Fugee Fridays is a volunteer humanitarian initiative, founded in 2008 in response to the acute distress of the growing community of African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv. Our purpose is to help address this community’s immediate needs while nurturing their independence, raising awareness of their plight, fostering positive cultural exchange between Israelis and Africans living in Israel and empowering both the refugee community and our volunteers. We organize a number of projects for the benefit of the African community, including food collection from the Carmel Market, language classes, children’s activities and a growing list of community development projects. Everything we do is guided by our belief in simple, elegant problem-solving which connects urgent needs with available and sustainable solutions. We hope that, by setting a personal example, we can inspire others to create similar social action projects that benefit their communities.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Refuge, Yes… But Not in Tel Aviv

By Florentine Lempp

(A few days after T and S, refugees from South Sudan, had their first daughter, they were forced to leave Tel Aviv. (photo: Florentine Lempp.)

 If I was the kind of person that had heroes, T. would be one of them. At the age of 23, she has just had her third child, the first girl after two boys. She’s a refugee from South Sudan who lived in Egypt for a while, until there too life became unbearable.

Almost two years ago, she walked across the border from Sinai into Israel, together with her husband S., in the search of a better life for their children. They carried the boys through the night, fearful of being caught by Egyptian soldiers or abandoned by the Bedouin smugglers to whom they had paid a large sum of money to guarantee their safe crossing.

They are devout Christians. According to S., they prayed, and their prayers were answered. They crossed the border unharmed and finally found their way to Tel Aviv. The rent here is outrageous, but what can you do – if you don’t take the apartment right away, another refugee will come, who might be willing to pay even more in order not to have to sleep in the park.

When I first met T., she was already four months pregnant. She had quit working in a kindergarten for children of refugees and foreign workers and was now only taking care of her own two kids – the quiet but very affectionate five year old, and the cute but hot-tempered little one, whom they lovingly call “Balagan (chaos) Boy”. I’ve never seen her sad, or worried, or even exhausted in light of what she has been through. When a friend got sick, when a neighbor had a child, she was always there to help.

On a very hot June afternoon, when the little electric fan in the apartment was unable to provide any relief from the heat, we took the two kids to the park. With a belly as big and as round as a basketball, about a week before she would give birth, we were sitting near the playground in Lewinsky Park, watching the boys running and climbing, ignoring the comatose homeless man sleeping under the slides and the used needles in the grass. We talked about the immigration police and the expected raids, their orders to expel those who don’t have a valid visa.

T., like so many Sudanese refugees, holds only a “conditional release” from prison, but it doesn’t allow her to live in Tel Aviv – or, for that matter, anywhere between Hadera and Gedera. It also does not allow her, or her husband, to work legally in order to support themselves. But someone has to pay for the apartment and for food.

The reason why the authorities don’t want the refugees to live in Tel Aviv is because, so they argue, the refugees take jobs and apartments that would otherwise go to Israelis. But whoever has paid attention to the kinds of jobs that refugees are doing, will see that it has been decades since those have been done by Israelis. Dishwashing (and other low-wage jobs in restaurants), cleaning and construction work have long been the domain of Palestinian laborers. Ever since the Second Intifada, the void of Palestinian laborers has been filled by refugees and foreign workers.

As for the apartments, I doubt that the shortage of affordable apartments would be solved by removing the refugees from the houses around the two bus stations, an area which is very unlikely to undergo the same process of gentrification that we have seen in other quarters of South Tel Aviv.

T. likes Tel Aviv. There is work here, and the landlords in the south of the city are used to renting their apartments to refugees (even though they demand exorbitant prices). The UN offices are here, and it is not too far from the Population and Migration Authority’s offices in Lod. Here, there are several aid organizations that support refugees and there is a free clinic in nearby Jaffa. But most of all, there is a community of refugees from South Sudan here who know and help each other. If they had to move to the periphery, they would lose their support system.

Two weeks later: the new baby was born, and S. was arrested shortly thereafter by the immigration police. They let him go, under the condition that he and his family leave Tel Aviv within the next six days. He went to Hadera to look for an apartment and a job, while T. stayed home with the kids, partly because she’s worried about the immigration police and partly because it’s too much of a hassle to leave the house with all three of them to look after.

He was not successful. Landlords and employers alike are wary of the “conditional release” that makes him look like an ex-convict. But he’s not giving up.

Neither T. nor her husband is expecting any favors or welfare from the state, all they want is safety for a while, for themselves and for their children, until they can go back to South Sudan. While in Israel, all they want is the chance to support themselves, to work for their living, like everybody else. In the meantime, despite the dire situation, and against all odds, they are optimistic that God will help.

The little baby girl is called “Joyce”.

Florentine Lempp is a political scientist, and works as a program coordinator for German study tours to Israel. She has spent much of the past year volunteering on behalf of the African refugee community living in Tel Aviv.

click here to view this article at haaretz.com

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