Dalida, a big hearted woman, devotes her life to providing a warm home for children who aren’t fortunate enough to have one. Hers is an emergency foster family which takes in children for a limited period, until a foster family is found for them.
Dalida lives in the heart of the Arab neighborhood of a bicultural city. When I got there, I stood before a house that stood out from the rest. It was sparkling clean, in stark contrast to the street it was located on. Indoors, there is a table spread with the best fruit Israel has to offer, and a lot of human warmth.
“I have four biological children I raised on my own after their father died. I was married at 17, and four years later, when I was seven months pregnant with my fourth son, my husband was killed in a car accident. My eldest son was only three and a half at the time.
Eleven years ago, my heart was broken yet again. My youngest son, the one who I was carrying when my husband was killed, and who had just turned 21, was also killed in a car accident. He died at the exact same age as his father under similar circumstances. My two eldest sons were already married, so the house felt empty, and I had trouble falling asleep at night.
Following this tragedy and a period of overwhelming grief, I decided to devote my life to children in need, and restore meaning to my life, giving myself a reason to wake up every morning.”
“I was alone for the seven years following my husband’s death. I didn’t want to have any other man in my house until the children were grown up. When the time arrived, I remarried. My husband has another wife besides me, and they have children. He respects my wishes to not have children together.”
“At first, I thought of being a foster mother. However, the people at Orr Shalom thought I would be more suitable for emergency fostering. The children who came to me range between only a few days to five years old. They remain in my care for a few months, and sometimes up to a year, just until a suitable foster family is found for them. While they are with me, I look after them with love and patience, being as close as possible to a substitute mother for them.
There is a place for each one of these children in my heart; each one in their own way. I’ve cared for Muslim children, Christian children, and children from other Arab ethnic groups. As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between them. Religion doesn’t factor into the picture; they are, after all, so young and they don’t even know their own parents, so what difference does the religion they were born into make? They are living and breathing children and deserve a warm home.
At the moment, we have five emergency foster children, and an eight year old foster child who has been with us since he was three months old. This foster child was abandoned by his mother immediately after birth. She became pregnant after leaving her home and hid the pregnancy from her family, including her husband. He came to us as an emergency foster child, and we immediately bonded. He suffers from cerebral palsy, which made it challenging to find a foster family for him. Since there was no contact with his biological parents, we decided to keep him as a foster child of our own when he was one year and three months old. I felt as if God had given me a gift in the form of this child, my son.
Each time we see his physician, he tells me that this child is a miracle, a child who simply has a will to live. His surgeon said that any other child in my son’s condition would not be standing on their own two feet, and that is thanks to the care and love I give him, and the confidence I have in him. Each and every time I hear all of this, I am filled with happiness and gratitude.
It’s unusual for an emergency foster family to also be a regular foster family, so it took a long period of negotiations to move this process through.
During the day, my foster son is in a rehabilitation program. He speaks two languages, and when new emergency foster children arrive, he always receives them nicely and plays with them, but also tells them (and maybe even to himself): ‘When you leave, I will always stay behind.”
“One of the children currently staying with us is two and a half years old and he’s been with us for a year. Two other brothers, ages three and five, have been with us for six months, and two other sweet brothers joined us four months ago.
Yesterday, I watched the children eating, and thought to myself, that I have the strength to care for at least two more kids. These children charge me with strength and joy.
When emergency foster kids arrive, they usually stay at home for a few weeks to a month, and as soon as they adapt, they attend kindergarten or school.
Sometimes, the children call me ‘Ima’ (Mommy), some call me ‘Savta’ (Grandma), and others call me by my name. It’s recommended that they do not call me ‘Ima’, since their stay here is temporary, and also not to confuse them or encourage a false illusion. Their calling me ‘Ima’ is at times unavoidable, so I accept the title they wish to use.
At times we have children that arrive to us straight from a shelter for battered women, where they were with their mothers, and my heart breaks when I think of what they’ve been through in their short life. Sorrow and love are the strongest emotions I feel for the children that come to me.”
“I wake the children up at four every morning, give them hot chocolate and a biscuit, and shower them. It's important to me that they go to school clean and smelling sweet. Most mornings at 6am, I get some help to prepare them for school.
Once they all leave the house, I begin my studies. I was only in school until the 9th grade, which is something I still regret. When I finish my high school education, I want to continue my education and become a social worker. How I spend my time in the mornings is important for my future. I later prepare lunch, and at 2:00 p.m. the girl who helps me returns and we pick the children and spend the afternoon with them. Supper is at 6.30 p.m., and then it’s the children’s bedtime. My own children sometimes stop by to spend a quiet evening with me.
My husband shares some of his time with me and the rest with his other wife.
My biological children, two sons and a daughter, are all married and busy with their own families. I have nine grandchildren with the tenth on the way. I don’t have time to go out to enjoy myself, except to attend weddings. I usually turn up late, and everyone is aware that I don’t have time to help out. I never ask for time off, but about 18 months ago I went to Mecca in honor of my son, who was killed, and my sister took care of the children.
The foster kids come from different backgrounds, and each has different hopes for the future. Two brothers who are with me now see their biological parents every two weeks at a contact center, and two other brothers haven’t seen their parents since they arrived.
The two and a half year old boy has older siblings, the eldest one only eight years old. They were all found wandering the streets, his oldest brother was found smoking in an alley. They were living in misery in a tin shack. All but the youngest one, who was brought to me, were taken to an emergency center. It seemed from his behavior that he might have been beaten. Even today, he beats other children and doesn’t give up. However, when two other children are fighting, he always tries to separate them; and when we walk on the street, he picks up cigarette butts. Since arriving here, he’s only seen his mother and brothers once. When I show him her picture, he smiles and says mom – and my heart skips a beat.
I’m reminded of ‘A’ almost every day. He came to us straight from the hospital the moment after he was born. I felt as if I myself had given birth to him. I didn’t want to leave the house for days, I just wanted to be with him and take care of him. A’s mother was young when she became pregnant, and hid her pregnancy from her parents almost until its end. When she told them, they responded in a composed, yet inexplicable manner in Arab culture. They sent her away from home in order to remove her from possible danger. The family asked the Welfare Department to take the newborn to an emergency foster family. Her parents did a wonderful job with her brothers and the boyfriend’s family, ensuring no harm would come to any of them.
A few months later, the young woman married her boyfriend, who was the child’s father. They moved in with his parents and the child was returned to them. ‘A’ was with me for four months. I am happy that he was returned to his family, and hope that he will grow up being loved.
I prepare an album as a souvenir for each child who leaves here, covering the time they stayed with us. I’m given one or two weeks’ notice before they are brought to their foster family. It’s important to me that each one remembers that I loved them and cared for them with love and affection. Prior to going to a foster family, there is a four-day process which includes the new family coming to our home to spend time with the child. On the third day, they venture out for a short time, and on the fourth day, they take them home with them – another goodbye for me.
A few years ago, a week-old little girl also came here right after birth directly from the hospital. She stayed for about six months, and then was returned to her biological family. Two months later, I received a telephone call from the Welfare Department that she would be coming back to me. I remember the shivers that went through my entire body. I didn’t hesitate to confirm I’d take her back. The moment she arrived, she looked right into my eyes, rested her head on my shoulder and I couldn’t stop my tears from flowing. It breaks one’s heart to think about what these small children go through. She stayed with me for another six months, and we worked hard to get her placed with a good and suitable family. I really hoped that she would feel safe in this world. Two months later, a wonderful family was found for her and she is still with them.
On another occasion, two brothers were brought here. The eldest was two years old. He only ate snacks and drank from a milk bottle. The younger brother arrived with a broken leg. I was heartbroken when I heard they were going to live with their grandmother, because I wondered where the grandmother had been till now?!
The moment a child arrives, I know that the day will come when they have to leave. Sometimes, when a child leaves, I cry with longing – once again they are venturing into the unknown and this really hurts. On the days they leave, I go out and keep busy so I can catch my breath and be distracted from my thoughts.”
“Only during the first year of emergency fostering, I questioned why I was doing this. Did I really need it? Was I harming myself and my children? Then, I would look at the children in emergency foster care during the winter and think about their parents – where are they now? What are they thinking about? And so, as time passed and I saw how much these children needed me, and the security I provided them, I found the strength to cope with everything.
When a new child arrives, I hug them, I watch and see what they need and how they fit in. The hug sends a message that will be cared for and that they are in the environment of home. I remain in touch by phone with some of the kids who leave, but I never go and visit them – it is too difficult.
When a child behaves badly, I know that it isn’t their fault.”
“The stories which touch me the most are those of children who don’t know who their father is. There are some children who never talk about their mother; some don’t remember her at all, and some, in whose eyes reflect that they long for and miss their mother, and talk about her every day.
Over the nine years that I’ve been an emergency foster mother, about 60 children have come to be cared for by me. Sometimes, while lying in bed, I try to recall all their names.
About two weeks ago, I went to a wedding where I saw one of the girls, about six years old, with her foster family. We stared at each other. She didn’t recognize me but her look expressed that I represented something safe and good to her.
The word ‘Ima’ symbolizes hope for me and all the good things in the world. My mother had given us her whole life.
Two sets of brothers who were staying with Dalida at the time of our interview, stayed with her for two years and then were sent to a boarding school after failed attempts to find foster families for them. Dalida finished her exams, and her foster son, who celebrated his 11th birthday, continues to progress. Unfortunately, three years after I interviewed Dalida, her second husband passed away.
Dalida told me that she sometimes closes her eyes and tries to recall the names of all the children who stayed with her over the years. The desire to remember the names of so many children led me to make her a ‘Misbaha’ (Muslim prayer beads), whose beads represent the 66 children who she gave a warm home to during the years she served as an emergency foster family.
The original Misbaha, or Sibha, is made of 99 beads symbolizing Allah’s 99 names mentioned in the Koran, while the short one has 33 beads. The Misbaha helps a believing Muslim perform the commandments of Tasbih – saying all the names of Allah, one by one, while rolling the Misbaha beads with his fingers.
The white veil covering Dalida’s head is her hallmark, that is the reason I used white beads on which there is a "fingerprint" in gold - every child and their fingerprint, every child is a world unto themselves, none are alike.
I hope with all my heart that the new Misbaha will make it easy for Dalida to count the names of the precious children she has given her heart to.
Photo: Zohar Ron