined as a person with at least one Jewish grandparent “or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped pass a controversial law last year that specifies Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, religious, and historic right to self-determination.”
When it comes to Christians in the Middle East, the population has dwindled for years because of conflict and emigration. Though their numbers are not high, the arrival of Filipinos and other migrant populations in Israel has helped stabilize the Christian population in the Holy Land. About eight in 10 Filipinos are Roman Catholic. In Israel, Christians make up only 2 percent of the population and there are even fewer in the Palestinian territories. The long-established Palestinian Melkite Catholic and Orthodox communities are shrinking in the regions where Jesus himself walked.
Despite the cultural and religious differences, Filipino Catholics working in Israel often develop much stronger relationships with their Jewish employers and neighbors than they do with other Catholics and Christians in the Holy Land. Many of the Catholics in Israel are Palestinian, with whom Filipino Catholics, like Ms. Franco, have little interaction.
David Neuhaus, S.J., works to bridge that gap between Catholics in the Holy Land. Father Neuhaus’s parents were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and he was raised Jewish in South Africa. But he converted to Catholicism after meeting a Russian Orthodox nun in Jerusalem who told him about her faith when he was a teenager. Father Neuhaus’s background prepared him to take on two key roles in the Roman Catholic Church in Israel. For 12 years, he led a church ministry serving Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Holy Land, and he also led efforts to provide pastoral services for migrants.
One need became clear quickly. Families must find their own childcare for babies under three; and for overseas workers with limited resources, this proves difficult. In the past, this meant utilizing “baby warehouses” affordable for these women, institutions that were unsafe, sometimes tragically so. “The day care facilities were so disastrous that you didn’t know if you would come and find your child alive or not. And when the child was dead, [the church] had to find burial places for them,” Father Neuhaus said. So he decided to do something about it. The result was a day care center intended to serve mostly children of Filipino single mothers who work long hours, in the Jerusalem suburb of Talbiya. It is named for St. Rachel, the matriarch from the Hebrew Bible.
Father Neuhaus spoke to America while standing in the playground of the St. Rachel Center for Children, stopping every now and then as children tugged on his shirt, seeking his attention. Like much of the land in the Holy Land, this neighborhood has a history filled with conflict. Most of the land in the leafy, upscale neighborhood is today owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, but it was once a suburb for wealthy Middle Eastern Christians, including the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians fled or lost the right to their homes, an event referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Most of Talbiya’s longtime residents, who were Palestinian Christians, left. Now the suburb is home to Beit HaNassi, the official residence of the president of Israel.
At the day care center, Father Neuhaus and his colleagues try to encourage a “sense of overarching Christian identity that makes us a little different,” he said. “But it’s not simple because of a lot of prejudice.” That prejudice appears to be mutual. Many Filipinos do not interact with Palestinians at work and perceive them as dangerous, while many Palestinians question why Filipinos are able to live and travel freely, to some extent, in the Holy Land when so many Palestinians face restrictions in their homeland.
“I try to work a lot on that by telling Palestinian Christians to come and visit us,” Father Neuhaus said. “There’s a bit of resentment, not only that we’re doing this for non-Palestinian Christians but also that we’re taking money that could go to Palestinian Christian communities. But I think that when people get to know what we’re doing, I think that [resentment] is allayed.”
Father Neuhaus said that despite the challenges, he has also seen inspiring signs of solidarity. “A few years ago, a big Palestinian school in East Jerusalem called. They said, ‘Please come; we’ve collected some Christmas presents for the children,’” he said. Father Neuhaus said that when he arrived there were so many presents for migrants from the Palestinian Christian school that he needed help carrying them back.
Father Neuhaus also established an afterschool program. While Israel’s public school system is robust and enrolls undocumented migrant children, he wanted to supplement their education.
In the spring, Father Neuhaus’s colleagues threw a rowdy Purim party for the older children, complete with hamantaschen pastries—three-cornered, jam-filled cookies—and face-painting to mark the holiday. Purim is a festival that marks the defeat of a plot to massacre the Jews, as recorded in the Book of Esther. In Israel, it is celebrated by religious and nonobservant Jews alike, marked with wacky costumes and gift-giving (and, as the Talmud instructs, drinking, though that wasn’t the case at this party). Here, the predominantly Catholic day care workers celebrated the holiday along with the mostly Catholic children in their care.
“These children are born here. We cannot deport them," said David Neuhaus, S.J.
At 10 years of age, Prince was the oldest boy at the Purim party. Unlike the younger children, who were dressed in “Frozen” and Spider-Man costumes and in Israeli army uniforms, Prince opted for neon glitter sprayed in his black hair, as he skirted the fringes of the playground in his T-shirt and jeans. A little girl adjusted her black stick-on mustache before sprinting across the playground in her pale blue Israeli police uniform.
Prince was one of the first children the day care center took in. Father Neuhaus said most of the children in the older cohort at St. Rachel, aside from access to education, “have no rights, no status, are completely ignored by the state.” The purpose of the program is to provide a safe space for young people like Prince, who were without any type of supervision outside of school, and to help them with their Hebrew as well as to give them religious education.
When asked why he came to the day care center, Prince told me it was a place to have fun and get help with his homework. Father Neuhaus asked Prince about everything he’s learned about the catechism. Prince laughed and shook his head—he was not as excited about the religious education, even though the after-school program he loved was at a Catholic day care center.
A more urgent concern for Prince and other children at St. Rachel is how they will be able to stay in Israel amid looming plans to deport up to 100 mothers and their undocumented children this summer. While the Roman Catholic Church in Israel has not spoken publicly in defense of the children—the last time they made a stance on migration was in defense of asylum seekers whom Israel was threatening to deport. But, personally, Father Neuhaus feels the new wave of deportations is immoral and that people in Israel should speak out against them.
“I feel very strongly that we should be shouting loud and clear that this is totally against human rights,” he said. “These children are born here. We cannot deport them.”
Overseas Work Essential for Filipino Families
Like other wealthy countries, including the United States, Israel relies on foreign workers to fill its labor needs. It is estimated that 250,000 foreign workers live in Israel, including about 30,000 Filipinos. Sometimes workers overstay or violate the terms of their visas, and for those reasons, cases of undocumented adults and children living in Israel illegally are not uncommon.
The Philippines created a model of exporting labor in the 1970s that is still in use today, and one that other countries have tried to follow. An estimated 2.3 million Filipinos, more than half of whom are women, work overseas in about 190 countries, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. That is about a tenth of the population of the Philippines. More than half of those overseas workers, 51 percent, labor in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Another 4 percent work in Bahrain, Israel, Lebanon or Jordan. Many Filipinos work abroad because of the low wages, scarce jobs and political turmoil they face in their home country; and the economy of the Philippines is now reliant on the money sent home by overseas workers. In 2017, Filipinos working abroad sent more than $28 billion back home, which makes it about as dependent on personal remittances as Egypt and Guatemala, according to the World Bank.
In the 1990s, the Israeli Ministry of Health sought to move care from hospitals to private homes to cut costs. At first, these minimum-wage jobs with long hours were held by Palestinians. As restrictions were put on the movement of Palestinians following the first and second intifadas, migrants from countries like the Philippines began to fill the jobs. Filipinos who work in Israel tend to work exclusively in health care services for Israeli families. In fact, the word caregiver is so closely associated with Filipino migrants today that Israelis use the nationality as shorthand. “I need a Filipino,” they might say in Hebrew if they are looking for a caregiver.
Amy Dillo moved to Israel more than a decade ago to work as a caregiver in order to send money home to her family. She spoke to America in Jerusalem, just outside the Catholic church that she attends weekly, where she sings in the choir. Her father’s salary back in the Philippines is 2,500 Filipino pesos a month, which is less than $50 U.S. By comparison, Ms. Dillo earns about 50,000 pesos a month, or $1,000, looking after an elderly Israeli woman.
Filipino caregivers like Ms. Dillo rely on their employer for income that supports themselves and their families at home—and to keep their visas. They have limited recourse if they are not paid on time, or paid enough, or face abuse or discrimination from their employers, though Israeli nonprofit organziations like Hotline and Kav La’Oved work to help protect their rights. This power imbalance can lead Filipino caregivers to abandon their caregiving jobs to work without documents, which leaves them even more vulnerable.
Ms. Dillo has a dark sense of humor about the challenges she faces as an overseas worker in Israel. When she talks about the hardest parts of being a caregiver here, Ms. Dillo gives a list: the difficulty in learning Hebrew; the misconception she is from “a tribe” and grew up without proper clothes (“Listen,” she recalled telling her employer, “a woman who has a lot of shoes is from the Philippines,” an allusion to the former Filipino First Lady); the struggle to convince her employer to respect her right to take off days when she wants to take them—and not just on the Jewish holidays.
But by far the hardest part of working in Israel for Ms. Dillo is being apart from her son. She gave birth to him in Israel but he was deported at the age of 3 months. “Aside from being religious, we are very family oriented. It is so difficult,” she said.
She said that immigration officials told her in 2010 she had to choose between losing her work visa or staying with her son. Knowing that her family back home relied on her income, she sent him back to the Philippines to live with her family. (Since 2011 authorities have allowed babies to remain with their mothers until their visas run out, but that was not the case when Ms. Dillo gave birth.)
Ms. Dillo admitted that she does not think she can cope with the separation from her son for much longer. She has seen her son in person only once since he was a few months old—and he is now 9.
When talking about the pain of this separation, Ms. Dillo is quick to downplay it. Comparing herself to the mothers of older children whom they left behind in the Philippines, she said, “It’s not as hard as they’re experiencing.”
“After a few months, O.K., I’m single again,” she joked. “But of course I’m looking after him; I’m watching him grow on the internet.”
But later, Ms. Dillo admitted that she does not think she can cope with the separation from her son for much longer. She has seen her son in person only once since he was a few months old—and he is now 9. She plans to leave Israel to be reunited with him for good in a year or two. “Before he forgets that I’m his mother,” she said.
Seeking God’s Help for Children in Israel
Every Friday, Ma’ann and Margaret take the hourlong bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where they seek divine aid—from multiple sources.
They are from the Philippines and they asked that only their first names be used, as they live and work without documents as housekeepers in Tel Aviv. From the bus stop in Jerusalem they walk through the Old City, where they find themselves in the overcrowded courtyard before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One of the most important Christian sites in the world, the church is thought to be built on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
On this particular Friday, the springtime sun bore down on the crowds pushing themselves into the dark church. Once Ma’ann and Margaret visited the tomb of Jesus, they began to walk to the Western Wall. Unlike the tourists who flounder in groups in the narrow, slippery cobbled streets, they wove their way quickly through the steady channel of Palestinian Muslims who walk to Jum’ah, Friday prayers, as the call to prayer sounded above them.
At the wall, the two women wrote their prayers on paper torn from a notebook, and after folding them into thick rectangles, pushed them into the cracks of the wall that they are able to reach through crowds of praying women. At each holy site, they asked God for the same thing: That their children will not be deported in this latest crackdown.
Ma’ann and Margaret are Catholics. While they do not go to church as much as they did while growing up in the Philippines, they still believe in God. And living in the Holy Land has given them a new appreciation for the Jewish faith of the families they work for and with whom they spend so much time.
“I promised that for nine consecutive Fridays I would be here because I am asking and begging for these kids that I’m trying to fight for, that they give us the chance to grant them to have a [legal] status,” said Ma’ann.
Together with her prayers, Ma’ann has been organizing meetings and protests against the anticipated deportations. Her friend and fellow organizer, Margaret, is one of the mothers who have been warned of being deported with their children in July. She was detained last year when she went to the pharmacy to buy medicine for her child. She was asked to sign deportation papers, which she refused to do, and was eventually released.
The protests organized by Ma’ann bear the name of her organization, the United Children of Israel. She chose the name so that the organization could vouch for more than Filipino children, including Eritrean and Nepali children. The protests have also garnered support from Israelis. In person, the classmates of children threatened with deportation have joined rallies, along with their teachers and school principals. Online, Israelis have posted selfies holding up signs that read, “Don’t deport kids.”
At each holy site, they asked God for the same thing: That their children will not be deported in this latest crackdown.
“You’re making me like Noah, like Moses,” Ma’ann said she had told God in prayer. “And the kids are behind me.”
Thousands of people attended a protest Ma’ann organized outside Yad Vashem, Tel Aviv’s Holocaust memorial, on Aug. 6 to support the right of Israeli-born children and their mothers to stay in Israel. At the protest, kids and their parents watched the sunset as they held up placards and waved Israeli flags. A group of Israeli students lifted up a sign that read: “We are also children of immigrants.” Elderly Israelis showed up to support their caregivers and housekeepers. But not everyone showed up in solidarity—some came to assert that Israel is within its rights to deport migrants, especially those from the Philippines. According to the Times of Israel, a group of counter-protesters held up a large sign reading, “Manila is not Auschwitz.”
Authorities are planning up to 100 deportations this summer alone, and U.C.I. estimates hundreds more to come. As of late August, two people—a Filipino mother and her 13-year-old son—have been deported and another four will be deported soon. More have been arrested and detained. Each protest Ma’ann organizes with her colleagues at U.C.I. becomes more fraught. Parents are afraid when walking to work or in the streets that they will be detained and deported. This helps explain why she prays at both the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “There’s no harm in trying,” she said. “There is only one God.”