The waiting room at the YEDID Citizen Rights Center in Tel Aviv is almost full. Clients are filling out paperwork, or waiting to be called. YEDID is an empowerment organization that helps low-income people in Israel access their legal, economic and social rights. Most people come here after exhausting other efforts.
Shuki sits at a desk facing a woman in obvious distress. He’s dressed in a neatly ironed silver-grey shirt. He looks to be in his late sixties. A retired government researcher who worked in something to do with “material science.” He lives on a comfortable government pension. Once a week he volunteers his time in the Tel Aviv center of YEDID. The work pretty much amounts to helping people negotiate their way through complex and often frustrating bureaucratic processes.
The client (let’s call her Natalie) sitting opposite him fights back tears, speaking in an Eastern European accent. She appears much older than her 46 years. “She has nothing to live on,” he says to me, explaining her circumstances. “She wants to be able to live…in difficulty,” he says with a mixture of humor and sympathy. In other words, she’s not looking for a handout. Now there’s no stopping the tears. She wipes them away with a tissue, and apologizes. “Her husband ran into difficulties,” he explains. “She has one salary — working as a cleaner at Ichilov Hospital. Her husband lost a lot of money, fell into depression and drugs.” Shuki’s empathy shows in his words and his patience. “She works hard. Everything is on her shoulders.”
Natalie breaks down the numbers: She earns 7,000 shekels a month working 40 hours a week as a municipal employee. Her mortgage is 5,800 shekels and she has other expenses that amount to 3,500, not including property taxes or utility bills. She lives in a three-room apartment with her husband and mother-in-law. After failing to receive a mortgage reduction when she approached the bank personally, she has turned to YEDID for help. She and her husband bought the apartment in Jaffa 14 years ago. And now she is in danger of losing it to the bank. “They told me I had to sell the apartment. I don’t have the strength to do that,” she says.
She has been coming to YEDID every week for three months. She always meets with Shuki. She hands him a pile of forms. Medical documents, receipts. Even a letter from the mother of a young patient. It speaks glowingly of her work ethic and her attentiveness. “There’s no-one like her,” it reads. Shuki goes through the paperwork, checking off documents, and making notes of what is still missing. She needs to produce three additional documents.
“Don’t cry,” he says. “It will be okay. Don’t worry. Tears aren’t going to impress. Just paperwork will help you.” It’s advice you hear at YEDID over and over again. “Keep all your paperwork.”
“She can’t leave here without crying,” he says after she departs.
“I don’t feel well,” says Shuki, taking a moment to talk about himself. “I need to go home and sleep. But I came in today specially to see her. It’s impossible with her tears,” he says. “I can’t let her down.”
But before he can leave the receptionist comes in and presents him with another file. “It’s a simple case,” she says. “I know you don’t feel well, but can you see her before you leave?”
A woman sits down. She is trying to get her rental payment reduced. Her paperwork has been sitting on a desk, waiting to be taken before an exemption committee. But each time she calls she is given the same answer—“I have not had the time to deal with your case.”
“How can she get away with this?” she asks Shuki. “It never ends. This has been going on for years. Every time I call or go in, I have to start from scratch. They told me she works Sundays and Tuesdays. I call repeatedly on those days and she never takes my calls. I go there and she refuses to let me in her office. It’s not just me, she’s like that to everyone.”
Shuki picks up the phone. On the second attempt he reaches the woman who holds the file and controls access to the committee. “You have been sitting on this request for three months,” he says. “I am a pensioner. In my whole life, I have never had an answer like this. The population that comes in here is weak. I want an answer from you.” He persists, his voice getting louder and more annoyed. “This woman has no way to live and you raise her rent.” The conversation continues in this manner for a few minutes. “I suggest you get back to me with a positive answer,” he says. “Why does this take time? The parliament needs to decide? They changed the law?”
Shuki hangs up. “Listen, we’re in their hands. She’s legally obliged to give a response. Call me in a week. If we don’t hear from her we’ll take it to the next stage.” She leaves disappointed. But she knows that with YEDID pursuing her case she has more chance than going it alone.
The waiting room is full now with mostly new faces. Three more men walk in. One appears homeless. He is wearing a Yankees baseball cap, and carrying a plastic bag filled with oranges. He finds the only empty chair. “That will be 20 shekels to open a file,” the receptionist says. It’s a one-time fee to receive services here. If they can’t afford the payment, they still receive the help. And they can keep coming back, year after year, case after case. All for 20 shekels — about five dollars at today’s exchange rate.
He could wait anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and a half to be seen. But like everyone in the waiting room he is patient. Because at the end of the wait lies some hope.