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Foreign Girl Forever – Einat Fishbain

Einat Fishbain

Lily Oudraogo was born in Tel Aviv, and that’s where she lived and died. Twenty-five difficult and insulting years on the margins of society, and beyond, reached an end on June 6, likely from complications of preeclampsia (a pregnancy-related condition involving high blood pressure, among other factors). Her younger son, Ben-El William, born less than a week earlier, is still in the neonatal department at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. Her five-year-old son Michael is with friends from the local Ghanaian 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 those offering consolation to spells of crying, anger, and helplessness. It is hard to imagine a sadder and more senseless end to the life of a woman who spent her entire life trying to survive in the land of her birth.


Lily was born in 1989, the second daughter of unauthorized migrant workers from Ghana who had arrived in Israel a few years earlier, leaving 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. Despite two “one-time arrangements” in which the Ministry of Interior granted residency status to several hundred Israeli-born children of migrant workers, they were always left out. The reason: their mother entered Israel illegally.


Lily’s mother died last year and was buried in Emek Hefer in central Israel. Her 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, and 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, and for the unborn child she had conceived with Francis, whom she had met in the meantime. For a moment it seemed their lives were starting to fall into place. But only for a moment.

My relationship with Lily is personal, so I write 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 the local newspaper Ha’Ir. The first daycare for “illegal” children I visited was that of Nana Ofoko, who taught children of varying ages in a small room near 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 Israeli television program “The Third Eye.” Her living conditions were tough, and she continued to fight for her place in her middle school class, for a musical future that she and her music teacher believed in, and for her older sister – whom she had never met – to come to Israel from Ghana so together they could open a small salon specializing in African braids.

We met for the last time nearly two years ago. I had heard that Lily’s mother was sick, and I came to her home on HaGdud Ha’Ivri Street in South Tel Aviv. Lily was 23-years-old, and the father of her three-year-old son, Michael, had been deported to Ghana and then disappeared. After all those years she had almost stopped believing she would ever get legal status in Israel. Her file was stuck somewhere in the Interior Ministry, and she had stopped making plans. She and her son lived in decrepit conditions, in a crowded apartment with no light, in a building inhabited by asylum seekers. 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 a documentary movie, “Last Stop,” directed by filmmaker Julie Shles, about life in Tel Aviv’s New Central Bus Station and its surroundings. Shles, completely dedicated to the heroes of her film, 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 premiere of the film at the DocAviv Film Festival last month. She said she had edema, that she wasn’t feeling well.

It’s Shles who called me and told me that Lily was hospitalized, and that there complications from the pregnancy. She said she was going to the hospital with the priest and promised to keep me update. Half an hour later she called again crying, finally able to say two words: “Lily died.”

The details I’ll provide are what we were able to ascertain that morning at Ichilov Hospital, in conversations with the medical staff who treated Lily since her hospitalization, and with the hospital’s director, Professor Gaby Barabash.

Lily came to Ichilov on Sunday evening, able to walk, but feeling very ill. She was 37 weeks pregnant. She was hospitalized immediately and diagnosed with preeclampsia that the medical staff deemed “something we’d never seen here” – apparently rare, and extremely severe. She delivered by caesarean section that night, and after the surgery her condition seemed good. Preeclampsia is supposed to resolve itself within five days after delivery, as its source is in the placenta, which is delivered with the baby. Francis described how they had looked at their baby boy together, and Lily had tried to figure out who he looked like. Less than 48 hours later her condition deteriorated, and she suffered from swelling around the brain. 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.


There’s almost no doubt Lily suffered from preeclampsia in the weeks preceding the birth – complaints of swelling and migraines are common symptoms. It is unclear how rigorously her pregnancy was monitored. Lily was significantly overweight and apparently did not go to the doctor regularly.  Although 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, however, she didn’t even have documents or information regarding either this pregnancy or her previous pregnancy and delivery, which were also complicated – information that  could have assisted in understanding the risks.

Francis lashed out at the medical staff, which alerted Barabash, claiming that Lily had been 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 scan, received 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 about 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 was afraid to take care of herself. We couldn’t deal with it all. Up until a year ago she still cleaned houses, until she couldn’t do it any more. Her situation is so bad now because she didn’t get medical treatment.”

As a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, Lily, too, died from neglect. There is almost no doubt 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 mix of English and the Ghanaian language her family spoke about her mother, about her younger brother who grew up in boarding schools and his poor condition, and about Michael. Often in such moments one thinks about an eternal reunion between the dead and about protecting the living, but the priest’s words were beyond my comprehension.

Because such a short time had elapsed since she was granted formal status in Israel, 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 close relatives 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 keep the body for more than two or three days, despite the Ghanaian community’s request.

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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 Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community run by the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 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 – quickly fell apart. 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 faced. The awful cycle of neglect, life on the fringe of the margins, the law that determines who is eligible for (certain) treatment and who deserves nothing – all of these forces have now 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 extended 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 my position as a writer for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, and in my parting words I promised to stay in touch with her and Michael. By then I was used to writing about injustices and suffering and facing the system, but this case – of absolute alienation, just ten minutes from home – was over the edge. The tragic end, in her case, is painful in a way I find difficult to describe. There are moments when even those who make a living from words recognize their futility. Goodbye Lily. I hope you’re finally in a better place.

Einat Fishbain is an Israeli journalist and founder of The Hottest Place in Hell, a news site focusing on issues of social concern that was recently awarded the inaugural DIGIT prize for online journalism. Her work as a writer, editor, and producer for Israeli print and television media has garnered her multiple awards, including the award-winning column “The New Tel Avivians,” which first brought the lives of migrant workers to the attention of the Israeli public and was awarded the Sokolov Prize in 2000. She is also recipient of the Zchut Award (2010) for her work on the human rights of people with disabilities. This piece is slightly amended from a version that appeared at The Hottest Place in Hell.

* Update: Lily Oudraogo was finally laid to rest on June 20.

Translated by Orna Dickman.


Excerpt from the television documentary “Third Eye” (episode: “Lily”).


Excerpt from the documentary “Last Stop”, directed by Julie Shles. For more, click here.

Cite this: Fishbain, Einat. 2014. “Foreign Girl Forever.” AccessDenied: A Conversation on Unauthorized Im/migration and Health. Accessed [date] at http://wp.me/pIK8x-Fu.  

  1. June 25, 2014 at 2:41 am

    Very sad story. Fortunately, Lily, as you say, had close relatives in Ghana – brothers, sisters, a step-father. I think that the best solution for these poor children left behind would be if these relatives, who come to Israel for the funeral, would take them to Ghana where a loving family can raise them in a community and not on the margins. Ghana sounds like a great place with enormous potential – a growing economy, a rare island of stability in turbulent Africa.

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