A week before the September elections, ynet published an article focusing on the policies of the various political parties concerning the immigration issue. Representing the Likud party in the article, was May Golan, who had led the struggle to deport African asylum seekers (“infiltrators”) and who became an MK in the period between the April and September elections. Golan addressed a question regarding this issue: “Whoever is a real asylum seeker, who meets the criteria and doesn’t fake his situation (as a refugee) in order to improve his economic situation; the state of Israel will certainly accept him. But an illegal infiltrator will not stay in the State of Israel.”
Ok, well, how do we find out who exactly is faking their status as a refugee if asylum applications aren’t checked? Asylum seekers had begun to arrive in Israel over a decade ago, however less than 1 percent of the applications had approved, according to the Population and Immigration authority. That’s ten Eritreans and one Sudanese. There is no policy to deal with these requests. It’s fair to assume that NOT looking at these requests is probably the only stable policy adopted by the government in regard to this issue.
Eritrea is an oppressive dictatorship that for past two decades had been limiting its citizen’s basic rights, and where a mandatory “national service” is applied for an unlimited amount of time. According to assaf.org, as of August 2019 there are close to 30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, the majority of whom are Eritrean. 14,000 of them live in South Tel-Aviv and the rest in other cities, mainly in the center and south of Israel. Most had been here for about a decade but their asylum applications were not checked or are in the middle of the process for years.
A deal between Israel and the UN Refugee Agency, to reach a resolution regarding the status of the asylum seekers was declared AND canceled in the course of 24 hours, in April 2018. According to the deal, half of the asylum seeker population will remain in Israel and receive a temporary humanitarian status that will allow them to legally work and gain access to social and medical services (and ease the pressure on south Tel-Aviv). The Israeli government withdrew a reasonable and just decision due to heavy pressure from within. As a result, a year later all of the asylum seekers are still in Israel, living in the same conditions and are deprived of basic rights, such as unlimited access to social and health care.
“That’s classic Israel” says Shira, who works in one of the centers for legal services to asylum seekers and foreign workers in Tel-Aviv, referring to the “no-checking policy”. Visas are required to be renewed every two months, she adds. “It’s the kind of pressure that you live through in between each two months. Nothing is permanent.” Since this is not a working visa, the lack of policy regarding employment leads to misunderstandings, violations of employees’ rights and exploitation, according to assaf.org.
If few tens of thousands of people are already here and cannot be deported, as the government itself admitted last year, why isn’t their status protected and they must live in constant uncertainty? In regard to jobs, foreign workers are still in demand here for jobs that Israelis are not doing anyways, so why isn’t the obvious solution reached?
Reality, though, doesn’t wait for any formal steps. There are things that just happen naturally between people.
Shira says that in her South Tel-Aviv neighborhood things are a bit different than in other more crowded neighborhoods. “Life is stronger,” she says, referring to the ways of people when they live and share the same space. She mentions a Sudanese women and an Israeli grocery store owner, with whom she saw chatting about some every-day issues. The tension is more about too many people in a much-too-small space.
There are joint activities organized for asylum seekers and Israelis. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants organizes a mixed running group that also runs together in Tel-Aviv’s Night Marathon. It also hosts lectures and tours in South Tel-Aviv, trying to immerse Israelis in what’s going on.
Inbal, a Mizrakhi-feminist activist who had been working with asylum seekers, used to coordinated community gatherings in the Shapira neighborhood for the purpose of creating dialogue instead of “fighting in the streets”. “At the time it was tough,” she says, “right-wing protesters, exploiting the situation, entering the neighborhood, inciting things.” She started this activity so that people could get to know each other’s culture. “Locals here were receiving messages from the media (about the refugees). Who they are, where they came from, and it was all very negative. “So she invited Eritreans to speak about their culture, perform exhibitions, teach about food, and inform locals about something other than the crime rate in the neighborhood. They would also perform musical events, with singers and musicians from the community, who are part of the music scene here.
As a result, some interesting connections had been made between the newcomers and the locals, the ones who agreed to show up. Some of them had found a connection that brought them back to their own origin. There were Israelis who spoke about coming here when they were young, telling the story of their journey here. Then, the refugees told their own stories.
In relation to Sudan, Israelis of North African origin found music and food that are not dissimilar to theirs. “Hearing Arabic in the neighborhood from the Sudanese, eating together, the Injera [bread], using the hands. Things that don’t happen here anymore,” Inbal explains. “There’s a tray with food, and you sit around it, eating with your hands, everyone from the same tray. There are cultures in Judaism that don’t use knife and fork. Eating together, as a social act, not just to be full, but to sit together, family, friends, what’s mine is yours.”‘
She also spoke of elderly women, who are alone and living here all their lives. Their neighbors are female asylum seekers who take care of them because they know they’re alone. This is cultural she explains, “elderly people receive a lot of respect; they are the wise ones in the tribe”.
There is also artistic activity in Israel, created by asylum seekers. During an exhibition in “Kiosko” coffee shop in Tel-Aviv, last July, paintings by four Eritrean men were hung on the walls. The painters were former detainees in the “Holot” facility in the Negev. The facility was closed down in March 2018 after 4 years of operation, where, according to an ASSAF report, over 10,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers had passed in different periods of time, awaiting deportation. These four men expressed an artistic talent and were offered by the prison staff to draw on the facilities walls, mostly drawings of nature. Two of them, Afwerki Teame and Tsegay Berhe, were present during the last day of exhibition, and spoke about their journey to Israel and the collision between their love of drawing and “Holot”. Afwerki used to come and go to Shenkar art school, each week, during his time in “Holot”, and is actively and formally continuing his artistic education in Minshar school.
Places that serve cuisine from the homeland, as the Injera with vegetable dishes, serve as gathering places for the community, but also attract an Israeli crowed, such as in the (otherwise notorious) Neve Shaanan neighborhood. The center for Eritrean women used to host vegan Eritrean cuisine workshops for Israelis. One small corner place in Salameh street, serves drinks, alcohol and some food. The owner, an Israeli citizen with children who are immersed in the Israeli culture, had been in Israel since the nineties, when tourists from Eritrea used to come here by plane. He opened his place in 2008 because of the growing demand made by the “little Eritrea” community that was forming.
During a massive demonstration opposing the deportation on March 2018, Veronica Cohen, a holocaust survivor stood on the stage and gave a speech with her pleading, yet decisive, voice. “Friends, stay with us, don’t leave. I know how hard it is to sit in jail for an unlimited amount of time. But stay. From jail you could be released. And we will have you released…If we don’t renounce the deportation, many people will face terrible suffering and the Jewish people will carry this burden on their souls and their history forever.”
Speaking her truthful words to those opposing her, she then concluded, “I believe in the saying of Rabbi Nachman (of Breslov). If you believe that you can damage, then you have to believe that you can fix.”
There is always a base from which to connect with another culture. People can connect over empathy, humanity, or over music that touches them, a dish that sparks some sensation in their taste buds or a painting on a prison wall. Behind hardship and struggle, all people laugh, love and are passionate about their dreams. The ability to do right by those who are still stuck in uncertainty, and who are already a part of us, can only enrich the society and the individuals in it.
*This Op-Ed was written as part of the 2019 YaLa Alumni Opinion Writing Course