Friday, September 09, 2005

All for love

By Asaf Carmel
Haaretz - September 9, 2005
 
Natasha and Shaul (not their real names) met at an escort service in South Tel Aviv three years ago. She had arrived from Moldova a few months earlier. "I was promised work in caring for old people," she recalls, "but in the end they put me into work that wasn't so nice." He was a client. "Shaul was divorced five years before we met. A man has needs, you know. But he treated me nicely, not like the others," Natasha continues.
 
"In the end my whole salary went, and he wanted to take me away from there and be done with it. But the owner didn't like the idea. He demanded $5,000 and also started to treat us badly. Shaul took him for a man-to-man and told him, 'Either I leave here peacefully or there is going to be trouble.' We each paid $1,000 and left. I had nightmares for months afterward."
 
She moved in with Shaul and found a job as a caregiver for the elderly the work that had brought her to Israel in the first place. "Shaul's family received me well, even though I am Russian, and on television they keep saying that all the Russian women are whores - and that hurts me very much. Shaul is a truck driver, so we told his parents and brothers that he unloaded goods exactly next to the house of the old woman I care for. We didn't let them ask too many questions. Only a cousin of his knows the truth, because he was the one who brought him to the place where we met." A few months later, the couple went to Moldova to be married. There Shaul met Natasha's small daughter - from a previous relationship - who is being raised by Natasha's sister in the meantime.
 
Many months went by until Natasha, who was smuggled across the border from Egypt the first time she entered Israel, was allowed back into the country by the Interior Ministry so she could be with her husband. Today, they live in a small apartment in a city in the center of the country.Natasha, who is 32, is a saleswoman in a store, and Shaul, a beefy guy who will soon be 30, continues to burn up the kilometers in his truck. Natasha is in her seventh month of pregnancy. She hopes her 10-year-old daughter will soon be able to join her.
 
"In Moldova I registered my daughter as Shaul's daughter," she relates. "After I got back to Israel, his whole family suddenly started to explain to him that I was just pulling a fast one on him and that in the end he would have to pay me child support. I don't know what happened to them - maybe someone told them a tale while I was there. I told them that we want to live as a family and that they should keep out of our life.
 
"I want to convert to Judaism," she says, "so that the child in my womb will not be different and also to wash everything away and start fresh. Shaul and I do not talk about the past, but it bothers me. I feel as though I have a stain on my hand that won't come off."
 
Over the past few years, dozens of Israelis have married women who worked as prostitutes when they arrived in the country. The Interior Ministry does not know the exact number, but Reuven Lipkin, a Tel Aviv attorney, has already handled more than 20 such cases. Like Natasha and Shaul, many of Lipkin's clients met for the first time as prostitute and client. Then they fell in love, the woman managed somehow to extricate herself from the clutches of her boss, and the couple started a new life.
 
Does it sound romantic - like Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in "Pretty Woman"? Not to the Interior Ministry. Its officials are convinced that in most cases the marriage is fictitious, that the woman only wants release from bondage and the man is tired of having to pay for sex. Those who are insistent on true love have to endure an ordeal on the road to happiness. First of all, they have to leave Israel in order to marry, and then produce more and more documents. During the paper chase, the newlywed wife is usually not allowed to enter Israel. It is only months later, and after the Interior Ministry ascertains that the husband is well aware of his wife's past as a prostitute, that the couple is allowed to reunite.
 
All the couples who were interviewed for this article requested that their names not be used; all of them are trying to sever themselves from the past. They told their families and friends half-truths about the circumstances in which they met, and they were not eager to describe the start of their life together to a journalist, either. On one side are women who were forced into becoming prostitutes; on the other are men who sought sexual release in sleazy places, but stood out for their humanity. The men may have overcome stigmas and inhibitions and redeemed their wives from the gutter, but it is still hard for them to admit that they once paid for their favors - and, of course, that others did, too.
 
Nothing to write home about
Larissa and Moshe met 14 months ago at an escort service in the vicinity of the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. Life has not been kind to either of them. She arrived in Israel from Ukraine five years ago, knowing she would have to work as a prostitute. He is a truck driver who three years ago sold one of his kidneys to help him stay afloat economically. A year and a half ago he went through an ugly divorce; today he and Larissa are raising his two small children. "The first time I saw Moshe," Larissa
 
recalls, "I told myself: How terrific for the girl who has him for a husband." She soon discovered that her client was available and they became closer. "I went there everyday to persuade her that the work she was doing was not for her," Moshe relates. A few months later they moved into a rented apartment in metropolitan Tel Aviv. However, Larissa had not yet severed her ties with the escort service. "I was afraid it wouldn't work out. I already had a boyfriend here before and I stopped working, Then he turned out to be violent and I had a serious problem."
 
At the end of January, the police arrested her next to her place of work on a charge of being in the country illegally. She was released only because she agreed to testify against the owners. "When the police called me, my heart dropped to my balls," Moshe says. "But they told me that if I signed a bond of NIS 5,000 she would be released. I told them I would sign even for NIS 50,000."
 
After the arrest Larissa, who is 30, forsook prostitution. "We made a Lag b'Omer out of the clothes from the old job [meaning they burned them] and opened a new leaf," says Moshe, who is 34. "No one needs to know about the past. I buried it deep in the ground. What's important is the present. Larissa is working in a food plant and earns a respectable living. I love her and my children have it good with her, too." Larissa says that Moshe's parents also love her. "Well, but they don't know where I worked," she adds. "The family and friends think I am a new immigrant who came here alone. My past is not something nice to tell about and I don't want people to know."
 
"Believe me," Moshe says, "Larissa is a good girl. There are some people that you say this work is suitable for, but she is not like that. I have no idea how she slid into that kind of work." Larissa hears this and becomes agitated: "You Have no idea what it is to live in Ukraine. I worked there in Social Security and the money I made was only enough to pay carfare to get to work. I had no choice but to work in prostitution. I didn't steal from anyone."
 
Didn't it bother you to hook up with someone you met as a client?
 
"Women I worked with told me he would remind me of it my whole life, but so far it hasn't happened even once. The truth is that it does bother me. Moshe also says it's a pity we didn't meet [somewhere else]."
 
They hope the Interior Ministry will recognize their relationship and legalize Larissa's status. She is seemingly immune from deportation as long as she hasn't testified against the pimps, but she is nevertheless careful. "I try to go out only with Moshe and the children," she says. If she becomes pregnant, the Interior Ministry will have a hard time deporting her, but that is not on the cards right now. "I can't support another child," Moshe says. "I don't have another kidney to sell."
 
The truth stings
Maurice, 45, and Kay, 27, from Vietnam, met in Tel Aviv three years ago. "I have two grown children," Maurice says, "and I divorced their mother a few years ago. After that downfall, I started to wander around Tel Aviv in all kinds of places, and in one of them I met Kay. The place was a spa, not an escort service. The owner emphasized to me that I had come to the only place in South Tel Aviv that really is a spa. Kay and I liked each other from the first minute. I took her for a walk on the beach and we spent as much time together as we could."
 
However, the idyll was short-lived. The police did not share the owner's vision of a spa and shut it down. Kay, who was in the country without a permit, was placed in custody prior to deportation. "I went to see her in jail," Maurice recalls, "and I decided to pay her airfare to Vietnam so she wouldn't have to wait around for no reason. I then joined her there, and not long afterward we were married."
 
Kay says the age gap does not bother her. "For me it's not important," she says softly, mixing English and Hebrew. "Love does not depend on age." Her family warmly adopted the balding groom from Israel. "In Vietnam, most women marry at a very early age," she relates. "I was married at 24, which is considered old, and the only thing my mother wanted was for me to get married already." Maurice has hardly any family in Israel, but his friends were supportive - "both because I found a wife and because she is so young."
 
They live in a tiny apartment that is crammed with the toys of their 2-and-a-half year-old daughter. A whirring fan in a corner of the living room does nothing to help make the August heat bearable. On the wall is a photograph of their wedding: she in a white dress, he in a turquoise suit, with the Vietnamese family gathered around. Maurice likes his new wife's approach.
 
"She has an oriental mentality," he explains. "If the man decides we are not going out, then we don't go out. It's a matter of education. Take note that we are talking, but she is not intervening in the conversation - not like the Israeli women, who always butt in."
 
So you are happy?
 
"You would be happy, to. If you make a mistake about something, the Israeli women let you have it right away. She will say at most, in a quiet voice, that you are wrong. When she is really angry, she doesn't talk to you."
 
How do you see your future?
 
"I am now living one centimeter above the poverty line. If I see that I can find work that will give me a bit of a better livelihood, I will advance my wife. If not, she will stay stuck where she is now. She is not bitter, because in any case it's better for her to live here than to work like a mule in Vietnam and earn at most $50 a month."
 
Yana and Sergei live on the top floor of an apartment building on a quiet street in a large city in the center of the country. A hyperactive blond boy of 9 months plays on the carpet in the living room. Sergei immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1990, at the age of 13. After completing high school in the city where he lives, he served as a technician in the air force. He now works for Israel Military Industries as an electrician. He met Yana five years ago, not long after she arrived in the country from Moldova and found herself working for an escort service owned by Sergei's brother.
 
"I had no choice but to help out there with all kinds of technical things," Sergei says, "and that is how I spoke to Yana and a relationship developed between us. Every once in a while my brother and his partners let me take her out for a day. They wanted to give me the feeling that I was one of them and they also trusted me to make sure she didn't run off."
 
When the relationship between Sergei and Yana became closer, his brother tried to break it up. "He no longer agreed to my taking her out of the place, so I decided to cut myself off from them and take Yana with me," Sergei recalls. "One day I went to some lady who was working in the entrance and told her that at 2 A.M. Yana and I were leaving. I gave her a little money and told her, 'You saw nothing and heard nothing.'
 
"The next day my brother called and demanded Yana back. I told him to forget it and to treat her as though she had escaped. Then his partners called and demanded $6,000. They told me that if I didn't pay, they would get to me. I told them, 'No problem, as long as you know that 10 policemen will be waiting for you at the entrance.' In the end they took the money from a joint account I had with my brother. Since then he does not speakto me. Later the police raided the place and he was jailed."
 
Two and a half years ago, Sergei and Yana went to Moldova to get married. "We told her parents that she met me while working as a cleaning lady," Sergei says. "There is no reason to tell everything if the truth stings so much, especially when she was not to blame." After the wedding, Yana spent almost a year in the land of her youth. "Every time we submitted a document, they came up with a request for another document. One day the Interior Ministry remembered that they also need a certificate of good character in Yana's maiden name. Just to get that fucking paper she had to travel again all the way from where she lives to Kishinev and back. They also asked for a notarized document stating exactly how I met her. I think that was not legitimate. It's my business if I know what she did, but what business is it of theirs? How can I be sure that no one in the Interior Ministry will make the information public?"
 
Yana, who is 31, is still not fluent in Hebrew. She wants to study something, possibly nursing. She wanted to convert to Judaism, but the rabbinate rejected her request as long as she has temporary citizenship status. "I was very offended by that," Sergei says. "But it's not so terrible. Of 613 commandments, she is already observing two - she doesn't steal and she doesn't murder. You know, at first the connection between us was a bit strange. But afterward I understood that life has all kinds of shades and you never know where the good thing are."
 
The abuse goes on
An Israeli and a foreign prostitute who marry and want to live in the Holy Land have to submit a family unification request to the Interior Ministry. Like all other applicants, they have to come up with reams of documents, such as a certificate of good character and a birth certificate of the foreigner who wants to acquire Israeli citizenship. In the case of the prostitutes, most of whom arrived in the country
 
illegally, she needs a declaration from her home country, describing how she entered the country, where she worked and what she did. The problem is that the home countries of most of the prostitutes Russia, Ukraine and Moldova do not provide an official document of this kind. "It takes three to four months to organize this," attorney Lipkin says.
 
The family unification requests are handled by the regional offices of the Population Administration. "According to which office it is, I can tell you how long the procedure will take," Lipkin says. "In Rishon Letzion and in Tel Aviv and Holon it will take a few months. But in Petah Tikva it will take at least eight months and it is very likely that
 
entry to Israel will not be permitted until after a petition to the High Court of Justice. In Ramat Gan, it is 100 percent sure that it will get to the High Court.
 
"On one occasion, one of the women I represented was asked to produce an original birth certificate, not a reconstructed one. In the High Court hearing I told Justice Mishael Cheshin: 'Your honor, I don't know about you, but I have no idea where my birth certificate is, and my parents don't know, either. It's doubtful that the state's representative knows where his certificate is.' That very day we got a decision in favor of the petition."
 
Even after the young couple successfully produces all the relevant documents and the High Court authorizes the unification, if necessary, the ordeal is not over. A few weeks after the woman arrives back in the country, she is summoned to a hearing in the Interior Ministry. "In her husband's presence, she has to tell about her past as a prostitute after already declaring it in detail," Lipkin says. "Why exactly is this humiliation necessary?"
 
Another few weeks ago go by, and the couple is summoned to the Liaison Bureau, the unit that used to deal with bringing Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel, in order to ascertain the authenticity of the documents. Some of the couples complain about humiliating treatment there, too. The Liaison Bureau refused to allow the director of the consular section, Hanan Ahituv, to be interviewed for this article.
 
Leah Greenfeter-Gold, director of the Awareness Center for the study of prostitution and white slavery (trafficking in women), is also outraged by the attitude of the authorities toward couples consisting of Israeli men and former prostitutes: "These are women who underwent great abuse in Israel but still found a place of tranquillity here and are trying to establish a home and a family. But the Population Administration continues to abuse them and acts contrary to the decisions of the government and the interior ministers."
 
Sasi Katzir, head of the Population Center, is not fazed by the complaints. "There are dozens of cases every year of people who were granted status by fraud," he asserts, "and in some cases through the marriage of Israelis and call girls. In every such case we examine the correctness of the marriage. Sometimes the age gap is so great that it is clear the marriage will not last." At least four and a half years must go by from the moment a woman's entry into Israel is approved until she receives full citizenship. "We examine the correctness of the marriage every year, and if we receive all kinds of information that the couple has separated, we check those, too."
 
Katzir is certain that an original birth certificate can be obtained in Ukraine without any problem. "I have already heard that it's impossible to get to documents of various kinds, but it turns out that it is possible. All the documents we request are very important for knowing who we are letting into the country. I want to remind you that even the Law of Return has qualifications."
 
He admits that there is a lack of uniformity among the branches of the Population Administration. "You reached me just as I was leaving a seminar on the subject of graduated naturalization, and I hope that the disparities you are talking about are going to be reduced.
"A new procedure is due to come into effect very shortly. People seeking family unification will be able to submit a few preliminary documents, pay a deposit and enter the country within 30 days. They will then see to getting the other documents from here."
 
Katzir does not see the problem in confronting a former prostitute and her husband with the painful past. "When data is checked and we know the woman engaged in prostitution, the facts have to be verified. She speaks, what she says is taken down and that is the end of the matter."
 
The age factor
The story of Aryeh and Svetlana is Katzir's bad dream. He is a bus driver aged 57, she a Ukrainian of 28. He met her seven months ago, through a friend. "She is a good deal younger than I am, that is true, but we fell in love very quickly and moved in together. She is actually the first woman I have lived with for more than two days in the past 20 years."
 
Svetlana studied literature at a Ukraine university, but didn't know what to do afterward. Eventually she ended up in Israel, knowing she would work as a prostitute here. "She knew exactly what she was coming to," Aryeh says. "Where she comes from there is no electricity after 11 P.M. and the water is rationed. All people want to do is survive. But God gave the women there a gift - beauty and femininity - and they use that gift to escape."
 
When he met Svetlana, she was already independent. "She chose her clients herself. But after we fell in love she immediately became a housewife. You should only get cooking like hers. Instead of the money she sent the family, I send them a certain amount every month."
One day Svetlana went out to buy something and was picked up by the Immigration Police. She was deported to Ukraine; Aryeh flew there as fast as he could. "Her family received me fantastically and a short time later we were married." He does not recoil at maintaining a spousal relationship with a woman who engaged in prostitution not long before. "I never saw those women negatively. I was divorced for 25 years and occasionally I went to women like that. It's true that every once in a while I would start imagining who she was with and what she did, and I also talked to her about it. She told me 'It was only body, I did not give more than that.'"
 
Returning to Israel, he launched a legal battle to be reunited with Svetlana. Sitting in his neglected apartment on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, he opens an album with photographs of his alluring wife. "How can you not fall in love with something like this?" he says yearningly. "I consulted with a certain association and they told me that the age factor is quite critical, but who plans such things? I just paid a phone bill of NIS 3,000. If I am not allowed to live here with my wife, I will live with her somewhere else. No, definitely not in Ukraine, but in another country in Europe, where I was born and where I am eligible for citizenship. At my age it's not easy to start a new life, but maybe that will prove to the Interior Ministry that we are truly in love."
 
The sin on their heads
In contrast to all the other men mentioned in the article, Shmuel, 44, met Marina, 25, after she had fled the clutches of the pimps. "I came to Israel from Russia in 2000," she relates dryly, "and during a year I was sold six times." Finally, she was arrested in a police raid on the apartment at which she was staying. But Marina refused to accept her fate. She testified against the pimps and was released from prison. A good-hearted man opened his house to her, and his neighbors introduced her to Shmuel, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. "They asked me to translate documents she received from the police," he relates. "The first time I saw her, she looked like a wounded, scared animal. She hardly said a word."
 
Marina had good cause for concern. Two of the pimps who were convicted because of her testimony lived closed to her secret apartment. "One day they were on furlough and they suddenly spotted me. Somehow I got away, but I heard one of them say, 'There is the whore, I will kill her.'"
 
The threats drew Marina and Shmuel even closer. "I asked her whether she was sure she wanted to be with me or whether maybe the whole thing started only because I helped her," he says. "After all, 20 years separate us. She did not recoil, and I pressed the issue: I asked her what would happen if one day I had only enough money for bread and salt. She replied that on that day she would eat bread and salt with me. That won me over. Today we are not far from that situation, and we are truly together."
 
Marina barely ekes out a living from translation work; Shmuel is recovering from a serious operation and is not working. She did not make do with testifying against the pimps in a criminal procedure; she also filed suit against them in the Regional Labor Court in Be'er Sheva. She won the case. The pimps were ordered to pay her NIS 300,000. Now all that remains is to collect the money. "We got 300,000 on paper," Shmuel says, disappointed.
 
Instead of paying, the pimps send Marina increasingly threatening messages. "Two days ago someone called me and said he was an investigator for the National Insurance Institute," Shmuel says. "I was still drowsy from sleep and I gave him the address. Go know who it was." A few days later they had to leave the apartment because they could not pay the rent.
 
Marina has the status of a foreign worker, which she received because she was recognized as a victim of white slavery. A month and a half ago she gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Because of her mother's status, the baby is not eligible for health insurance. Only after Shmuel obtains the state's recognition of his paternity will the infant be issued a blue-and-white ID number. "Who ever heard of anything like it?" he says angrily. "I brought a baby into the world and now I have to prove I am her father."
 
Seven years ago, following the death of his brother, Shmuel became religiously observant. He wears a black skullcap and has a thick beard. Marina underwent conversion in the court of Rabbi Nissim Karlitz, in Bnei Brak. "I did not induce her," Shumel emphasizes. "I told her it was her affair and that anyone who does not do it for the sake of heaven is punished severely." After Marina's conversion the couple wanted to be married in a religious ceremony, but then it turned out that the special conversion court, headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman the state institution that is supposed to affirm Marina's affiliation with the Jewish people refuses to recognize the private conversion she underwent.
 
"The court asked me how long I have known her and whether I am aware of her past," Shmuel says, barely able to control his wrath. "I told them, 'Yes, I took her out of there.' It says in the Torah, 'Everyone who returns is welcomed.' Apparently the court forgot that before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai they were not Jews, either."
 
According to the halakha (Jewish religious law), Marina and Shmuel are forbidden to live together, not to mention have children. "That is not quite accurate," Shmuel says. "There is an explicit halakha about getting married. You don't need a rabbinate or rabbis. All you need is a ring of sanctification and two witnesses, and we did everything that was needed." But he is not satisfied with the solution under duress. "We are not allowed to live together, but we have no choice. I cannot throw her into the street, you know. Instead of helping us to get married as quickly as possible, the rabbinate is only holding us up. That sin is on their heads, not ours."
 

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