I returned to Argentina last month for the first time since 2001, when the country was in economic free-fall. I’d come there as a student to help a Jewish community that had been left reeling, with many of its members in critical need of assistance and support.
That was the first time I learned about JDC’s work in Latin America, which began in the mid-1930s, when JDC sought havens for European Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany’s rise. In 2001, JDC was helping the Argentine community expand its network of welfare and relief services to aid those most deeply affected by the financial crisis.
Today, over a decade later, most of those relief programs have been scaled back or handed over to the community. But the ups and downs of the Argentine economy have left a significant segment of the population living below the poverty line. The most heart-wrenching cases are those who are too young to know they are the victims of an economy in trouble.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Tiara stands out in my mind. I met this little girl on a visit to Baby Help, JDC’s program for children up to five years of age and pregnant women living in poverty. Her face lit up as a group of visitors came into her day care center to join the children’s Kabbalat Shabbat celebration.
In the warmth of that room, filled with giddy kids and joyous song, it was easy to forget that each child ends up there through a referral from a social services agency.
The program director informed me that Tiara lives in a boarding house with her young mom and a grandmother who suffers from mental disabilities. Her mother tries to earn a living working part time in a grocery; she is divorced from Tiara’s father, who is unemployed and not in Tiara’s life all that much. In addition to her clothes and a travel allowance, Baby Help usually gives Tiara a meal to carry home, since there is no food for dinner at her house.
The program offers Tiara and the other kids at the center a refuge from poverty; it supplies nearly 600 other at-risk Jewish children around the country with baby formula, fortified milk, nutritional supplements, and other food aid, as well as vitamins, medicines, vaccines, diapers, and various pieces of baby equipment. For all of the kids in that room, Baby Help is truly a lifeline.
For me, a visitor delighted to sing a song with a room full of happy kids on my first day in a foreign country, Baby Help now means something very important, too. The next time I open the newspaper to read a story about skyrocketing inflation or protests in Argentina, Tiara’s face will be the first thing I see. She will serve as an ongoing reminder that behind the facts and figures and headlines are innocent and vulnerable people who need the unwavering support of a caring Jewish community.
Based in New York, Zhanna Veyts is part of JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications Team and recently visited JDC programs in Argentina.
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