With Subsidies over and Jobs Scarce, Soviet Olim Are Suddenly in a Pinch

The Soviet immigrants who came to Israel last year in the first big wave of newcomers are caught in a squeeze: Their initial absorption grants are now exhausted, their rents and other living expenses are climbing and their prospects for employment are bleak.

About a year ago, the monthly immigration rates started rapidly climbing, from about 7,000 to 11,000 a month, reaching a monthly high of 35,000 by the end of the year.

For the past year, most of these immigrants have been busy with Hebrew studies and have subsisted on the absorption grants provided by the government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Now thousands of these people each month will be entering a job market already plagued by a 10 percent unemployment rate.

Julia Appelbaum, an English teacher in her mid-40s, lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Neveh Ya’acov with her husband, Gregory, an artist, and their 9-year-old daughter, Miriam. They came last June from Moscow.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” she said.

“We managed somehow on the absorption grant for the past year. Now I earn a little bit teaching English, but that’s not near enough, especially since we have to pay higher rent.”

She also got a $250 monthly stipend while attending a teacher training course, but that is finished too.

Gregory, she said, “was a successful artist in Moscow, but here he hasn’t sold a painting yet.” He was fortunate enough to have his work exhibited at a major Jerusalem gallery, but there have been few customers this year because of the tourism slump.

Julia hopes to teach English in school next year, but if no job is available, she will have to take what comes along. The salary from a low paying job, however, will barely be enough to cover the rent.

CHEAPER HOUSING IN THE TERRITORIES

The Appelbaums paid $350 a month for an unfurnished apartment in an undesirable neighborhood, but will now, due to the acute housing shortage, probably be asked to pay $500 a month.

Immigrants living in better areas of town are being socked with even bigger rent increases. Many of them will be forced to look for cheaper housing or double up with other families.

The Appelbaums are still in relatively good shape. Some immigrants are eating in public soup kitchens or picking over the piles of fruit and vegetables thrown out at the open air markets.

Several dozen families in the Galilee town of Carmiel who could not afford to pay higher rents are now living in tents, and many more are expected to join them over the summer. Single parent families, most of them headed by women, are in particularly difficult straits.

The Housing Ministry has imported several thousand mobile homes to alleviate the housing shortage, but only a few of those located within Israel proper have been hooked up to water, electricity and sewage.

Hundreds of the mobile homes set up in the administered territories, however, were hooked up within days. More immigrants will be forced to look in the territories for cheaper housing.

“The employment situation for immigrants is bad and getting worse,” said Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the Soviet Jewish Zionist Forum. “Almost no one is working in the profession for which they were trained.”

40 PERCENT UNEMPLOYMENT

Many, in fact, are not working at all, according to a survey conducted recently by the Tatzpit Institute.

This poll found that among the immigrant families who arrived at the end of 1989, only 60 percent had at least one family member working. That means that in 40 percent of the cases, no one in the family was employed.

Among those who arrived in mid-1990, the jobless rate was at least 50 percent.

Yolanda Straus, an official of the Absorption Ministry who organizes training courses for immigrants, said that immigrants who fail to find work in their profession through the state Employment Service are eligible for unemployment compensation from the ministry.

This comes to about $400 a month for a family of four. The government recently approved a proposal to make it tougher to qualify for unemployment grants.

Of the 200,000 immigrants who came last year, over half are in the labor force. About 23,000 immigrants received unemployment grants last year, and were jobless for about four months on the average.

This year, Straus said, they are staying on the dole even longer. “Many of these people eventually take some menial job, because that’s what’s available,” she said.

“For a scientist or some other highly qualified professional, this is a real tragedy, but the others will have to get used to this for the next few years.”

Although there is a severe shortage of construction workers, most builders prefer to hire cheap, experienced foreign labor rather than take on immigrants, who need to be trained.

“About 60 percent of the immigrants are academically trained,” Straus said, “and it is difficult for the economy to absorb them so fast. There will have to be radical changes in the economy to provide work for them. We can’t solve their problems with temporary solutions.”

‘A YEAR HAS BEEN WASTED’

Dov Lautman, the head of the Manufacturers Association, told Israel Radio that there are now 19,000 immigrants employed in industry.

“Over the next three to four years, we are expected to hire another 150,000,” he said. “There is no way that we can do that now.

“The government has to adopt new policies that will stimulate investment and economic growth. This is the only way to solve the employment problem,” Lautman said. “But a year has been wasted and nothing has been done.”

Last September, Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i presented a program to stimulate the economy and create jobs, but he failed to get it approved by his Cabinet colleagues. The plan sat on ice until recently and is now being revived piecemeal, still with little chance of being passed.

As a stop-gap measure, Moda’i recently proposed to pay large industrial firms to take on a total of 25,000 immigrants as temporary labor – even if they do no productive work. This plan has aroused stiff opposition among employers and in the government, and also has little chance of being adopted.

Another plan calls for the creation of 35,000 new jobs by the government before the end of the year. The jobs would be mainly public works projects, such as road-laying.

That plan was considered Monday by a new ministerial committee, chaired by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Its other members include Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon and Moshe Nissim, the minister of industry and trade.

This marks the first time that Shamir has involved himself personally in the detailed work of boosting the economy to provide jobs for the Soviet newcomers.

For the immigrants, the proof of the pudding will be whether the job outlook improves.

“Most immigrants are willing to take low-paying, menial jobs for now,” said Lipson of the Zionist Forum, “but they need the hope that in a year or two things will be better. If they don’t have even that hope to live on, this will bring people to despair.”

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