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Crisis Center in Israel Helps the Most Vulnerable — Immigrants

April 3, 2002
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Like so many immigrants before her, Anna Krakovich bundled her belongings and her daughter and set out for a new life in the Promised Land.

After only a year and half in Israel, however, her face bore the scars of a terror attack.

Like most olim who have little family or support system to help them put down roots in Israel, Krakovich was particularly vulnerable when she was caught in a suicide bombing in the Galilee city of Afula in April 1994.

The car explosion killed eight and wounded about 25 — including Krakovich, critically. With burns over 70 percent of her body, the initial prognosis was that she would die.

As she caught fire and was airlifted to the hospital, she thought only of Irene, her 10-year old daughter.

“Is she all right?” was Krakovich’s first question when she came to in the intensive care unit of the hospital.

A woman she didn’t know told her not to worry: Irene is safe with friends, said Ruth Bar-On, executive director of Selah. A Hebrew word for rock, it’s also an acronym for the Israel Crisis Management Center, a safety net for new Israeli immigrants.

Members of the organization visited Krakovich daily for the 11 months she was in the hospital, cared for Irene and arranged for Krakovich’s mother to visit from Ukraine.

For nearly a year, Krakovich wore a tight elastic mask and body suit while waiting for her skin to grow properly. It was unbearably painful — “real torture,” she says — to put it on and take it off her body.

Now, though, Krakovich jokes that she feels like “a beauty queen.”

With terror attacks hitting Israel almost every day — and about 25 percent of the victims new immigrants, according to Krakovich — she volunteers for the ICMC, returning the love and support that saved her life.

After the June 2001 bombing at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco that killed 21 teens — all but one of them Russian immigrants — and wounded about 120, Krakovich went immediately to the hospital.

The “children were shocked and wounded in pain,” and “just held my hands” saying “don’t go, don’t go,” Krakovich relates. “One boy died while I was there.”

After a while, Krakovich generally tries to comfort victims by telling them how she overcame the trauma of a terror attack, but in the first moments after the Dolphinarium bombing she just talked to the wounded and escorted them to surgery while others tried to located the teens’ parents.

When the parents arrived, some were “so fresh” to Israel that they couldn’t even understand the permission papers needed to release their children for surgery, Krakovich says, so she helped them with the Hebrew.

Among the weakest links in Israeli society, new immigrants lack the support system of lifelong friends, colleagues and, sometimes, even a permanent home.

ICMC, which has a staff of seven and a nationwide network of more than 500 volunteers, was formed nine years ago to aid immigrants in any kind of sudden crisis, including accidents, abuse, disease or terror.

But the daily terror of the Palestinian intifada threatens to overwhelm the organization.

Emergency teams of volunteers are dispatched to terror sites, searching for injured immigrants. They scout the morgue for lone people who are searching for loved ones, or look for terror victims who have no one at their hospital bedsides.

If a victim is still alone in the hospital after a few days, it almost always means he or she is a new immigrant, Krakovich said.

Ten percent of ICMC’s budget — which totaled $1.3 million in 2001 — comes from the Jewish Agency for Israel. The rest is from private donors and foundations, with the UJA-Federation of New York accounting for the largest contribution.

Volunteers need 120 hours of training. In addition, special emergency teams of psychologists, social workers and doctors need to be “strengthened” with briefings and refresher courses, Bar-On said.

“It’s a very big challenge to be in all the emergency situations,” she said, but so far, the ICMC has been “in all the places in real time.”

At the “Passover Massacre” last week in Netanya — when a suicide bomber killed 25 Israelis sitting down to a Passover seder — 22 ICMC volunteers rushed to the scene.

“Everyone had to get up from his own table, from his own seder to do it,” Bar-On said.

At the scene of the attack — a hotel that hosts seders on Passover — virtually all of the waitresses were young women from the former Soviet Union. One — a mother with a son — is paralyzed from the waist down. Another lost an eye.

But care-giving doesn’t end in the days after the attack. The biggest challenge, Bar-On said, is to tend to victims’ long-term care.

“Don’t forget that that trauma is retriggered every day when there is another shooting,” she said.

ICMC holds support groups for bereaved parents, grandparents raising their orphaned grandchildren and orphaned children raised by siblings.

ICMC arranged for a cosmetician to help girls wounded in the Dolphinarium bombing learn how makeup can diminish the appearance of scars. Wounded boys lift their spirits by playing with pets.

In healing retreats, bereaved parents can meditate in the open air of a kibbutz and, together with others in similar situations, allow themselves to sing, laugh, or even dance.

Bar-On is not a Pollyanna, and doesn’t sugar-coat the program as a panacea. But at least it means people they aren’t alone in their worst hours.

Take the case of the infamous lynching of two Israeli reserve soldiers in Ramallah in October 2000. The image of a young Palestinian man proudly waving his blood-drenched hands from the second floor of a police station, after tossing the lifeless body of one of the Israelis to the street, became fixed in the Israeli consciousness.

The victim was a Russian immigrant named Vadim Norzitch, whose wife, Irena, was three months pregnant at the time.

Such a loss means constant emotional pain, especially in the case of such an inhuman death, Bar-On said.

Norzitch’s father, Issay, whose home is filled with memories of their life together, is trying to come to terms with the tragedy, and ICMC is helping the family move forward.

A photo of Issay taken at his grandson’s circumcision revealed that a little life had crept back into his cheeks as he held Norzitch’s son, David Vadim — who will have his first birthday next month.

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