Volunteering in Israel

The Volunteers Who Hug Babies Abandoned in Israel's Hospitals

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Talking to: Sivan Almoz, 49, lives in Karkur, social worker and director of First Hug Association. Where: The organizationís headquarters in Ramat Gan. When: Thursday at 9:30 A.M.About 300 babies are abandoned in Israel every year. How extensively does First Hug, the nonprofit association you head, address this sad phenomenon,The abandonment of babies is a phenomenon that has existed since the dawn of Jewish history, beginning with Moses. Itís painful and harsh for an infant to be torn away from its parents, and itís not always done in the wake of a cold, conscious decision. Our association, which is funded by private donations and operates in 29 hospitals and rehabilitative institutions, reaches out to these babies through a network of 500 volunteers [mostly women but also men].

Under what circumstances are infants abandoned in hospitals?Healthy babies, even those whose parents donít want them, are discharged from the hospital after a few days. Those that are left behind are generally sick or have some sort of birth defect, and are hospitalized for lengthy periods. They lie alone in a cradle under fluorescent lights, and no one comes to hug them. Infants have no sense of time Ė they donít know whether theyíve been alone for two hours or a week. Subjectively, they feel that no one is responding to them, no one is holding them in her arms. That is what should touch us all.

The circumstances are different and diverse, of course. Some parents announce that they simply cannot or do not wish to raise the child, because he is sick or has a problem. There are cases in which the mother is on drugs and the baby is born addicted. In the best case, when the mother decides that she wants to keep the baby, she enters a rehabilitative institution and her baby remains in the hospital. She has no access to him. Infants who are weaned from drugs suffer tremendous pain; they receive powerful painkillers together with a synthetic drug substitute. The only thing that calms them is being held, but that is something his mother, who is undergoing very tough rehab herself, cannot do.


There are also tragic cases of mothers who die in childbirth. Where the father has another small child at home and cannot handle a preemie. In some cases, the mother is a convict in prison and is not allowed to be with the newborn while he is in the hospital. And there are the shocking stories of infants whose parents are under arrest on suspicion of abuse and are not allowed to be with them, so we are with them instead.

What do your volunteers actually do?They come regularly, and over a period of time, to hug the baby and look after him throughout the hospitalization period, until he is discharged. They give warmth and love, bathe the baby and sing him songs. Over and above the important contribution of the hug to the infantís emotional and social development, the sense of security it affords, the emotional regularization, our role Ė that of the volunteer caregiver Ė is to mediate the external world to the infant. As a parent, you are able to read your babyís crying, but this baby doesnít have a parent whoís attentive to him. An infant who cries once, twice, three times, 10 times and doesnít get a response, develops a sense of despair.

He grasps that he has no influence on the external world. He disconnects.



One of the saddest things, from our point of view, is to encounter babies who are incapable of crying.

Iím speechless.

It happens: There are babies who donít cry. Itís not because theyíre mute. Itís just heartbreaking to see a baby like that, who is connected to all kinds of machines and not crying.

It takes a great deal of inner fortitude to engage in the volunteering you describe. Beyond the difficult circumstances, this is a very complex dynamic of connecting and parting. In the end, you are parting from the baby forever.

Yes. Again, bear in mind the circumstances of the abandonment. Some newborns are very sick and have a life expectancy of only a few months. The parents decide that they will part from the baby and he remains in the hospital until his death. The volunteers know that this infant could die at any moment, but they still visit with him.

All our volunteers receive training and support from the associationís social workers. We make a point of conducting a process of parting, of closure, both in cases of mortally ill infants and with those who go on to other places. That helps the volunteer to recover a little, to go on to the next infant. In our matchmaking between volunteers and infants, we try to match a volunteer who lost an infant herself with a healthy infant who will be put up for adoption, so she will have an easier experience. But yes, itís far from simple.

What does a volunteer know about the baby she will be hugging?

We donít tell her anything. She knows only the age, medical condition, the hospitalís requirements in terms of feeding and sustaining the life of the infant, and whether he is abandoned or his parents are in the picture in some way. The volunteer has to connect with the infant, not the parents. Her role is extremely important: She can change the entire course of the babyís life.

By giving him a proper experience of attachment, even if itís partial.

Yes, and in some cases much more. Newborns with a disability will be moved from the hospital to a rehabilitative institution or into rehabilitative foster care. In a rehab institution, the infant is in a room with a few other babies and is treated by the staff. In contrast, rehabilitative foster care is a family in every respect; itís a home with parents who receive support specifically to care for a child with problems. There are infants whose defects prevent them from being bottle-fed [or nursing]. Our volunteers teach them to suckle. That changes an infantís life radically Ė if heís not on medical support Ė because he can then go into foster care rather than an institution. For months our volunteers very patiently teach the infant to suckle Ė 2 cc. at first, then five, then 10, until he learns. An infant who has learned to suckle will get a mother and a family, not a bed in an institution.

How difficult it must be to let go, in the knowledge that a hard life is in store for this baby Ė that these months when he was hugged may well turn out to be the best period of his life.

Itís hugely difficult. Not long ago, at an instantís notice, I took a volunteer to an abandoned baby whoíd been given just a few days to live. I told the volunteer, who is a very emotionally resilient woman, that I would understand if she said no. But that wasnít an option for her; obviously she was going to go, so that the baby would leave this world hugged and loved and not alone. But the baby died that very night [before she arrived]. When I called to tell her, she said she felt terribly sad for not having hugged him until the very end. You know, we believe that we are equipping him for a journey and we imagine that he is going to a better place.

Shattered illusions

How do you select the volunteers?

They undergo a very deep and complex selection process.

I always dreamed of volunteering in your association. I suppose that someone like me, whoís been crying since we started to talk, wouldnít make the cut.

Youíre right. A woman in such an emotional state would not be able to cope. Itís also important to say that we are not in need of volunteers at the moment. We have a very low volunteer turnover rate. When we interview potential volunteers, what we try to understand is the root of their wish to work with us. Why they want to volunteer to take care of an infant.

Whatís the right answer?

There is no one answer. They all say they want to give and contribute. I tell them that the babies can be very sick or have problems, that some are hooked up to equipment, that some suffer from all kinds of medical conditions and are not easy to look at. That some of them are on the verge of death.

You shatter the illusion of a cute baby wrapped in a soft blanket.

Yes. Many of the women who come to us are nostalgic for the smell of a baby, based on some sort of fantasy. There are also cases in which women start and then realize itís not for them. You know, one time I went to see a very disabled infant who was also bloated from cortisone. One of the office staff went with me. The volunteer just picked up the baby and said, ďMy beauty, my gorgeous baby,Ē and kissed her intensively, even though she was completely smeared with an ointment. The office worker was stunned. ďĎMy beauty?í And to kiss her? I couldnít do it.Ē Our volunteers are truly special women. I myself, at the personal level, am simply not capable of hugging infants.


Iím incapable of doing what my volunteers do ... The connection between helplessness and disability touches me too deeply.

Thatís understandable.

I donít know whether itís related to my own personal story. My [adoptive] mother was told that it wouldnít be worthwhile taking me home from the orphanage, because I wasnít a pretty girl, and that it was better to wait for someone cuter.

The match between your life story and your job is so perfect, the kind of thing that wouldnít be acceptable if it were in a screenplay.

Totally. I was born in Korea. When I was one day old, I was left in a basket at the door of an orphanage, with a note on which my name and date of birth were written. I grew up in the orphanage. When I was 3, I was adopted by an Israeli couple who lived in Paris. I lived in Paris until the age of 6, and then I went to Israel with them. Because of my story, people make the mistake of thinking that Iím the one who founded the association, but the truth is that I came to First Hug as a social worker. I had a job interview and was hired. The first months brought to the surface all the questions Iíd never asked myself. I didnít even know how it was that Iíd never asked them. Why was I abandoned? How could my parents give me up?

Do you remember anything from the orphanage?

Nothing. I only know that I had a regular nanny named Bobo, because that was written in the documents my parents received. I think that the hugging and warmth that she gave me, together with the great love I received from my parents, made me the person I am today.

You have no memory at all? Of a person, of the view from the window?

Nothing. In fact, I donít remember the Paris years, either. My mother relates that the transition was so quick and smooth, that she herself didnít believe I came from an orphanage. Until one day she was cleaning my play area and found food Iíd hidden in a drawer Ė half a biscuit and some cheese. She told me that it was like a punch in the stomach, that she understood I was an orphan and that I had had to fight for my survival. As a parent myself [to four children], I truly understand how painful it is, how much it pained her.

That this is what was imbued in you.

Yes. Survival as something existential. You know, my [biological] parents wrote the name they had given me on the note they left: Yan Soon. In Korean, that means, ďall the tenderness in the world.Ē They gave me a name. That was important to them. Some newborns donít even get that.

But you donít know anything about the circumstances of your birth Ė is there no adoption file you could see?

No. Years ago I passed by the Korean Embassy and went in, spontaneously. I spoke with the ambassador and told him my story. He immediately offered to try to help me locate my parents; he said he would speak to journalists, to the staff at the orphanage. He asked what my birth name was, and I told him: Yan Soon Park. It turns out that Park is probably the most common name in Korea, like Cohen or Levy in Israel.

Youíve never visited Korea?

No. I thought I would visit when I turned 50, but itís not happening. If and when I visit, it will be as a tourist, not in order to trace my origins.

But if you do go back, the memories youíve repressed could suddenly surface Ė triggered by a smell you havenít experienced since then, even by the language.

Itís clear that one of the reasons I donít remember anything until the age of 6 is repression, a defense mechanism. I came to my parents speaking fluent Korean, but now I donít remember even one word. The memories I have from the age of 4 or 5 are not mine; they are stories my parents told me. For years I was certain that the pit within me was something I needed to fill, but in time I understood that itís not so. Itís simply possible to live with that pit, which I call a ďcloud,Ē that always accompanies me. The story doesnít have to be solved. For me, my adoptive parents are my parents. They gave me an education, they hugged me and pampered me. I am very much like my mother, I can absolutely see the traits I received from her, and my ties to her are very strong. She is already an elderly woman, my mother. I think that when she passes away, I will feel truly an orphan. Even though I was an orphan from Day 1.

When you had your first child, didnít these questions come up?

The truth is that I had a delightful pregnancy and a highly emotional delivery, because my water broke as soon as the news of Yitzhak Rabinís assassination was announced.

That too was the product of a bad screenwriter.

Yes, the atmosphere was very grim. I discovered that my greatest difficulty with my firstborn daughter was not to give up. Because itís terribly easy, certainly for someone like me, just to give up.

Is that what you felt?

Yes Ė inside, of course. Naturally I didnít say it aloud, but I fought with myself not to give her up because she was exhausting or she was screaming, and it was hard for me. The easiest thing is to abandon a child. Thatís what happened to me. I wasnít wanted and I was left for others. I had to speak to myself in a different voice and say: No, she is mine, and even if itís difficult I will not give up and I will not leave her. Once my ex-husband threw words like that at me Ė that I give up easily. I told him he didnít understand how hard it is for someone like me, who was unwanted, to get up every morning and say anew, ďI want them, they are mine and I want them.Ē Because for most people, to abandon a child is not an option, itís not something they can even imagine. But I know itís possible.

I understand you.

My children are so amazing, really, so special. I am very happy and accepting of the place Iím at today. So much so, that a few years ago I simply demanded that my mother Ė who is old-fashioned, you know Ė tell me how much she loved me. I just stopped the car and told her, ďI am not going on until you say a few good words to me, about me.Ē She started to cry and said, ďYou are so wonderful. Didnít I ever tell you that?Ē I replied, ďNo, you didnít, and itís something I need to hear.Ē The work I do very much strengthened my ties with my mother. My success gives her such a lift. It paints the whole abandonment story in such beautiful colors, and that is the healing that I am doing. I wish there were a stronger word than ďabandonment.Ē I wish I had a different word, one that contains greater hope. I want the conclusion, whatever you choose, to be optimistic.


in the photo Sivan Almoz and her sonPhoto taken by Tomer Applabaum

Article coursey of haaretz :


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