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Young olim more susceptible to drugs

Rachel Bar-Hamburger, the chief scientist for the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority, stands in front of a poster in her office in Jerusalem, July 10, 2006. (BRIAN HENDLER)

Rachel Bar-Hamburger, the chief scientist for the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority, stands in front of a poster in her office in Jerusalem, July 10, 2006. (BRIAN HENDLER)

TEL AVIV, July 17 (JTA) — “I was like a leaf blowing in the wind,” Yoni, 24, says of the days when he arrived in a Tel Aviv suburb from Moscow at age 8 with his mother, brother and extended family. He was the good boy, the family introvert. No one could imagine that at age 12 Yoni would be smoking cigarettes, using marijuana at 13 and abusing cocaine and heroin by 15. His experience is not unique: A recent study shows that young immigrants in Israel are using harder drugs more frequently than the average Israeli teen. The research, conducted by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, found in 2005 that 4.7 percent of new immigrant teens were using hard drugs such as heroin, LSD and cocaine on a regular basis, compared to 2.6 percent of Israeli-born teens. “There is a difference and it is statistically significant,” says Rachel Bar-Hamburger, the anti-drug authority’s chief scientist. The survey sampled 779 new immigrants and 3,969 native Israelis from around the country. Early on, Yoni noticed differences between his home and those of his Israeli peers. He found comfort in a clique of Russian-speaking youth at school; using heroin together, they felt superior to the Israeli-born teens who were smoking marijuana. ” ‘Pot is for children’ is what we used to say to them,” Yoni recalls. The heroin addiction carried through to army service in a combat unit. “I shot a gun while I was high,” he admits. “There were a lot of us who were high in the army.” Yoni hid his addiction for two years, but was caught by an army commander at age 20. It probably saved his life. “I had a weapon and was thinking all the time of using it against myself,” he says. Yoni was sent to a detox center in Jerusalem and later received long-term counseling through Al Sam, an anti-drug organization for younger addicts. With locations throughout the country, Al Sam, or No Drugs, offers one-on-one drug therapy for teens and soldiers. Some 20 percent of its clients are new immigrants. It was there that Yoni explored his feelings — new ones and remnants of those he kept bottled inside from childhood. Moving to Israel contributed to his growing pains and played a major role in his addiction, he says. “I was lonely and lost and didn’t feel a part of anything,” he says. Despite the gap in drug use between olim and native Israelis in their youth, by age 18 — the beginning of army service — there is virtually no difference between the groups, Bar-Hamburger said. The numbers suggest that army service has a leveling effect on new immigrant groups. Bar-Hamburger says studies to date can’t provide information on which immigrant group is faring worse, but the Anti-Drug Authority and Al Sam recognize that Ethiopians and those from the former Soviet Union need attention. One problem with previous surveys is that they were conducted at school, while youths with serious drug problems often don’t attend school. Troubled teen immigrants also often cannot communicate well in Hebrew. Despite that, “I don’t think the drug use differences between new olim and sabras are due to the pressures of immigration,” Bar-Hamburger says. “Something else is happening there.” She was reluctant to jump to any conclusions. Since 1989, Bar-Hamburger has commissioned about 300 drug-use studies in Israel; only recently has any difference emerged between olim — defined in her studies as any person who immigrated to Israel after 1989 — and native Israelis. Bar-Hamburger surmises that young immigrants may bring cultural drug habits with them. The thought dawned on her when she was in Amsterdam and saw the Dutch drinking beer in the morning. “That was the habit of the people in Holland. Those that drink in the morning aren’t necessary alcoholics; it may be a habit,” she says. “This study is not about habits. It is about numbers.” Yoni, now cleaned up and working in high-tech, says his birth country contributed significantly to his drug habit. “The seed of my problems existed already in Moscow,” he says. “In Israel, the seed was able to take root. “If you saw me four years ago, I was half my size and on the road to death,” he says. “I lost all my fear of dying.”

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