I arrive at a building located at the heart of a city inhabited by both Muslims and Jews. It’s a place I know well. I’ve been here dozens of times, but didn’t pay much attention to the residential life around me. Standing outside the front door, I have a beautiful view of the sea visible beyond the neglect that surrounds me - a spot of natural beauty and comfort. I recall that I had once been to this building on a condolence visit to the family who lived next door.
When I mentioned them to Leila, she told me she has a beautiful relationship with them, full of friendship and love. Leila, a woman in her sixties, has a colorful personality and is full of life. Throughout the interview, I couldn’t take my eyes off her beautiful blue eyes, nor could I interrupt the stream of her words and the flow of her stories.
Leila, who has no children of her own, has been fostering children with love and devotion for many years.
“We live in a multicultural city, and I am the only Arab in this building. We have good neighborly relations that I wish would serve as a model for others. When my foster daughters were small, my neighbors took them to Greece. For my daughter’s henna ceremony, they prepared all the food and paid for the young couple’s honeymoon. My neighbors are my friends, we are all human beings and we are all the same. Our building is the perfect example of coexistence between Jewish and Arab families.”
“I grew up in a family of six – three boys and three girls. My grandfather wanted us to be named after our grandparents, and it was decided that he would choose the boys’ names and my mother would choose the girls’ names. This is why we have special names. My name is special, just like my life.
As an adult, after I married and left home, my mother became a foster parent. She ran a daycare center in her home, and that was the first time I’ve witnessed a foster family life.”
“Even when I was grown up and living independently, my mother, who ran the daycare center, didn’t like leaving the house on her own, and each time she had to go somewhere, one of us would accompany her. One day, she asked me to join her at a meeting about fostering children. I am now 63 and this was about 30 years ago, yet I still remember it well. One of the social workers we met took an interest in me and asked what I do. I was young and mischievous and I jokingly answered: ‘Aggravate my husband.’
Luckily, my sense of humor didn’t deter her, and she asked me about my interests. I said that I liked taking care of children. I told her that the last little girl I cared for in my home started kindergarten, but a few days later, her parents sent her back to me for one more year, because she wanted to be with me.
During this conversation, I told her I wanted to work in a kindergarten or take care of children in my own home. Just like my mother, I love being at home.
The social worker listened carefully, and saw something in me. Two days later, they called to ask if I would be interested in becoming a foster mother and, although I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of the responsibility, I immediately said yes.
I began the journey of learning what is expected of a foster family. I remember that they said they would bring me a baby boy or a girl in need of a home and love. I think that, even then, I didn’t fully understand the significance of what I was about to do.
I went to buy whatever was needed, and then one day, two women came to my home. They seemed apprehensive and uneasy. It was a social worker, and a mother who couldn’t raise her baby girl. I recognized the mother immediately; I knew her from my childhood neighborhood. They said they would return a few hours later with the one-month-old baby. I couldn’t believe this was really happening – I looked at the things I had bought in preparation, put everything in its place and pranced about the house in excitement.
It was winter, pouring rain, and my husband came home late from work. I can still recall how I placed the baby on the mattress, covered her up to keep her warm, and didn’t say anything when he got home. Suddenly, he heard the 40-day-old baby crying…
This was my second marriage, and I had no children of my own. My husband was a lovely man, there never was and never will be anyone like him. He respected my choice and, together, we went on this lifelong journey. A few years ago, my husband had a stroke. His condition worsened and, three years ago, he died at the age of 72.”
Tales of a Thousand and One Nights
“On the baby’s first birthday, her biological mother, together with her three-year-old sister, came to visit. She left her with me, too. A few days had passed and the mother didn’t return. The welfare department asked if I would foster the sister, too.
A short time after, the mother went to prison. She had become pregnant yet again, and when she gave birth, they tried to persuade her to give the baby up for adoption. However, she insisted that the baby come to me to be raised with her two sisters. This is how the three sisters came to be raised by me.
Through the years, we have tried to maintain a good relationship with the biological mother. I have explained to the girls that their mother loves them from afar, that she is unable to raise them, and that is why they are with me.
Their biological mother died when the youngest was 17. The funeral procession left from our house. Today, that little baby who came to us first is, herself, a mother of four. It’s my pride and joy.
As time passed, I realized that I had devoted myself to a life’s work of fostering.
The fourth girl came to me straight from the hospital, right after birth.When she was two years old, an adoptive family was found for her.
We were already so attached to her and she to us. I didn’t feel I’d be able to stand the pain of the separation, and I refused to accept the harsh verdict. I asked to adopt the child myself. We went to court, and I told them about the special relationship we had with the girl. The Judge questioned my understanding of the change to my finances once a legal adoption took place. He reminded me that the foster care payments we receive would be eliminated, and only the National Insurance payments would remain. I felt like he was testing me. I made it clear that even if National Insurance money would cease, I was willing to forgo any financial support for her to stay with us for good.
The judge asked how many children I had, so I showed him the photos I had in my bag of the four girls I fostered. He asked how I would support them, and told me about someone else who had given up on adoption once she realized that she would no longer be receiving foster care payments. I replied that my husband worked as a mechanic and we lacked for nothing. I said that, if necessary, I would clean houses, that I would do whatever it takes to provide them with a good life.
I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. I believe I actually touched his heart. I also added that I would waive the children’s payment distributions; I was so determined. When I had finished talking, he got up and gave me a hug. He was an older gentleman, and I will never forget his face. He gave me a kiss on the forehead, arranged for me to sign the papers and said: ‘Mazaltov, you have a daughter.’
I couldn’t wait to get home, and when I got there, the house was full of friends and family. I stopped to buy chocolates on the way and went into the house screaming with joy. I was ecstatic - I now have a child of my own!
I believe that nothing happens by chance. When the little girl we adopted turned one, a child of three was emergency fostered by my mother. Once I heard the child’s name, I felt a shiver down my spine; he was my little girl’s brother. I have come to know the family because, prior to the adoption, the little girl would sometimes go to visit them. Each time she would return frightened and beaten, and with bites and scratches on her little body. That very minute, I took my girl and went to see my mother.
I looked at the boy; I wanted to see his reaction when he saw his sister. The moment he saw her, he called her by name, and I watched them and cried. I took the little boy home with me and so we were suddenly raising two sets of siblings. This boy stayed with us for six years, until his father came for him. About a month later, he drowned in the sea in Gaza. I was left drained and heartbroken.
A lot has happened with our foster children over the years. We have kept up with the twists and turns of their complex families. To this very day, I am there for the girls who I raised for whatever life throws at them, the smooth and the rough. Two of them live with me with their families.
In addition to the four elder girls, I have two foster siblings: a girl of 14, taller than me and beautiful, who is already being courted. I haven’t mentioned this to her because, as far as I am concerned, she is still a baby. She came to me when she was two years old; her brother, who is now 13, arrived a few months after she did, when he was only nine months old. A little while after I took him in, I noticed that he wasn’t crawling. I started taking him for treatment and the physiotherapist said that he couldn’t promise that the child would ever walk. I decided that this would be my mission. I made sure that he did the exercises the physiotherapist gave him, every day, and eventually, he began to walk. Today, contrary to the gloomy predictions, the boy walks with only a slight limp.
The siblings’ father lives in Jordan, and is in and out of jail. Efforts to contact their mother have been ineffective. The children have two older brothers who were raised by a foster family before they were sent to a boarding school in the north. They sometimes come to visit during the school and religious holidays.
My heart and home will always be open to these children and their families.”
“These children are my life. I barely go out. I start preparing three days before I have to go to a meeting. Every Friday, all the children and grandchildren come to eat – I cook for them all and it gives me joy.
Five years ago, we renovated the apartment, but when the first rains came, everything started to fall apart. The building needs both internal and external renovation. If I leave the window open when cooking, the plaster falls into the saucepans. It’s not easy for me to see this neglect, but I know that love is more important than walls.
After my husband died, I found out that he had debts, and the payment distributions for the children were seized. I negotiated an arrangement and I now pay back a certain sum of money every month. My older girls are amazing, they are good and beautiful, and when they see that I am going through a difficult time, they help me out.
I’m not sure there are many biological children who treat their parents the way my foster daughters treat me, the way they supported me when my husband passed away. I knew we had raised them right, but only during the days of mourning did I realize just how special they are, that what we had done had been worthwhile. They stood by me and supported me, cooked and encouraged me. During the months following his death, the youngest girl would lay the table and always set a plate for her father. They didn’t stop talking about him and I would try and calm them down, telling them that he was in heaven. I believe that, when you give wholeheartedly, you gain something in return.”
It was actually my mother who tried to dissuade me from fostering; she tried to encourage me to undergo treatment and have my own children. But I think that foster children are more precious. I think that, if I had had children of my own, I would have worried less about them.
I don’t want anything in return. I only want to see the children grow up and have a good life.
When one of my grandchildren starts first grade, I’m always there on his first day of school. The children and grandchildren are what gives me the greatest pleasure.
Today, I have eleven grandchildren that call me grandma. My life is full and I’m grateful for being a part of their lives.”
The special name that her mother gave Leila (a pseudonym) when she was born, carries a promise for her special and rich life.
As befitting a fairy tale heroine with her stories of The Thousand and One Nights, some of which she shared with me, I made Leila a colorful and lavish piece of jewelry.
Photo: Zohar Ron