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Around the Jewish World in Argentina’s Depressed Economy, Unplanned Babies Are at the Bottom

It’s tough being a parent these days in cash-strapped Argentina. But it can be even tougher being an unplanned baby.

Growing up, Johanna Klas, 21, was used to private schools, private health insurance and a comfortable middle-class life. But after Argentina’s economy collapsed at the end of 2001, Klas and her family fell into poverty.

Her parents lost their jobs, the family had a home mortgage to pay and the young Klas and her two siblings began going to Jewish welfare organizations for their daily meals.

Then Klas learned that her life would change forever: She was pregnant with an unplanned baby, due this coming Feb. 11. Now she has to worry about getting enough nourishment for her baby, both during her pregnancy and after.

Klas is not unique among Argentine Jews.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides many of the welfare services for Argentine Jews, says babies and pregnant mothers are among the most vulnerable of the country’s Jews.

Approximately 35,000 of argentina’s roughly 200,000 Jews receive JDC support in Argentina; of them, 803 babies under 3 years of age and 98 pregnant women live below the poverty line.

Faced with the possibility of undernourishment, these women and their children are the target of a new JDC program called Baby Help.

“Now that the storm seems to be over,” Alejandro Kladniew, the local JDC official, said of Argentina’s slowly improving economic situation, “we are focusing on the most vulnerable cases.”

The new Baby Help program is meant to do just that, with an estimated budget of $330,000 for 2004.

“We wish to assure a safe upbringing for these babies,” Viviana Bendersky, Baby Help’s coordinator, told JTA.

In Buenos Aires, an entire floor of a local Jewish organization has been remodeled to serve as Baby Help’s central offices. The new space serves as a meeting place for parents, pediatric experts and early-stimulation workshops to benefit babies.

At the Baby Help center, donated clothes, strollers, bassinets and baby tubs fill the room, waiting for poverty- stricken mothers who need them.

Bendersky says many parents do not know how to stimulate their babies through play, perhaps because of the grim reality they face trying to provide for their children.

In August, Baby Help distributed to parents its first “Baby Help bugs,” kits filled with food, vitamins, educational brochures and medicines.

In October the group launched a vaccination program, providing hepatitis and chicken-pox shots, which public hospitals do not provide.

Baby Help officials say they also expect to be able to pay three months worth of day-care fees for babies whose parents have jobs.

The program held a Chanukah party for babies and their young parents on Monday. The group also has held 15 different celebrations for new babies over the last four months.

One of the next celebrations scheduled is a brit milah in February for Klas’ expected son.

“We want to give our baby a Jewish education,” Klas said, speaking of herself and her boyfriend, Gregorio Remesnitzky, 21, the baby’s father.

Meanwhile, the couple cannot afford to move in together to provide a home for the baby. The $70 a month that Remesnitzky earns as a computer technician goes to pay the bill for the private hospital where the couple plans to have the baby.

“The precarious conditions of public hospitals really terrified me,” Klas said, explaining her decision to use a private hospital.

Klas is one of the two pregnant women and 31 babies that are part of the Baby Help program.

Sandra Bluer, 42, also is a beneficiary.

“The Baby Help program was such a surprise and a relief,” Bluer said.

Bluer used to earn $2,500 a month as an accounting assistant. She and her husband both lost their jobs a few years ago, and the couple is now impoverished.

Bluer works two afternoons a week at a dentist’s office, where she receives approximately $7 for an afternoon’s work.

With an 80-year-old mother and an 84-year-old mother-in-law, Bluer cannot rely upon her parents to look after her son Nicolas, 2.

“If I could put Nicolas in a day-care center, the dentist would welcome me to work every afternoon,” she said.

Because of a dearth of funds, Bluer will be sending Nicolas to a public school rather than a Jewish one.

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