His crime was simply being a student in the last remaining Eritrean university in the capital Asmara. All the third and fourth year students were arrested en masse after a demonstration was held against the government’s refusal to hold elections. Eight months of hard labor followed, along with the realization that to speak your mind in Eritrea often ends with losing your life.
His story is my story, our story. I imagine him as my great grandfather when he was young. He was also a refugee, fleeing Poland and a life of hardship and state-supported oppression. Arriving in London, he opened his first of five butcher shops in the old East End. It is the same mentality: Give me a place to feel safe and watch me flourish and give back to the country that has taken me in.
Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood is rejuvenated and energized as perhaps never before in its 50 years of existence. It is a magnet for Israel’s young, most vital and most upwardly mobile refugee set. This is despite the fact that the neighborhood has been home to the much-maligned down and outs of Israeli society for as long as anyone here can remember.
Speaking to Dima, a long-time resident of South Tel Aviv, there is genuine horror on his face as he recalls the Neveh Sha’anan and Levinsky Park of his youth. “It was like something out of those horrible ’80s movies about New York City,” he recalls. “Big trash cans with fires burning in them, people openly selling and taking drugs, prostitutes, alcoholics. You couldn’t walk through the neighborhood in daylight, let alone at night.”
THAT SEEMS a world away from the scene nowadays in Levinsky Park. Children are playing and laughing on the swings and jungle gym, slowly reclaiming the space. Peer a bit harder and the drug addicts and prostitutes can still be seen, occupying the edges of the park and the corners of the neighborhood. The vast majority of them are Jewish Israelis. This is a large-scale problem, as it is in most major cities across the world. These are the people who have dropped off the radars of society, the municipality and the government. It is also a huge problem for the refugee communities desperately trying to rebuild shattered lives. This is not a place anyone would want to raise children.
The refugee question is our question; it goes to the heart of our own society. What are we doing here? What is the ideal fabric for the society we want to build? What does it mean for a nation of refugees to build their own country? How do we treat the “stranger”?
This is a moral opportunity to create a fair and just policy of refugee status determination. To allow those people to stay who have a “well-founded fear” for their own safety, with no nation to protect their human rights. This is a cultural opportunity to not just hide in Fortress Israel, but to embrace the world with its myriad flavors, colors and sounds.
It is also an economic opportunity. At any one time we have 120,000 visas on issue for foreign workers to fill the gaps in the work force. Working in jobs that no one here wants to do. Or rather, there are people here who would like to do them, it is just that we will not meet them to discuss their claims and we will not issue them work visas in the meantime.
No Eritrean or Sudanese is allowed to have his claim checked; instead these people exist under “temporary group protection,” which gives them no basic rights other than simply preventing them from being arrested when stopped on the street. Eritreans and Sudanese make up more than 85 percent of the refugees in the country. The majority of the refugees are Christians, many fleeing religious persecution. This is self-evident from the many churches springing up around the bus station.
WE, THE Jewish people, know what it means to be refugees, both physically and emotionally. We know which conditions are most clement for people to rebuild their lives and to feel safe. We also know the immense power of refugees to bring positivity to the societies they enter; to work harder than those around them, to innovate and create, to start businesses and instill in their children the values of hard work and dedication that saw so many of our families become the successes they are today.
Let us not treat the stranger the way we were treated in Europe for 1,000 years. Let us not put up signs against them on our streets; let us not have our government ministers tell the people they are carrying drugs and diseases and are here to undermine our society. Let us not have our newspapers whisper subtle innuendo about “a seamy, dark underside” and “an exotic collection of denizens,” as in a recent Jerusalem Post editorial titled “Take back Tel Aviv!”(March 7).
The refugee community in Israel presents an opportunity for us all. Let us not miss it. Let us embrace it.