Lily Odergo was born in Tel Aviv, and it is where she lived and died. Twenty five difficult and insulting years on the margins of society and outside of it reached an end last Friday morning, likely from complications of preeclampsia. Her youngest son, Ben-El William, born last Sunday, is in the neonatal department at Ichilov Hospital. Her five-year-old son Michael is with friends from the community who are trying to help. Francis, Lily's partner for the past three years, wanders the halls of the hospital, fluctuating between courteous smiles at consolers to crying spells, anger, and helplessness. It is hard to imagine an end more sad and senseless to the life of a woman who, from the moment she was born, simply tried to survive here.
Lily was born in 1989, the second daughter to illegal migrant workers from Ghana who had arrived in Israel a few years prior. Her parents had left their older daughter in Ghana. Lily's father died when she was young. Her mother remarried and had two boys, Samuel and Isaiah. During the large-scale deportation of migrant workers in the early 2000s, Lily's step-father and brother Samuel were deported. Since then the remaining members of the family tried to attain legal status in Israel; they were here when the two deals on migrant workers' children were struck, and were always left out. The reason: Their mother entered Israel illegally.
Lily's mother died last year and was buried in Emek Hefer. Lily's younger brother was sent to a boarding school when he was young. Six months ago Lily's dream finally came true: Her status in Israel was approved, she was on her way to becoming a citizen of the place where she was born, the only country she had ever known. Legal status also ensured citizenship for Michael, as well as for the unborn child she had conceived with Francis, who she had met in the meantime. For a moment it seemed like their lives were starting to fall into a place. But only for a moment.
My relationship with Lily is personal, and therefore my writing will be in the first person. We met for the first time when she was 8 and I was starting to report on migrant workers in Tel Aviv for Ha'Ir. The first “illegal” classroom I visited was that of Nana Ofoko, who taught children of varying ages in a small room in the Old Central Bus Station. Lily was one of three graduates; a happy girl who smiled a lot, she learned to read and write in English while the teacher took care of babies and played with younger children. The classes were new then; the system barely recognized these children.
When we met again she was twelve. We interviewed her for “The Third Eye,” a television program. Her living conditions were tough and she continued to fight for her place in her middle school class, for her musical future that she and her music teacher believed in, and for the hope that her older sister – whom she had never met – would come to Israel from Ghana and together they would open a small salon specializing in African braids.
We met for the last time nearly two years ago. I heard that her mother was sick and I came to her home on HaGdud Ha'Ivri Street. Lily was 23-years-old and had a three-year-old son named Michael whose father had been deported to Ghana and disappeared. After all those years she almost stopped believing that she would get legal status in Israel. Her file was stuck somewhere in the Interior Ministry and she stopped making plans. They lived in decrepit conditions, in a crowded apartment with no light, in an asylum seekers building. Lily complained about them, the new foreigners. She understood that she was stuck somewhere in the middle.
In the meantime, Lily had been filmed for the documentary movie “Last Stop,” directed by Julie Shles, about life at Tel Aviv's New Central Bus Station and its surroundings. Shles, completely dedicated to her heroes, became part of Lily's life, talked to her every few days even after the filming, and waited with her for the birth of her second son. Lily did not attend the film's premier at the DocAviv Film Festival. She said she had edema and wasn't feeling well.
Shles called me that morning and told me that Lily was hospitalized and that there complications from the pregnancy. She told me she was going to the hospital with the priest and promised to update. Half an hour later she called again crying, finally able to say two words: “Lily died.”
The details that I'll provide are what we were able to ascertain that day at Ichilov Hospital, in conversations with the medical staff that treated Lily and with the hospital's director, Professor Gaby Barbash.
Lily came to Ichilov on Sunday evening, able to walk, but feeling very ill. She was 37 weeks pregnant. She was hospitalized immediately and was found to have preeclampsia that the medical staff deemed “something we'd never seen here” – apparently rare, and very severe. She had a cesarean section that night, and after the surgery her condition seemed good. Preeclampsia is supposed to pass within five days of the birth, as its source is in the placenta, which is delivered with the baby. Francis says that they looked at their baby boy together and Lily tried to determine who he looked like. Less than 48 hours later her condition deteriorated, and she had brain edema. She was brain dead the next day. Her partner and other members of the community didn't understand the medical staff's hints, and continued to believe that Lily would soon be fine. But she wasn't, and Friday morning her heart stopped beating.
A-12 years old Lily being interviewd for a documentary
There is almost no doubt that she had preeclampsia in the weeks preceding the birth – complaints of edemas and migraines are common symptoms. It is unclear how rigorously the pregnancy was monitored. Lily was significantly overweight and apparently did not go to the doctor regularly. Though it wasn't classified as such, in light of her history, this was a high-risk pregnancy and should have been treated as such. When she arrived at the hospital she didn't even have pregnancy-related documents or information about her previous pregnancy and delivery, which were also complicated, and which could have assisted in understanding the risks.
Francis lashed out at the medical staff, which alerted Barbash, claiming that Lily was neglected for 48 hours until the onset of edema. At present there is no proof of this. According to staff reports, initially she seemed fine, when things deteriorated she underwent a CT, was given medication to treat the edema, and it was apparently reasonable to assume that the preeclampsia would subside.
During our last meeting Lily talked about her mother's illness: “We had a lot of problems and misunderstandings regarding many issues including her illness – we told her to go to the hospital many times and she didn't want to. Because she doesn't have citizenship, or because of money, she feared taking care of herself. We couldn't deal with it all. Up until a year ago she still cleaned houses, until she couldn't any more. Her situation is so bad now because she didn't get medical treatment.”
As a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, or of fate repeating itself – Lily also died from neglect. There is almost no doubt that her death could have been prevented, if the preeclampsia had been diagnosed and treated earlier.
Her body remained in the Intensive Care Unit until Pastor Combert, who also buried her mother, arrived. The priest entered the room and spoke to Lily in a mixture of English and a Ghanaian dialect about her mother, about her younger brother who grew up in boarding schools and his poor condition, and about Michael. In our terms, these are moments to talk about an eternal reunion between the dead and protecting the living, but it is unclear what the priest meant.
Because such a short time elapsed from when she was granted her formal status, Lily had not yet become a citizen, and it is unclear how this will affect her burial. When the priest left the room he asked to delay the process until approvals arrived from her close family members in Ghana regarding her burial. Her brother Samuel, who was deported with his father, lives in Ghana, as does her older sister, about whom Lily dreamed her entire life and will never meet. The hospital refused to to keep the body for more than two or three days, despite the Ghanaian community's request.
Francis, who broke down suddenly on the way to the elevator and cried until his eyes were red, does not yet know how he will raise a newborn baby, and Michael, on his own. In the meantime Shles has appealed for any possible assistance, and helps take care of Michael. Mesila, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community, knew Lily well and has promised to stand by the family and try to help.
The family that I met in 2000 – the mother, Lily, and her two younger brothers – fell apart rather quickly. One was deported, one is at a boarding school, and Lily grew apart from her mother, who died alone. Now Lily leaves behind a family whose chances of survival are not much better than those she had. The awful cycle of neglect, life on the fringe of the margins, the law that determines who is eligible for (certain) treatment and who is worthy of nothing – all of these seized another victim. Is there a chance that Lily's two children will not repeat their family story?
On a personal note, my relationship with Lily stemmed beyond normal work and symbolized much more for me than one girl's story. I chose to conduct my last interview with her as my swan song before leaving Yedioth Ahronoth, and in my parting words I promised to stay in touch with her and Michael. I was used to writing about injustices and suffering and facing the system, but this case – of such absolute alienation, ten minutes from home – was the end. The tragic end, in her case, is painful in a way that is hard to describe here. There are moments when even those who make a living off of words recognize their futility.
Goodbye Lily. I hope you're finally somewhere better
translation: Orna Dickman
An excerpt from the documentary TV show- "Third Eye", the episode- "Lily".
An excerpt from the documentary movie "Last Stop", directed by Julie Shles. For more, click here.