Out of Africa, into the fire: Refuge proves elusive for the asylum seekers of Tel Aviv

Out of Africa, into the fire: Refuge proves elusive for the asylum seekers of Tel Aviv

Dubbed a 'cancer' by extremist politicians, African migrants survive amid neighborhood hostility, the threat of deportation, and a little generosity of Israeli spirit

A pregnant migrant woman outside a shelter in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)
A pregnant migrant woman outside a shelter in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

Three undeniably stylish, jetblack-skinned ladies in tanktops and three-quarter yoga pants drape themselves across adjacent beds, passing a crimping iron to produce perfectly voluminous ebony waves, intermittently erupting in girlish giggles over the latest gossip. The smell of scorched hair mixes with the pungent aroma of Berbere red pepper and other Eritrean spices stewing in a large tin pot in the corner of the room. Contrary to first impression, the attendants of this nightly pajama party are not girls, but women, mothers, who are also Eritrean asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv’s only shelter for African refugee mothers and children.

The lighthearted vibe in this room contrasts sharply with that of the six other living quarters in this modest, one-story complex, where somber mothers and their children cram into the bedroom / kitchen / bathroom / laundromat / improvised space that they call home.

Despite the arduous conditions, the 58 residents of this shelter are lucky. In this shaded alleyway near Tel Aviv’s massive central bus station, they have been protected from the violence transpiring only a few streets away.

Women's Shelter in South Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)
Women's Shelter in South Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

It’s difficult to trace exactly when tensions began to ramp up. Locals say it all started with a crime wave on the part of the Africans, while the migrants say the situation became ugly when two Molotov cocktails were hurled at their buildings in early April, and reached a fever pitch during a rally in May that saw an unruly mob attacking the Africans. This area, thus, has become the unofficial battleground between Israeli nationalists who see the African presence as a threat to the Jewish character of the city (and of the Israeli state), neighbors who claim Africans are to blame for the surge in rapes, robberies and the area’s general dilapidation, and the migrants themselves, trapped in a sort of limbo, and armed only with the tools of survivalism.

In this makeshift hair salon, though, Wayene (who, like most of the refugees I interviewed requested to omit her last name out of fear of discovery by the authorities) is largely unaware of the racially charged diatribes gaining popularity through the Israeli nationalist discourse. According to government officials, she, as well as tens of thousands of other African immigrants, are a nuisance and a hazard.

Twenty-four-year-old Wayene transported her three children thousands of miles from Eritrea, via Sudan, to the Promised Land four years ago, leaving behind her husband, who, as far as she knows, is still sitting in a Sudanese prison without charge.“Here in Israel, the government is very good, there is no jail, and there are many good people, good Christians,” she said.  “But, again, the problem is money. My family in Eritrea expects me to send money to them, but I have no way to hold a job here. And where else do I have to go? I have three children to feed, responsibilities,” Wayene explained, in sullen distress.

Gently pressing my hand, she recounts her story, of losing her job cleaning the bathrooms and floors in an Ethiopian restaurant when her boss became fearful of the government crackdowns on employers of illegal migrants. Now, she simply waits for an alternative plan of action to materialize.

Though Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino has advocated granting work permits to migrants to reduce petty crimes, most policy makers have rejected the idea, arguing that the aim is to encourage them to leave, not settle in.

The other women listen to Wayene’s narrative attentively, nodding. They, too, are familiar with the pain and bewilderment that comes with holding together a family in yet another inhospitable city.

According to Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari African migrants are ‘rapists and harassers’; a ‘national plague,’ says MK Danny Danon.

Nineteen-year-old Iva, who also left behind the father of her children in Sudan, swings her hennaed feet as she tells me of walking across the Sinai desert in the later stage of pregnancy. Physical affronts were only one of the abuses exerted upon her by her Bedouin smugglers. “During the four month journey in Sinai, they would not give us food, no water, and many times they would hit me or harass me,” she said. “Now I am here and I am alone, my mom in Eritrea, my father in Sudan, no one is here for me, except for the other mothers.”

My English translator Rim Teki Solomon is also, technically, a youth though she exudes a sophistication usually reserved for women with a lifetime of experience under their belt. Rim, has fought to survive since the day she was born to Eritrean parents in a Sudanese refugee camp 20 years ago.

At 15 she walked across the Sinai desert to Israel with her mother and five younger siblings. In the prison near the Egypt-Israel border where she lived for the first few months, she taught herself Hebrew and translated the stories of Sudanese and Eritrean women, who were tortured and raped by their Bedouin smugglers, to the Israeli authorities.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai says the Africans have been an enormous strain on Israel’s already overburdened welfare system, as carriers of “a profusion of diseases: hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, AIDS and drug (addiction).” According to Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari, African migrants are “rapists and harassers”; a “national plague,” says MK Danny Danon.

MK Michael Ben-Ari (3L) and right wing activist Baruch Marzel at a protest, Tel Aviv, 2011. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)
MK Michael Ben-Ari (3L) and right wing activist Baruch Marzel at a protest, Tel Aviv, 2011. (photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90)

Rim seems to be a living affront to those claims. Earlier this month, she was granted the Women’s Refugee Commission “2012 Voices of Courage” award for her work as a champion of women’s issues. Today she works as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as two other organizations. She is also community organizer for the Israeli NGO “Hagar and Miriam Project,” in which she conducts workshops for pregnant women and new mothers on issues like family planning, self-defense, and ways to deal with culture shock.

“The young women that arrive here have suffered a lot,” Rim says, referring to the hundreds with whom she has worked. When I ask her how she herself copes with the intake of such an overwhelming amount of tragedy, she says, “Listening to their stories is very difficult, but I’m not going to suffer as much as they do. They need someone to stand by their side, to encourage them, to tell them, ‘I am here, I hear you’… Especially when I see a woman that has gone through it all, rape, abuse; I feel stronger, I think. Because, in the end they are still standing, so why can’t I?”

I ask her where the solutions to the refugee crises lie, in the Israeli government or the international community? She smiles: “I actually really don’t care about the politics. I just do what needs to be done.”

“But something I do know is that when I came (to south Tel Aviv) five years ago, there was not as much help as there is today.”

An oasis of serenity

Over the course of history, fate seems to have directed the world’s refugees to this south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Sheanan, or “Oasis of Serenity” in Hebrew. Its founders, Jews fleeing Arab violence in the Jaffa riots of 1921, transformed the then open orchard land into the commercial and social center of Jewish, largely Kafkazi, craftsmen. Here were the city’s famed wood- and metal-work warehouses, and finest shoe shops.

‘If you bring them to a place and they can’t feed themselves, of course there will be crime.’

However, the construction of the Central Bus Station in the 1960s proved to be an urban planning disaster, quickly transforming the conventional working class area into a hub for drugs, prostitution and homelessness. In the years of and after the second intifada, cheap Palestinian laborers were replaced with those from the Philippines, Thailand and other East Asian countries, thus ringing in the area’s second wave of immigration.

Meir Shmueli, 54, has been living in Neve Sheanan for 24 years, running a corner kiosk which stocks basic foodstuffs and, today, Africa calling cards. He claims he’s “seen everything.”

“In the ’90s, it was even worse, the whole place flooded with drug addicts and drunks,” he exclaimed, pointing to a dead-eyed man outside his door, falling over himself between swigs from a plastic bottle of vodka.

Yehuda Baruch, a 32-year-old computer engineer, who has been living and working in the Hatikva neighborhood for four years, has decided to move. “But, that’s just it,” he says, “The people who grew up here, who have their children, their whole lives here, they feel ‘Why should I have to leave?’”

“As Israelis, we feel we can’t just lose our Jewish identity, and also it’s the irony of our country, enlightened, democratic, that we feel we need to give rights to these people that push us into other areas of the city. The government doesn’t deal with them, and so the crime and poverty just continue to spread throughout south Tel Aviv,” he says.

‘The UN didn’t care, the Egyptian police didn’t care, and, so, we were stuck in between. What I wanted, what I needed is protection.  As refugees there is no decision, no choice, you have to run to save your life.’

“I’m against the pogrom mentality, and actually you can’t even blame (the African migrants). If you bring them to a place and they can’t feed themselves, of course there will be crime. But, from the Israeli side, there is a justified sense of fear of how Africans are transforming the community.”

These Africans, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, but also from war-torn West African countries like Cote d’Ivoire, have become the neighborhood’s most recent settlers. They have been pouring over the Egyptian border since an incident in 2005, in which Egyptian police attacked a squatter camp peacefully protesting outside the Cairo UNHCR headquarters, leaving 28 Sudanese dead.

Simon was there on that January day in Cairo. He, like thousands of other in Egypt, interpreted the event as an unequivocal exit cue.

“On that day we all went to the UN office to try to tell them, ‘We are here, we need help,’ but the UN didn’t care, the Egyptian police didn’t care, and, so, we were stuck in between,” he said. “What I wanted, what I needed is protection. As refugees there is no decision, no choice; you have to run to save your life.”

Simon has been on the run for most of his life.

Homeless men sleep outside in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)
Homeless men sleep outside in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

After fleeing his village in South Sudan for Khartoum with his wife and two children, where he was once again forced to escape after being accused, and hunted, for espionage, he arrived in Cairo in 1997. He waited eight years for the UN to answer his status requests, only to be told that his case was not compelling enough for asylum, and that he should wait to reapply at a later date.

Upon hearing that some South Sudanese had made it to Israel (and that others had died en route) he made contact with the Bedouin smugglers who could lead them across the harsh Sinai desert, to a spot within walking distance of the Israeli border.

“We were sure the (Egyptian border police) are killing people, but because of the situation in Egypt, we said, okay, it’s better to die on a border than to die here in Egypt,” Simon said.

Along the journey, a fellow South Sudanese was mysteriously captured, never to be heard from again.

Simon embarked upon the treacherous journey across the Sinai desert only to be met by Border Police who informed him that he and his family were criminals, and, once space opened up, would be transferred to the nearby jail to serve a sentence up to six months. Waiting in a small hotel in Beersheva, Simon, his wife, and his two children jumped the wall surrounding the complex, and hailed a taxi, with no money in his pocket. Eventually he made his way up to Tel Aviv, where he heard groups of Sudanese were living. At a Tel Aviv church, he was given money to pay the driver, and then embarked upon a new challenge — finding a job, without documentation.

“Once we got here, it was too expensive to live, and everything was destroyed very fast,” he said. He was able to snag an occasional menial job in the black market, though never close to sufficient to pay for the soaring costs of Tel Aviv life. Over the past few weeks, all job prospects completely disappeared.

“Under this pressure, I cannot feed my children, they are not happy. You can’t have good relationships with your wife, your kids. We are always fighting at home, speaking strongly.”

Today Simon waits in a cramped apartment in the Shapira neighborhood, which he shares with his wife, four children and another Sudanese family of five, for an Israeli-organized return flight to South Sudan on June 17.

Life in Israel has been undignified: ‘Here we did not feel good even for one day. It’s like we cannot live like human beings.’

He is to fly into Juba, the capital of a South Sudan that won independence last July after the 20th century’s longest and deadliest civil war. Humanitarian organizations have estimated war casualties to be around 200,000 and the dispersal of nationals around 2.5 million. Today, almost a year later, South Sudan is still plagued by inter-ethnic fighting, frequently around oil fields, which has claimed thousands of lives, while yet another war looms between the North and South. Following the genocide in Darfur, the artillery and aerial bombardment indicate that the central Nuba Hills area may be facing a similar fate.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has declared the current situation in South Sudan stable, and thus it considers the potential deportation of an estimated 2,000 South Sudanese asylum seekers to be a legal option.

Simon does not agree with the Israeli assessment. From friends and family living in South Sudan, he hears that brutal violence is still a part of daily life. Furthermore, he has recently received news that his father, the leader of their Dinka tribe, has gone missing, after a rival group stole the family’s cattle and has sent numerous death threats to their home.

Despite the risks, however, in Israel, Simon has simply been unable to provide for his family, and knows financial prospects will only dwindle as the government expands its crackdown on Israeli employers of illegals.

Moreover, life in Israel, Simon says, has been undignified.

“Though we don’t have a country, South Sudan is a newborn country, where our enemies are doing their best to destroy everything with bombings, making problems between tribes,” he says. “But, still, here we did not feel good even for one day. It’s like we cannot live like human beings.”

Refugee or infiltrator? Temporary living center or prison?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many coalition politicians have labeled the Africans “economic migrants,” or “infiltrators,” arriving in Israel not out of a fear for their life, but rather from a desire to improve their financial situations. According to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, of which Israel was not only a signatory but a principal drafter, “refugees” in Israel must be given the right to work and access to healthcare. However, in contrast to the refugee status determination procedures extended in the majority of Western countries, official policy for asylum-seekers has yet to be formulated in Israel. Instead, migrants are granted papers allowing them to stay but not work, which, after a bout of paper pushing at the Interior Ministry, can be switched to temporary work permits, usually valid only for three months at most.

Young African refugees rally against Israel's plan to deport South Sudanese, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Alana Perino/Flash 90)
Young African refugees rally against Israel's plan to deport South Sudanese, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Alana Perino/Flash 90)

Tally Kritzman-Amir, a legal expert on immigration in Israel at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, explained that the lack of an official immigration policy stems from Israel’s “denial about the fact that we have immigration at all.”

“The policy was not to have a policy, so what we have governing today are the internal procedures of the Interior Ministry. Further, this well-established mechanism of government protection, which allows them only to be here, and is supposed to be for people ineligible for refugee status, is actually being used to prevent refugees from submitting applications,” she said.

Today, the African community of south Tel Aviv has suddenly grabbed the spotlight. Where for years, they were the silent masses manning Tel Aviv’s kitchens, construction sites, and hotel cleaning crews, in the past few weeks, the allegations of African involvement in local robberies and rapes have generated an entirely new profile. Tel Aviv neighbors and right-wing activists have attacked south Tel Aviv Africans in two Molotov cocktail attacks as well as mob attacks which witnessed an assault on African passers-by, the looting of a shop known to serve an African clientele, and the smashing of a vehicle containing African passengers.

Standing in front of a poster of Netanyahu superimposed upon an Eritrean flag, Likud Knesset member Miri Regev two weeks ago called Sudanese migrants “a cancer in our body, who should be sent back” to where they came from.

Described in parts of the Hebrew media as modern day “pogroms,” the violent turn of recent events against the migrants has prompted the question: As a nation that served as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, is Israel failing to maintain the necessary moral attitude toward other peoples in need?

An African man's car windows were smashed at the anti-migrant rally in Tel Aviv in May. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
An African man's car windows were smashed at the anti-migrant rally in Tel Aviv in May. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Many left wing activists say yes. They have gathered in the hundreds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, hoisting signs like “Racism in the Knesset, the country is crashing,” or “We were foreigners too, in the land of Egypt.” In addition to helping migrants in the quest to obtain healthcare, food and other basic needs, an extensive system of NGOs and individuals are campaigning to delay government plans to expel the migrant population  as well as to imprison an estimated 11,000 migrants in what is set to be the world’s largest detention center, slated to open in the coming months.

A threat or moral imperative for a Jewish nation?

Though warnings of deportation and detention loom over their heads more tangibly than ever before, most refugees are preoccupied by more urgent challenges, such as when they will eat their next meal.

Softly spoken, 22-year-old Mebrahtom, from Eritrea, wears a tired expression as he surveys his surroundings. From a small strip of unshaded grass, he sees a modern, gritty city with signs in a multitude of languages, internet cafes, small food markets and the occasional Jewish and Filipino crowds. But mostly, Mebrahtom sees crowds of men who look like him, congregated in circles throughout the jungle gym and grassy area, debating prospects or updates of their status in their respective native tongues, and occasionally welcoming a newcomer to the group after a recognizably trying trek.

Mebrahtom, like thousands of other refugees, has drifted in and out of poverty as steady work has remained elusive.

“Before (I arrived) I didn’t know anything about Israel. In all aspects, they told us, there is democracy. But the administration is very bad.  Here people are without money, people sleep in the park, and in the park, people hit, fight each other,” says Mebrahtom.

“The refugees, they keep respect for the locals. But here, I am degraded, being a refugee, I have no rights, nothing.”

Wayene and Iva in their room in the shelter earlier this year, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)
Wayene and Iva in their room in the shelter earlier this year, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

Every morning at 5:00 am Mebrahtom competes, mostly in vain, with throngs of other African migrants hoping to get a spot on the few construction trucks that pass by.

Though he, and his group of friends, have made multiple trips to the Interior Ministry, they have only been flooded with paperwork in Hebrew, which, with the help of translators from numerous NGOs, have been understood to mean that they still are forbidden from working, still bound to a seemingly ceaseless cycle of hardship.

Stories of frustration and bafflement resonate among a nearby group of Sudanese, who are holding an impromptu congressional hearing to welcome a newcomer fresh off the Sinai path, to inform him of his options, or lack thereof, in this new land.

Leaning against the playground slide in a lotus position, ignoring the flies swarming around his face, running his fingers through his shoulder-length braided tendrils,17-year-old Muhammad explains that in Israel “God has not allowed us any luck.”

The group of some 20 men burst into laughter. This “joke,” I am told, is one told often, to explain why after years of fighting to get to this Promised Land, they are left to bide their time between the park and the nearby NGO offices.

The men’s faces relax from a rolling laugh and drift into silence.

A brawny teenager in shorts and a grungy New York Knicks t-shirt, Muhammad tells me he was once a basketball star. Fleeing North Kurdofan six years ago, he ended up in Benghazi, Libya, where he was recruited to play for the Ahl Benghazi basketball league from 2009 to 2011. As tensions rose, however, and attacks on African migrants escalated, he decided to make his way across Egypt, and eventually into Israel.

He has yet to step foot on the basketball court in the park.

“It’s so hard for us, but I know it’s hard for the (Israelis.) This is a big country, but still I would like to have peace, quiet for one moment.”

When I ask him where he sleeps at night, he laughs, lightly pounding the once bright red and yellow slide now covered in dust and filth, and featuring the word “FUCK” in white spray paint.

An island of sanity

An Eritrean man in a ragged white shirt shyly thumbs through a Tigrinya-to-Hebrew dictionary. “Yes, you can take it,” says Eyal Feder, the director of the open-air Levinsky Garden public library. The man signs the sheet, his eyes light up, and he takes a seat at the plastic table, unfazed by the crowds of children laughing and playing hand-games. He studies the dictionary, word by word, for two hours, and then returns to his patch of shade in the park.

“With all the madness of south Tel Aviv, I see this place as an island of sanity,” said Feder. Here, about 450 library card holders have access to more than 3,500 donated books, in as many languages as there is need, ranging from Chinese to Nepali, Tagrinya to Arabic.

‘These same phrases — drunk, criminal, carriers of disease — were being used 20 years ago to describe the immigrants from Russia. People have to understand that in this world you cannot choose your neighbor.’

Feder, a 25-year-old, handsomely bearded musician, came to work at this library when returning from the standard Israeli rite of passage wandering the globe. Remembering Belize and Cuba, where he spent weeks chewing the fat with African migrant communities, Feder realized he didn’t need to travel halfway across the world to keep doing what he loved.

“Against the background of the park where there is homelessness and violence, this place, where kids play and have a stage for their art, is an oxymoron,” he says.

Founded by the Israeli NGO ARTEAM and the Israeli welfare organization Mesila in 2009, this project has witnessed the clientele demographic shift from mostly Filipino, Nepali, and other East Asian migrants to largely African, many of whom are single men, perceived by neighbors as the culprits for the rise in local chaos and crime. Hostility has culminated over the years, and calls for expulsion, in exchange for a return to normalcy, have grown louder.

“These same phrases — ‘drunk,’ ‘criminal,’ ‘carriers of disease’ — were being used 20 years ago to describe the immigrants from Russia,” said Rami Gudovitch, the library’s community relations director. “People have to understand that in this world you cannot choose your neighbor.”

With a PhD in philosophy and experience in teaching and education, Gudovitch, and his girlfriend Sarana, run the youth programs. Though prejudice is felt in south Tel Aviv, he says, it is comparable to that seen throughout the country, between secular and religious, Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, Jews and Arabs, who simply fear change in their habitats.

Nonetheless, neighbors and migrants can agree on one point, he says, “that south Tel Aviv can not be a refugee camp, that people have the right to be safe.”

“Obviously, it is the duty of Israel to stop closing its eyes and deal with the challenges that come with the waves of immigration, instead of depriving people the right to work, or live in an apartment. This, after all, is a humanitarian issue, not a political one,” he says.

Though tensions have escalated, Rami contends that the majority of neighbors have wholeheartedly donated their time and services to their destitute neighbors, “always coming out to check if everything is okay.”

“This is not a story of the community against the refugees,” he says.

The library project is staffed by some 40 enthusiastic volunteers, including project director Lior Waterman, from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and other figures from the Israeli art world. They all describe this place as a type of godsend to a population fighting to endure in the face of so many harsh realities.

Split into an adult and children’s section, the space has no walls, and is roofed by a light tarp. Frequent cultural performances, by both the community’s children and Israeli artists, as well as Hebrew classes, story hours, and holiday celebrations grace this place during hours of operation on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The most popular books are migrant languages-to-Hebrew dictionaries; the second most popular is Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, written in Arabic. It’s a post-colonial tale of a Sudanese man returning to his village after years of living abroad, a tale of the complexes of foreign-ness, Arab-ness, Black-ness, of waging a brutal war against the Other and the Self.

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