Updated: May 15, 2021 1:29:30 pm
ON TUESDAY evening, K Santhosh, a farmer in Kerala’s Idukki district, heard the sound of an air raid siren from the other end of a video call with his wife who was in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Seconds later, Santhosh watched in disbelief as his wife’s face disappeared from the screen, and was replaced by thick smoke.
Today, the echoes of that rocket attack from Gaza, which killed 32-year-old Soumya Santhosh, continue to reverberate in the homes of several nursing professionals from India, who are employed as caregivers for the elderly in Israel. With Israel conducting massive retaliatory air strikes and massing tanks along the Gaza border, they find themselves in the middle of an escalating conflict that threatens their lives — and livelihood.
“I haven’t slept for the last four days,” says Mariya Joseph, 33, speaking to The Indian Express over the phone Friday evening from the Israeli city of Ashdod, 38 km from Gaza.
“Yesterday night, rockets were raining in the region. Our buildings were shaking. We keep posting messages in our groups asking whether all were safe. We are trying to find comfort this way. A lot of caregivers from India, particularly from Kerala, are working in areas close to Gaza,’’ says Joseph.
She has been in Ashdod for the past two-and-a-half years, and is taking care of an 88-year-old woman who is bedridden. “We are getting street-specific alerts. But this is an old building, and it does not have an in-house bomb shelter. As a nurse, I can’t rush to the common shelter leaving my patient in the house,” says Joseph, who worked in Delhi for eight years before moving to Israel.
“I am flooded with calls from panic-stricken family members. We are hoping peace will prevail in a few days,” says Shinto Kuriakose, 33, who has been a caregiver in Israel for the past six years.
According to data available till 2019 with the Indian Embassy in Israel, there are about 14,000 Indian nationals in the country, including 13,200 employed as caregivers. What makes the job of a caregiver in Israel attractive for nurses in India is the easy migration process and attractive salary, say officials. Soumya was employed with an 80-year-old woman who was injured in the attack.
“We know that thousands from Kerala are working in Israel as caregivers and domestic helpers. There is a huge demand for Israel visas in Kerala. Israel is an ECNR (emigration clearance not required) country and anyone can recruit,” says Ajith Kolassery, recruitment manager at the Kerala government’s Department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA).
Listing the other perks, caregivers say applicants need not clear IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or OET (Occupational English Test) — they only need to attend a short-term course in Hebrew.
“In Kerala, nurses are not paid well. If we take a short break, we have to join again as a fresher or trainee. In such a situation, Israel offers a lifeline. We can earn a take-home salary of Rs 1 lakh-Rs 1.30 lakh a month if we are willing to work overtime,’’ says Dani Manual, 34, who hails from Mathilakam in Thrissur.
Manual has been a caregiver in the neighbourhood of Kiryat Malakhi, 16 km from Ashkelon city, for the past two-and-a-half years. She completed her course in nursing from Bhubaneswar in 2011 and worked in Odisha before moving to Kerala and later taking up a job in Israel.
“Normally, a nurse stays in Israel for about 10 years. Most of us have huge financial liabilities. We have to clear that burden and ensure savings for the future. It’s not just Indians, there are people from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, too. Our job is tough and we have long hours of duty. However, no one wants to return empty-handed,’’ says Sajeesh Lawrence, 37, who is from Nedumkandam in Idukki.
On Friday, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan tweeted that the “mortal remains of Ms Soumya Santhosh, who was killed in rocket attacks from Gaza, are being repatriated today from Israel to Kerala through Delhi. They will reach her native place tomorrow”.
“Soumya would have tried to save the life of the Israeli woman whom she was taking care of. That’s probably why she could not escape,” says Manual, the caregiver near Ashkelon.
“What can we do,” she asks. “All of us, the caregivers, have left our families back in Kerala as Israel does not usually give family visas for us. Now, my three children, twins aged seven and six, are calling me back. But I have to stay back to run the family.’’
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