Jewish Journal

Photos: Tel Aviv is alive with the fury of 50,000 African refugees

by Simone Wilson

January 7, 2014 | 2:45 pm

African asylum seekers sit atop the Holocaust memorial sculpture in Rabin Square at a rally for refugee rights.

RIGHT NOW: The streets, sidewalks, parks, squares of Tel Aviv are burning with pride and desperation and a timeless plea for human dignity.

I've never seen anything like it.

Israel's roughly 50,000 African asylum seekers have been on strike for the last three days. They have bravely walked out of their workplaces and are rallying by the tens of thousands across the city, protesting Israel's sweeping arrests of non-citizens without trial and its blanket rejection of Eritrean and Sudanese refugee applications.

"I need my rights," Eritrean asylum seeker Mahari Shiferaw, 28, told me at the kick-off assembly in Levinksy Park, Tel Aviv's central refugee meeting spot, last Saturday night. He planned to leave his job as a janitor to join the strike.

"They're saying to us, 'You won't get back your jobs,'" he said. "But I don't care. I am ready for prison or whatever. The most important thing is our rights." As we spoke, Shiferaw was purchasing a 40-shekel shirt to wear during the coming days of protest, a white T with a screen print of handcuffed fists, along with the words: "No more prison/ We want freedom."

This same chant — simple, heart-stopping — has been echoing throughout Tel Aviv ever since, permeating its plaster walls and dusting even its most most blissfully ignorant parts.

On Sunday, anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 asylum seekers left the pigeons of Levinsky Park to their own devices and flooded the two square city blocks in North Tel Aviv (the nice part of town) that form Rabin Square. Then, on Monday, the group marched along the stunning Tel Aviv coastline to protest in front of various embassies, including the U.S. embassy, as well as the local headquarters for the United Nations' refugee agency. Protesters begged foreign leaders to either put pressure on Israel or to intervene in the situation themselves.

And today, they re-convened at Levinsky Park, where they decided — quite historically — to keep the strike going until their demands are met. Aka, until Israel agrees to find a more humane solution to their predicament than throwing them all into a desert prison

"Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to call us infiltrators and say we are not refugees without really checking us," said Eritrean asylum seeker Zembret Redi at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. The only woman speaking at the event, Sumaya Nedey, added: "The working hands of the asylum seekers are important to the Israeli market. But you must understand — we have nothing to lose. Israel is making us choose between prison and danger of death at home."

Nedey then addressed Israeli leaders directly. "If you don't respect the [1951] Refugee Convention, please remove your signature," she said.

After the press conference, I asked a few men at the follow-up rally in Levinsky Park whether they could afford to miss any more work for the cause. They were all steadfast in their commitment. Senaidar Kublan of Sudan explained that he and his brothers can no longer tolerate the exhausting and humiliating work-visa game they are forced to play with the Ministry of Interior every few weeks.

But he spoke calmly and smiled often. "It's OK, because we are united now," Kublan said.

Since they began flocking to Tel Aviv around 2006, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have lacked the critical community togetherness they've shown over the past few weeks. Eritrean community leader Isayas Teklebrhan told me last June that he was having trouble gathering even a few dozen people, much less thousands, to rally for refugee rights.

And at the general assembly on Saturday, organizers seemed aware of the fragile new miracle they were witnessing. They warned against in-fighting and divides between nationalities. "All of us, we have to remain together," one speaker said. "When we are not together, we will not be equals. It is your role to commit yourselves to join your brothers. Let us join hands together and say 'No' to prison."

Shouted another man into the loudspeaker: "I see you sleeping! Don't sleep! Don't sleep!"

The refugee rights movement in Israel has been picking up speed since the start of December, when a change in Israeli law allowed for the indefinite jailing of African immigrants in the new Holot "open facility" down south — essentially a huge desert prison camp for Eritrean and Sudanese men.

But the issue has taken on fresh urgency in 2014. According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, in the last few weeks, more than 100 asylum seekers have been thrown into prison, and almost 500 more summoned to Holot (most just for trying to renew their visas).

As the asylum seekers wrote in their joint letter to the Israeli public on January 4:

Despite promises by the Ministry of Interior that families would not be separated, dozens of married men and fathers of children have been “summoned” to Holot, while their wives and children will not be allowed to join them and instead must try to survive without their father. Fear and anxiety is spreading among our community. Immigration authorities have severely reduced the hours and locations where we can renew our visas, so that many of those who wait for hours at Interior Ministry offices to renew their visas are still turned away and left only more vulnerable to arrest and loss of their jobs, livelihood, and freedom.

Currently, prisoners at Holot — who say they have no access to medical care — are three days into a hunger strike. So the rest of the community, with nothing more to lose, is pulling a sort of "Day Without a Mexican" and showing Tel Aviv what life is like without them toiling behind the scenes.

Their absence has not gone unnoticed. As I left the Levinsky Park rally this evening, two Israeli businessmen in button-ups and leather jackets stopped me and asked what was going on. They owned a few restaurants in Tel Aviv, they said, and their staff of African workers had been entirely depleted.

"When will they come back to work?" one asked me. "We need them. They're good workers. ... The Arabs give us trouble." The restaurant owners were confused as to why the Africans couldn't just go renew their visas at the Ministry of Interior, like usual. When I told them that authorities were denying their requests and instead summoning them to prison, they looked incredulous, and glanced at one another with brow lines that said: "We're screwed."

On one last riff of hope, the Israeli restauranteurs asked how their political leaders had responded to the threat of an indefinite strike. When I told them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said, flat out, "Demonstrations and strikes will not help," the panic really set in.

"They can't stay out of work forever," one of the businessmen said, eyeing the thousands of asylum seekers chanting their freedom chants around him. "Maybe we can just hire some of these guys."

But spokespeople for the refugees assured the media today that they won't budge until justice is theirs. The group is planning to mass-march to Jerusalem on Wednesday and present their demands directly to Israeli politicians.

"Meet with us, please. Let's talk together," said Nedey. "We have a voice. Sit with us and talk about the solution that will work for everyone. Speak with us. Please, speak with us."

To march with them this week has been at times triumphant, at times exhausting, and always inspiring. But there has been another side effect to the demonstrations that I didn't see coming: Finally, I've gotten a glimpse of what a beautiful city this would be if the 30,000 or so Africans in South Tel Aviv were distributed more evenly throughout city limits (and not just squirreled away in janitor closets and cafe kitchens).

On Monday afternoon, Sudanese and Eritrean families could be seen drinking coffee and eating shawarma at the cute little eateries that line Rabin Square, alongside the middle-class Jewish Israelis that usually fill these seats. Their presence in the city's north, a 20 minute walk but a world away from South Tel Aviv, felt surprisingly natural and harmonious.

If not for the impassioned rally raging in the center of the square, I could almost have pretended I lived in an unsegregated MidEast utopia.

It's often hard to hear the cries of Israel's forgotten African refugee population over the quarrels of the greater Arab-Israeli conflict. But at this moment, their voices are loud. Now we are forced look them in the eyes. And when we do, if we are not blinded by the xenophobic paranoia that often fogs this country like a poison gas, we see a peaceful and downtrodden people whose predicament doesn't fall far from that of the Jews some 70-odd years ago.

Indeed, protest signage hasn't shied from referencing the Holocaust. After the prisoners at Holot were listed in a recent court document as numbers rather than names, protesters started carrying around posters with numbers printed across them, conjuring the wrist tattoos of Holocaust victims.

They might be onto something. This could very well be Israel's least dangerous opportunity to show its humanity — and to a people who truly have nothing, and pose little threat. The African asylum seekers do not wear suicide vests. Their crime rate is lower than that of the rest of the population. They have escaped unthinkable violence in countries whose populations the U.N. has clearly recognized as deserving asylum. And now that they have reached Israel, they need to work — a fact of life which the Netanyahu administration has used to pitch them as "illegal infiltrators" exploiting this developed nation the Jews have fought so hard to build.

At Tuesday's press conference, Mulgeta Tumuzgi, a young man from Eritrea who has been in Israel for six years now, appealed to the breed of Israeli who tends to shout "Go home!" as Africans march past on the streets of Tel Aviv.

"The government continues to lie to the public and tell them we are not refugees and we are making trouble," Tumuzgi said. "The Israeli government wants the people to fear us. If you are afraid of someone, you want them to get away. We want to say to the Israeli people: Don't be afraid of us. We are not coming here to harm you. We are not your enemy. We only ask that you can give us shelter until we can go back to our home."

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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