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New immigrants: State must translate official documents

מרץ 2, 2010. Haaretz: Dana Weiler-Polak

Shortly after arriving in Israel, new immigrants are obliged to sign a plethora of official documents that they do not understand - since they are presented only in Hebrew - which can land them in legal trouble later.

The documents, which can include contractual and financial obligations, are pressed on them at every turn by government ministries, local authorities, the National Insurance Institute, health authorities and phone companies.

Several unsuspecting signatories were later sued for liabilities they didn't even know they had. 

"I didn't even know how to say 'hello' in Hebrew when I was asked to sign a pile of forms at the absorption center," says John Delly, 37, who came to Israel from the United States in 1997.

"None of the people who came with me understood either. Later we realized that we had signed financial sureties for each other in order to receive an absorption grant. There were forms only in Hebrew.

Some people were there who translated into Russian, but the French, Spanish and I were left in the dark," he says.

Delly didn't realize how serious the problem was until three years ago, when he received an attorney's letter telling him he owned money.

"The letter said I owed NIS 10,000 and I couldn't understand for what," he says.

"I started asking around and found that when I arrived in Israel I had signed to be the guarantor for an Argentinian woman. I traced her down and she did not know about the debt, or that she was supposed to return any money. Fortunately she had left money in Israel and the lawyer didn't even bother to check," he says.

After this incident, Daly decided to act. He enlisted a group of Israeli friends, including immigrants who had undergone similar traumas. The group lives in Ashkelon and works with Yedid, an organization dedicated to social and economic justice.

Petition to the mayor

In July the group asked Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin to have municipal documents translated into several languages for citizens.

The group queried, with the help of the Movement for Freedom of Information, whether ministries are obliged to translate official documents.

They found that most documents are released in Hebrew only.

The Health Ministry commented, "The official languages in Israel are Arabic and Hebrew, and the HMOs are obliged to provide forms only in those languages.

The Jewish Agency said that starting last year, the day after new immigrants arrive, it arranges meetings for them with representatives of all the institutions they will have to deal with, accompanied by translators.

The agency also has hundreds of volunteer "veteran" immigrants who accompany the newcomers to the bank, HMO or anywhere else they need translation.

"The various authorities' failure to provide information the immigrants can understand will ultimately prove harmful to the authorities themselves," says Sari Rifkin, of Yedid.

"We will fight to make ministries and public bodies more accessible to new immigrants, whether by consent or through legislation." 


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