Refugees and Flavors of Israel

Thursday, March 3

Written by Suzanne Solig

What a contrast in experiences (like most of our days in Israel): before lunch we enjoyed a “tasting” tour in Levinsky Market and in the afternoon we toured South Tel Aviv with Segalle Rosen, a representative from the Refugee Hotline.

Levinsky Market, five square blocks of spices, olives, cheeses, and pastries saturating our senses, was first settled by Greek immigrants in the 1920’s, followed quickly by the Turks, and then the Iranians in the mid-1960’s. We tasted burekas served with black hard-boiled eggs and almond juice at a Turkish pastry shop in business for 80 years and sweet meringue candies in a Greek bakery dating back to 1935. Of course, many shops had Purim costumes available for sale.

In the afternoon, we learned about the non-profit Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers, established in 1998 when some Israeli citizens shared a concern for the 34,000 migrant workers residing in Israel and more recently for those seeking asylum from Eritrea and Sudan to escape abuse, persecution and genocide. Particularly important is the Hotline’s work at the detention center in Holot where 3600 detainees (maximum number) are held. Volunteers from the Hotline meet with the detainees on a regular basis, provide paralegal intervention as well as legal representation. Unfortunately, only four detainees have been granted asylum; instead, Israeli authorities encourage them to self-deport, either to Eritrea or a third country that will accept them. Only Rwanda and Uganda have done so. For those refugees who stay, Holot’s gates are open but there are no services and nothing for them to do but contemplate their horrible situation.

While Israel continues to import Asians from Thailand, Viet Nam and the Philippines to provide services in hotels, restaurants, and day labor jobs, the government labels those who have walked by foot from Eritrea (where men are drafted into military service never to be released and women are drafted to be victims of sexual abuse), and from Sudan (where genocide is a daily threat) as “work infiltrators.”

The Hotline has successfully championed human rights laws, including one that stated asylum seekers can only be detained for 12 months and then conditionally released while waiting deportation. Although not allowed to work, some do find “under-the-table” jobs that help them meet their basic needs. Landlords in South Tel Aviv charge about 3000 NIS per month for a single room with toilet. Police often enter their shops and confiscate whatever cash might be in their drawers as a “fine”. We met a man, 36 years old, who is detained in Holot 6 days a week and one day a week is allowed to attend an art college in Tel Aviv. He is the only one of the 3600 detainees in such a program. The lack of a functioning and fair system for approving asylum applications is a sad reality in Israel.

Because the journey involves such difficult conditions, only 5300 women are among the 34,000 refugees. One bright light is that after 3 months every child has the right to an education. One school, Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, where children from East Africa are at a secular school with Israeli children, tests in the 96th percentile. The success of this school is noted in the short documentary Strangers No More, released in 2010 and the recipient of an Academy Award. The film follows several students’ struggle to acclimate to life in a new land, most of whom had never attended school before. As Cantor Kent reminded us, the Israeli government with regard to the refugee situation seems to have neglected the text, “You should remember your Exodus from Egypt.” To learn more about the Hotline, please see www.hotline.org.il

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