You could smell kebabs and seasoned chicken over smoky coals on the mangal (“barbecue”) from across the park. It seemed like any ordinary weekday evening in Levinsky Park — or “little Mogadishu” as some locals have begun calling it, be it jokingly or disparagingly: Lots of African men sitting around, some talking in groups, others lying on the grass.
Yet on a patchy knoll on the north side of the park, a group of African asylum-seekers, mostly from Sudan, and English-speaking Orthodox Israelis were sharing something that was out of the ordinary on Thursday night: A Tisha B’Av eve barbecue.
The group that organized the feast, Livnota b’esh (“build it by fire”), didn’t have a formal agenda. What it wanted was to engage and celebrate with the local Sudanese and Eritrean population of south Tel Aviv.
Amid light-hearted banter and a series of meet-and-greets, Elli Fischer, a Modi’in resident who organized the barbecue, said the vibe was exactly what they had aimed for. “We really just wanted to bring people together, and get them to talk… Conversations are how solutions present themselves,” he said, referring to one of the main hopes he has for the Sudanese population — getting them off the streets, and into jobs.
‘It’s the idea that people have a responsibility to the people they share a land with,’ said Frazer.
“It’s easy to see the Sudanese population’s situation as a south Tel Aviv issue. But I think it’s important for the Israeli people to take ownership over it, because it’s actually a national issue,” Fischer explained.
Before everyone jumped on the food, Aaron Frazer, another gentle-featured Orthodox Anglo-Israeli, told the group that he had just finished a tractate of the Talmud, which gave reasons for a festive meal of meat; Ashkenazi Jews typically don’t eat meat ahead of Tisha B’Av unless it’s a celebration.
The tractate, he said, dealt with the theme of neighborly relations in the Jewish tradition. “It’s the idea that people have a responsibility to the people they share a land with,” said Frazer.
The kindness of strangers has kept many of these men afloat. A group called Marak Levinsky, for example, has been handing out hot meals to the asylum-seekers since last winter’s cold rains. For many, it’s often their only hot meal of the day.
Surveying the park, one notices belongings — blankets and bags mostly — stored in the trees, which serve as the dressers and cupboards of the migrants’ nomadic life. One of them tried to explain the phenomenon: “They bring it down at night. It’s just so no one steals it, you know?” he said, somewhat embarrassed. Late at night, when the rest of the city has gone to sleep, the men climb up the trees, pull out their blankets and belongings, and make a bedroom of the urban jungle that is south Tel Aviv.
With so many unemployed asylum-seekers concentrated in one area, tensions between long-time residents and the African populations are continually flaring up. As an ostensible solution, Israel has begun building a massive detention facility, a 25,000-strong holding facility in the Negev, to house the migrants.
At the same time, the government will continue to deport them. Activists call the deportations a publicity stunt, as well as a mistake because, according to international law, Israel can only send asylum seekers back to countries with which it has normal relations — like South Sudan — and not to Eritrea or Sudan, where bloodshed and conflict rage on.
The South Sudanese, however, make up only a small portion of the asylum seekers residing in south Tel Aviv.
Sabine Hadad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, acknowledged that Israel will not deport Eritrean and Sudanese migrants. “There is a policy to not deport them… They’re going to stay in Israel,” said Hadad. “Since we know they’re staying, [regardless of the outcome of their applications for asylum,] we’ve been trying to first check applications from people from other countries, such as Nigeria, who can be denied entry and sent back to their country of origin.”
“They [the migrants] came here illegally. They’re not considered refugees… But because we know we aren’t going to deport them, we give them a legal staying visa, and only a staying visa,” explained Hadad. “The intention is not to give them a prize for coming here illegally — because then another 50,000 will come.”
She also admitted that the government has not been enforcing the law that prohibits the migrants from working: “We’re not enforcing the law for now — but when the detention facility is built, we will begin to [enforce it].”
Israel as a refuge from genocide
After hearing that an article was being written about the barbecue, some of the Sudanese men began crowding around this reporter, forming unofficial lines, waiting for a chance to tell their story.
Many of them only spoke Arabic, struggling to put their experiences into a few short sentences. One of them, who looked not a day over 17, noted that he had changed into his “nice shirt” for the occasion. With a bittersweet smile, he explained that his “everyday shirt” was filthy from grueling work under the sun.
In their stories, the treacherous journey of reaching Israel was absent — unless they were asked about it.
One of the Sudanese men (who preferred not to have his name published) was a very tall, broad-shouldered man from the war-torn Nuba Mountains in the South Kordofan province of Sudan. He spoke excellent Hebrew after being in Israel for six years. He put it this way when asked about the dangers associated with the trek: “When you’re constantly being shot at and in the midst of a genocide, what’s a few days of danger in comparison?”
‘When the fighting in Sudan ends, I will go home… I don’t know when it will be, but I know it will happen.’
After facing war, genocide, famine, and starvation, the ones who manage to escape Sudan brave the blazing heat of the Egyptian desert, often by foot, and often without water let alone food, for days. Some make it to Cairo, where there is an active office of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and a familiar language, but also a lot of racism, and fear.
Some opt to cross the Sinai to Israel instead, though the government says the accelerated building of the fence along the Egyptian border has reduced the number of infiltrators.
A common technique is to bribe Bedouin smugglers for passage. Some of the migrants are placed in infamous Sinai torture camps, where they may be subjected to torture, or raped if they’re women. In order to pay their way, some sell their organs on the black market.
If they make it across Sinai alive, the Bedouins generally tell them to “run for it” about two miles from the Israeli border — because the Egyptian border guards have orders to shoot to kill, they say. When they reach the Israeli border, if they’re caught by the IDF, they may be put in detention facilities for one to five years, after which they are set free — without a work permit or legal refugee status — to fend for themselves against a new host of hardships: hunger, racism, homelessness, the threat of deportation, and more.
Take Hassan, a friendly, fast-talking Sudanese man, also from the Nuba Mountains,is the founder of the Union of Sudanese Refugees, which aims to be a source of self-help for other Sudanese asylum-seekers in need of advice and information.
He was one of the first Sudanese people in the country, Hassan said. “There were probably only six other Sudanese here [in Israel] before me,” he joked, also in flawless Hebrew.
After the trek through Egypt, he was put in jail for one and a half years, and then put on an eight-month kibbutz work program in the north. This was at a time when contractors could act as legal guardians of the migrants in exchange for labor, as part of the now-defunct Gedera-Hadera policy; migrants signed a promise that they wouldn’t work between the central cities of Gedera and Hadera, the geographical backbone of Israel’s economy.
After that, Hassan came to south Tel Aviv — a stranger in a foreign land. Survival quickly became Hassan’s only goal: How to get food, where to get food, how to get money for food.
But with the help of Yasmin and Ma’ayan, two Israeli sisters who befriended him — and provided support and advice — Hassan became the star that he is among the Sudanese population.
A few years later, armed with Hebrew language skills, he started the Sudanese refugees’ union. “The ones who come here are in real trouble,” he said. Like most of the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers, Hassan is on a temporary A5 visa that he renews every few months.
Soft-spoken Abu Bakr Abu Karim, from outside Darfur, had only been in Israel for a year, part of it in a detention facility. He made a point to express, several times, his thanks to the army for letting him enter the country, and for protecting him.
Abu Karim, who spoke only Arabic, said he suffers from an acute stomach illness — and that a hospital in Jerusalem wanted NIS 20,000 to treat him (which he couldn’t afford). Physicians for Human Rights tried to help him but the matter exceeds its capabilities. Abu Karim finished this story by saying: “I’d really, really like to go to Jordan if I could.”
After telling several stories about the hardships associated with living as an asylum-seeker in Israel, Adam, a youthful Darfuri man who donned a fancy light-pink collared shirt against his deep-black skin, said in clear English: “When the fighting in Sudan ends, I will go home… I don’t know when it will be, but I know it will happen.”
It’s a lot of misinformation, say young activists
According to Pamela Strauss and Tyler Fishbone, two young, idealistic Americans who came to Israel as part of a Jewish Agency MASA social service internship program, the real problem facing the migrant population is not racism among Israelis but rather the government and its habit of ignoring the asylum-seekers.
Strauss and Fishbone have just finished a six-month stint working with the African migrant population. Strauss taught a group of Sudanese men about their legal rights in a neighborhood near the bus station, while Fishbone lived in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood and taught English and worked at a daycare for refugee children, organized through the ARDC, the African Refugee Development Center.
In an interview, Strauss and Fishbone made a highly informed and passionate case that the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers live in “legal purgatory” in Israel.
“I lived in the neighborhood, with these people, you know? I saw a lot, and it’s not the [local] people who are racist or to blame. They’re in a bad situation because the government has let things go… Of course these conditions are ripe for violence and clashes,” he said.
“They [the migrants] live among us. They’re not the disease carriers or criminals they’re made out to be; they are the most eager students I’ve ever been in a classroom with — and I’ve been a student for almost 20 years. They really want to contribute,” said Fishbone. “The people just need to see that — and hear that from the government.”
The controversy surrounding “infiltrators,” they said, stems from a misconception about the numbers. A common figure thrown around recently is that there are some 300,000 African refugees in Israel. In reality, the volunteers pointed out, a large part of that population is made up of migrant workers.
There are about 36,000 Eritreans and 15,000 Sudanese currently in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry.
Despite the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1951 Convention on Refugees, of which Israel is a principal signatory and which mandates that refugees be given healthcare and the right to work (and, which was drafted as a response to the large Jewish refugee population in the wake of the Holocaust), Israel lags behind much of the West in handling migrants seeking asylum.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev defended the government’s actions by saying: “Per capita, Israel has taken in more people than most Western countries, and I think it’s unfair to see a small country like Israel as the solution to all the difficulties in countries like Eritrea and Sudan.”
Yet one of the main criticisms Israel faces is its “zero immigration and zero refugees” policy, the MASA duo said, citing the lack of a mechanism to recognize asylum-seekers from Sudan in legal terms, for example. The lack of recognition stems, in part, from the fact that Sudan and Israel aren’t friendly countries. In addition, the UNHCR no longer has an active mission in Israel.
The Interior Ministry’s Hadad pointed out that 500 Darfurians were given temporary residency status in Israel in 2007 in a good-will gesture. “It’s an ID and they can work,” said explained. “It was a one-time decision by the government. However, after that move, we understood that such a decision brings more people in — first a few thousand, and now even more.”
According to Regev, many Israelis themselves were refugees, or children of refugees — and that’s not what the current population coming from Sudan and Eritrea is. “The majority of people coming into Israel now are not refugees, therefore the UN conventions on refugees don’t apply to them. Many of them are illegal immigrants seeking work in Israel because they can make more here than in their countries of origin.”
Hadad, too, contended that the Sudanese and Eritreans are not refugees. “First, when they entered Israel, they were questioned. In their interview, they often say they came here to work. Second, many of them passed through Egypt — and in Egypt, most of them were considered refugees. According to international law, you can’t become a refugee in one country and go to another country to get new refugee status. Third, we found that a majority of them came to improve their quality of life — not because they’re running from something. Yes, they were running from danger at home, but in Egypt they were already refugees, and they decided to leave.”
Fishbone and Strauss, however, pointed out that, despite various high-level officials painting them as economic migrants or infiltrators, the arrivals are, in the most basic sense of the word, refugees: people escaping war and seeking temporary refuge in a new place.
To Strauss, the memory of the Holocaust is a vital reminder of the “just” character Israel was created to uphold. Strauss’s grandparents are German survivors. Racism and misunderstanding of people can lead to dangerous consequences, said Strauss, alluding to the horrors her family went through before escaping to the United States. “The imagery of Jews used in Nazi Germany — vermin, cockroaches, scum of the Earth — is similar to what Israelis now say about the African refugees.”
“But in Israel’s case, I think people are just misinformed — it’s a top-down thing,” she said, explaining that the surge in racism against the African migrant population is a direct result of their being made a scapegoat by governmental inaction.
“That’s why it’s so important for people to get involved,” Strauss said. If it was up to the people, she explained, and if the refugees weren’t concentrated in one, tiny area, Israelis might start to see them as humans and not just as infiltrators. Or, in the words of Aaron Frazer, they might begin to see the asylum-seekers as neighbors in a common land.