The Conspiracy

When Refugees Become Israel’s Homeless

Some dilapidated buildings in Shapira, as photographed by the author.

This article was originally posted on the personal blog of the author, which you can find here. 

We met at 9:00 AM this morning at the Yeshiva for a walking tour of “the untold history of South Tel Aviv”. Itamar Manoff, our program coordinator and, in this case, tour-guide, led the way through wide cobble-stoned streets, spread with mats full of mismatched clothing, venders selling fresh fruit, open store fronts peddling cheap shoes, liquor or electronics. Our first stop was extremely close to the Yeshiva, beside the enormous Tachana Merkazit, Tel Aviv’s massive central bus station (the second-biggest in the world, after New Delhi.).

We stood in the shade of the hulking concrete building and discussed the more figurative shadow that the construction of the building has cast on the neighborhood and its debilitating consequences. Who knew seven floors of bus terminals and mall outlet stores could be so sinister? Since the first day I arrived in the neighborhood, it has been obvious that the Central Bus Station is a big cultural hub- thousands of people are inside at any given time, and hundreds more mingle in the streets surrounding it, vending hot nuts, taxi services, or just sitting against the massive concrete walls, talking in 10 different languages. I had always assumed this was just because it was a huge, central destination, easily accessible, and literally containing within it anything a human could ever desire in their wildest, weirdest dreams. But it turns out, the relationship between the Central Bus Station and the residents of Shapira is a lot more complicated than that.

The story goes something like this.

Before the construction of the CBS (Central Bus Station), there was, believe it or not, another Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv- a much smaller, tamer version of the same idea. While that station was getting the job done, the city had a more grandiose proposal; they envisioned a station that would serve as a sort of high-class stop for all of the traffic of central Israel- a place where you could get a haircut and go shopping before boarding your next bus. A location was selected- some 230,000 square meters, which had previously been orange orchards. The plans were approved, and thus, construction of the seven floor giant began.

However, the actual construction of the station took over 20 years, with many halts along the way as finances dwindled, and in that time, the prosperity of the neighborhood began to dwindle as well. As the area became increasingly noisy and polluted from the construction, any member of Shapira who could afford to, packed up and moved out, leaving only the poorest residents behind in what was rapidly becoming the cheapest housing on the Israeli market.

Meanwhile, there were (and still are) a lot of complicated and controversial politics cropping up surrounding the rights of non-Jews and non-Israelis to live and work in Israel, specifically in the case of migrant workers and refugees. It is very difficult to gain citizenship to Israel if you are not a Jew. However, after World War II, Israel had enthusiastically signed onto the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, an agreement which obligated them to allow refugees to seek asylum within Israel’s borders.

In the last 20, and especially 10, and particularly 5 years, huge influxes of refugees from Africa- mostly Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia- have surged over the borders, seeking asylum. Most of these people have walked all the way from their homes, fleeing violence- genocide, ethnic wars, totalitarian regimes or governments with dictatorships comparable to North Korea. However, due to the complicated fine print under the definition of a ‘refugee,’ (something I’d like to learn more about) most of these people are not actually technically considered refugees. So although they cannot safely return to their homeland, and Israel must thus offer them asylum, they are not actually eligible for any government aid. As a result, they must fend for themselves, making a living as best they can, day by day.

Hundreds of refugees sleep in the public parks every night. Some of them work under the table as dish washers, house cleaners, or line up every morning and wait to be picked for a day’s (illegal) work. Others steal bikes and iPods, still others lie in the park all day, barely moving, curled up on a sheet of cardboard, and wait for the few non-profits who offer soup-kitchen type services to open.

Complicated situation, right? Just wait, it gets better.

(Enter Corrupt Gov. Worker #1.)

Big contractors in Israel have a deal with the Israeli government: the contractors will import cheap, foreign labor to do Israel’s dirty work (construction…etc) and the Israeli government will issue the workers a 5 year work visa. The workers pay an exorbitant fee for the visa- anywhere from $10,000.00-15,000.00, although the actual visa costs a fraction of that price. Of course the profit goes to the contracting company, who gets rapidly rich importing foreign workers, most of whom borrow the money and arrive in Israel already thousands of dollars in debt. Of course, the profit margin is shared with some of the figures within the Israeli government who, in turn, perpetuate this disgusting system.

At that end of the 5 year period, the visa expires, and the worker becomes ilegal and must return to his/her country of origin, unless the contractor chooses to extend the visa. However, if the worker is fired, or their contract is terminated for any reason before the 5 years are up, they instantly become illegal, and have no rights whatsoever in Israel. They can be deported, or, more commonly, offered a chance to stay on for horrendous wages or under ridiculous conditions, all the while with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. Many of these people, of course, have created families and communities in the neighborhood, and live in constant dread of Israeli immigration uprooting them and deporting them and their children. And these neighborhoods are not homogenous- the houses are incredibly tightly packed with occupants, and tightly packed against each other down the block. Any given street has people from at least 5 different countries living on it, and there is frequent tension and violence, not only between foreigners and native Israelis, but between different ethnicities amongst the immigrants and refugees as well.

And where, you may ask, do all these incredibly poor people live? Where on earth could they afford housing, when they are working for minimum wage or less?

Bingo. Welcome to Shapira.

The tour today really made me think. Not only do I have a better grasp of of how our neighborhood came to be the ethnic-smoothie of migrant workers that it is and how it came to be that there are thousands of African refugees sleeping on cardboard in the park on my block… but it also really made me question what exactly the purpose of the state of Israel is. Is it a state for Jews to live in? Or is it a state founded based on Jewish values? Can it be both?

Jews, throughout history, have been strangers in a foreign land. We have been cast out, exiled, hunted and persecuted time and again. Our story is the story of immigration, of asylum-seeking. We are commanded to love the stranger, for we were once strangers in a foreign land, too. The fact is, it is our duty as jews to open our homeland to those who have no place to go, to those who seek refuge as we have in the past.

But where do these sentiments intersect with practicality? The fact is… Israel cannot accommodate every refugee who crosses the border seeking asylum. Numerically, its just impossible. As a result, immigration has had to start deporting anyone who does not face “imminent death” upon returning to their country- which is to say, mostly South Sudanese, who are no longer officially considered refugees, following South Sudan’s declaration of independence. Is this moral? Although they may not face “imminent death,” they certainly don’t face imminent prosperity, either. Many of the former-refugees who are being deported are children with their mothers- children who were either born here or arrived here at a very young age. These children have grown up as Israelis. They speak hebrew. They have never even been to South Sudan. To be asked to ‘return’ there and face the ongoing violence and instability of a country they never knew? This seems vastly unjust. Especially when contrasted with the (frankly alarmingly) easy process of applying for Israeli citizenship as an American Jew.

I don’t know how to fix this. These are huge problems. But I agree with what Itamar said today: the only way to confront these issues is one on one, small steps, one at a time. Every single refugee sleeping in the park has a story, a unique narrative. Opening up channels of communication, getting to know these people as people, not as a demographic, not as a problematic political issue… as PEOPLE… that to me seems like the starting place. Sometimes I feel that practicality and progress get sacrificed for a discussion of micro-dynamics in politics. Of course it is important to understand the nuances of a population, but at the end of the day, people are people. With so much talk about white privilege, and cautiously stepping on eggshells to avoid condescension, its possible to really inhibit yourself from actually acting. So maybe I won’t get to solve the entirety of this complex political snare. But I can start by changing someone’s day. By offering someone a moment of human connection and recognition. By acknowledging that although we are coming from very different places, I still want to know about their kids. I still want to sing together. I still want to hang out, one on one, human to human.

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