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Immigrant family's Israeli dream shattered

Welder Ilya Rapaport wanted a better life for his children when he left Russia for Israel two years ago, but his dreams never came true.

Unable to find work, the 62-year-old and his family ended up living in a one-room, windowless shack in a Tel Aviv slum. The family's only real tie to Israel was Ilya's 23-year-old son Nikolai, a sergeant in the Givati infantry brigade serving in southern Lebanon.But Nikolai was killed Saturday in a clash with Arab guerrillas. His disheartened father returned to Russia on Monday - possibly for good - to bury his son in his native land.

The Rapaports' plight shocked Israelis and trained the spotlight on the difficulties many Russian immigrants still face in their new home.

"Here one can die like a hero and live like a dog," commentator Sima Kadmon wrote in today's Maariv newspaper. "This is no Zionist dream."

Ilya and his daughter Olga, 22, spent their last hours in Israel at a military memorial for Nikolai on Monday.

Weeping, they walked behind his Israeli flag-draped casket carried by fellow soldiers, together with the only friends they made in Israel - volunteers from social services.

Some 800,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union have arrived in Israel since 1989, and today they comprise about a seventh of the population. Although most have found work, many do not work in their chosen professions and immigrant unemployment is higher than among the general population.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, himself an immigrant, said Monday that while many newcomers have made great strides, "there is still great poverty and distress among the Russian community in Israel."

Edelstein said immigrant needs such as housing and special assistance in the army are still being ignored.

Many Israelis were shocked by reports Monday revealing the extreme poverty of the Rapaports, who lived together in a one-room shack with a sheet of corrugated metal for a roof. Social services had to buy Ilya shoes to wear to the memorial.

Nikolai's army friends said he never mentioned his home life.

"We were really surprised," said Igor Lichterman, a fellow immigrant soldier who was slightly injured in the same battle in the Israeli-occupied zone of south Lebanon in which Nikolai was killed. Asked about conditions for immigrant soldiers, Lichterman said: "We want to be treated like everyone else."

"We're not sensitive enough when it comes to backgrounds of new immigrant soldiers," said Yosef Lapid, a commentator for the Maariv newspaper. "After all, they volunteer to serve in our army while their families live in very sorry circumstances."

In a swift response to the criticism, the army ordered its units to do background checks on the financial and social welfare of new immigrants in an effort to provide more assistance.

The Jewish National Fund announced plans for a grove in memory of Rapaport, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced that the premier and his wife would "host new immigrants" in their home today.

But this was all too little, too late for the Rapaports.

Both Ilya and Olga seemed outsiders Monday, unfamiliar with Israeli customs. Officers from Nikolai's unit helped place a prayer skullcap on Ilya's head and another immigrant soldier translated speeches from Hebrew to Russian during the ceremony.

Tearfully, Nikolai's Hebrew teacher Tova Nayberg addressed the gathering.

"We stand here embarrassed that we didn't see, didn't hear, didn't ask and didn't know how difficult it was for your family," she said.

A few minutes later, Ilya and Olga Rapaport got into a taxi. With a military escort, they went to Israel's international airport with two small suitcases and no return tickets.

"I'm not needed here," Ilya was quoted by Maariv as saying. "We'll go back to (Russia), bury him there, and then we'll see."