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Order of Australia winner reflects on SA Jewish roots

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Professor Karen Zwi may have left South Africa more than 20 years ago, but she has carried the ethics and ideals that she grew up with to her new home in Sydney, Australia. There, she works with the most disadvantaged and underprivileged children and their families – often unseen and unheard by fellow citizens, the government, and the rest of the world. Last week, her work was recognised by the Award of the Queen’s Birthday Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to paediatric medicine.

Zwi says her Jewish and South African identities have played a role in getting her to where she is today. “Being raised in the South African Jewish community and going to a Jewish school like King David embeds the values of compassion and social justice. And it gives you the confidence to actually speak out and realise that you have the capacity to make a difference. That’s a very precious gift.”

She is a consultant community paediatrician at Sydney Children’s Hospital, conjoint professor at the University of New South Wales, head of the department of community child health, and the clinical director for priority populations at Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network.

Her work in community paediatrics is rich and varied, including research, outreach work, and treatment of very vulnerable children who are often abused. She describes it as “child public health”, and says that much of it is a continuation of what she did in South Africa, including her time at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.

One of Zwi’s major passions is working with refugees and asylum seekers. “Australia has a very strict policy towards refugees arriving by boat, often described as ‘boat people’,” she says. “For example, this could be someone who has fled Somalia, gone to Indonesia, and arrived by boat in Australia. The Australian government has become very punitive towards them. They can’t apply for permanent refugee status or asylum, and they get detained in prison-like conditions. They are kept there with little certainty as to what will happen. Amongst them have been thousands of children. For me, locking up kids without access to normal life is untenable. They have committed no crime, and are just seeking asylum.”

She has devoted herself to advocating for them, conducting extensive enquiries into their health, and researching how detention is damaging to them. Much of her advocacy has meant that these children are no longer detained. “Most are out of detention now. It’s taken 15 years. We are working with them to get them back on track.”

Her Jewish identity has been a major motivation in this work. “My grandparents arrived by boat in South Africa as refugees searching for a better life. They were given that opportunity. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be here today. I see it in these families – they are so motivated, they just want to create a better life for their children. But languishing in detention, they just become more depressed. That is why we intervene.”

She emphasises that she hasn’t done it alone. “We have got organisations to make statements, speak to the media, and pressurise government. It’s made a big difference. They’re a small proportion of refugees compared to those fleeing to Europe. Australia could easily afford to accept and integrate them. It’s not impossible. It’s not a flood. It’s just a few people fleeing difficult circumstances. And they’re really exceptional, resilient, tough, and clever. They could make it here.”

Working with “boat people” and their children is just one aspect of her work. Asked about her average day, she says, “I do clinical work which includes seeing kids who may have problems with their behaviour or development. I also train registrars and give talks to medical students. I’m involved in research looking at the health outcomes of the most vulnerable in Australia. This includes very poor children, refugee children, and Aboriginal children. My work also includes the management of services across networks at two big hospitals and other sites in Sydney.”

From South Africa, Australia looks like the picture of a middle-class paradise, but as Zwi explains, “There is a segment of the population that struggles to meet its potential, including children. Aboriginal and refugee children are very high risk for social issues. Refugees also may come with degrees and qualifications, but these aren’t always something they can use. It’s very hard to re-establish yourself with the same earning potential.”

She says that while there is welfare, it “tends to be very basic, so it’s hard to live in an established neighbourhood, send kids to school, and invest in children. Some children that we treat have been abused and removed from their parents. But foster care means they don’t always have a stable childhood. It can have a major impact, and then carry on in the next generation.”

Although it may seem overwhelming, Zwi devotes her time and energy to turning this kind of situation around. “The first thing is to make health services accessible. But creating this access isn’t always easy. Once this is established, we can address the social determinants of health and what’s holding the family back. This could be a need for stable housing, addressing parental drug addiction, abuse, domestic violence, and parental mental health. It means getting kids into school or day care and helping teachers understand where the kids are coming from so that everyone is on this child’s side. It means motivating parents to find work or apply for benefits.”

Zwi says the work is rewarding because it can make a big difference. “Almost all children have amazing potential. It’s hard to watch when that potential isn’t able to be expressed. It’s a very natural thing to want to see a child flourish. It’s not easy to get education, employment, and schooling all ‘lined up’. But if the child gets that support, especially in early childhood, then the chances are high of them becoming a resilient, well-functioning adult. If we don’t start early, we’re just wasting time.”

She says her South African background continues to influence her work today. “I did community work and outreach even as a medical student. I learnt about going out, getting the community involved, asking people what they need and want, and engaging with them. I do the exact same here, and it really works. People want to feel valued and respected and asked to help deliver the services that they want.”

Zwi is proud and honoured to receive this award, and she wishes that it had a direct impact on the children who so desperately need her help. Meanwhile, she is carrying on with her extensive outreach, activism, and engagement.

“I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to achieve. I hope the award gives this type of work a little more recognition, and shows that even in a wealthy country like Australia, people are suffering. But in a country like this, one can resolve it. So it should be done.”

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“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa

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Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.

Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.

“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”

Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.

But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”

He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.

Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.

He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.

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Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach

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Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.

A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.

This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.

Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.

This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.

The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.

In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.

This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.

In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.

However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.

“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”

Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.

“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”

She said it had been a tough road.

“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”

Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”

The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”

Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.

Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.

Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.

According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.

The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.

Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.

One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.

“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”

Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”

Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.

He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.

Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”

As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.

“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”

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Terror accused in court

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Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 26 January 2022, where live broadcasting of proceedings and the setting of a court date were discussed. The twins are accused of terrorist activity targeting Jewish institutions in South Africa, amongst other targets. They have been in custody since their arrest in July 2016.

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