An Immigrant Flood
This Negev Desert town was built for immigrants, but the new wave of Soviets is straining resources.
BEERSHEBA, ISRAEL — A SMALL Middle Eastern town in the middle of the desert, whose chess club is world-class and which boasts five youth orchestras, has to have something special.Beersheba does. Russians. Tens of thousands of them. Nearly one-quarter of the people who live in this prefabricated Negev Desert town come from the Soviet Union. In 1995, if predictions of Soviet immigration prove accurate, that proportion will apply to all of Israel. Beersheba's mayor, Yitzhak Raager, is anxious to attract more Soviet Jews, whom he sees as the raw material for a development boom in the Negev. "One day," he boasts, "we will be the largest city in Israel." Immigration activists here, however, are fearful of the consequences of such rapid population growth. Already, they say, the influx of new arrivals has far outstripped the town's ability to house and employ them. "The situation is getting worse day by day, and nobody knows what to do, nobody," laments Mark Moses, a Russian physicist who immigrated to Israel 19 years ago and is now deputy president of the Beersheba Newcomers' Association. Unless jobs are created, he warns, "it will be a catastrophe - already we are beginning the catastrophe. People I knew one year ago who were smiling and happy to have come to Israel are shadows now. They look like they did in the Soviet Union." Beersheba is a city built for immigrants, a sprawl of clumsy housing projects thrown up to shelter the North African Jews who poured into Israel in the early years of the state. The characterless architecture is matched only by the town planners' lack of imagination in giving neighborhoods names like "Sector D." Twenty-three thousand Soviet Jews immigrated during the 1970s and 1980s and came to Beersheba. But the Negev was still losing people until the current wave of Soviet arrivals began flooding into Israel 18 months ago, according to Raager. The mayor of the nearby town of Dimona, Mr. Raager says, was afraid he would have to destroy 400 apartments that had been standing empty and were attracting vagrants. "Now you cannot find a hut to house a cat, let alone a Russian family," Raager says. "With immigration and the change in our image, we have a new lease [on] life." But that lease on life, and the lack of housing, have pushed rents through the roof, and many new immigrants are cramming several families into one apartment, Soviet-style, to save money. The roughest two-room apartment in the meanest part of town rents now for $350 a month, more than three-quarters of the government living allowance for a newly arrived couple. Yet the immigrants keep coming, and in a bid to keep up with demand the city has assembled 1,250 mobile homes, stretched in endless uniform rows over the gritty desert outside Beersheba, which next month will house 2,500 families. "It is a terrible undertaking to put 10,000 people in semi-huts with no air-conditioning in the summer and no heating in the winter," Raager acknowledges. "But the idea is for them to know that the next stage is a real house." Should they ever lose faith in their chances of finding their place in Israeli society, they might take heart from Ze'ev Freiman, a high school physics teacher who arrived from Penza, 435 miles east of Moscow, two years ago. Sitting now in the modest but comfortable apartment that has appreciated in value 50 percent since he bought it in 1989, secure in the job that he found within months of arriving, Freiman spends much of his spare time helping newer arrivals. His wife teaches flute at a conservatory. Quicker to adapt to life in Israel than most of his compatriots, Freiman attributes his rapid integration mainly to the fact that "while we were still in Russia my wife and I decided not to stay among new immigrants but to live straight away among veteran Israelis. "Lots of the immigrants live among themselves, they cannot break out to meet Israelis, and they create a lot of little Brighton Beaches," he says, referring to the Soviet Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. As he guides newcomers through the Israeli bureaucracy, translates their curricula vitae or helps them look for an apartment, Freiman says he tells them and reminds himself of two things: "That once you were a new immigrant, and that you cannot be one all your life." But he knows it will not be so easy for the Soviet Jews arriving now, as it was for him two years ago, to find an apartment and job. Irina Kagen, a young woman from Minsk on her way to the last lesson of her five-month Hebrew course, is a case in point. Paying $400 a month for their two-room apartment, "we would be living on the street if my husband hadn't found a job" as a building laborer, she said. What chance he had of finding work in his profession of mechanical engineering, Irina couldn't say, but she was still hopeful that she could work as a seamstress. "Tomorrow I'll be looking for work," she said. "A man just offered me work as a cafe waitress, but I said no. I have a profession and I want to work in it." Outside the local office of the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum, an immigrants' rights organization, a doctor who said he had been a laser therapist in the Ukraine until a few months ago was also hopeful that things would work out for him, even though he knew that "Israel cannot accept all the doctors who are coming here, and all my colleagues are cleaning the streets. "I think it'll be OK here," he said. "I just need to study a lot of Hebrew." Inside the Zionist Forum office, counselor Dvora Shmagin has her doubts. "Once it was easy to help everyone who came to Beersheba," she says. "Today it is much more difficult and the problems are increasing as more and more people come. "I do what I can," she shrugs. "But I cannot develop the Negev."