'State must deal with Ethiopian housing problems'

High Court of Justice tells 2 Ethiopian petitioners court could not intervene in state measures for dealing with immigrants’ housing problems.

November 15, 2011 02:42
Ethiopian immigrants

Ethiopian immigrants_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

The High Court of Justice told two Ethiopian petitioners on Monday that the court could not intervene in state measures for dealing with immigrants’ housing problems.

Petitioners Mangasha Lama and Sisai Bakla, both Ethiopian immigrants whose families face eviction from the Mevaseret Zion absorption center (a temporary accommodation facility for new immigrants), petitioned the High Court over what they said was the Absorption Ministry’s failure to give them appropriate housing assistance.

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They asked the court to issue an injunction forcing the Absorption Ministry to provide them with a housing solution.

However, the panel of three justices, Miriam Naor, Esther Hayut and Uzi Vogelman, said in Monday’s hearing that the court was not the venue to decide such an issue, and that it was the state’s responsibility to deal with the Ethiopian olim.

“We don’t tell the state how much money to give, and for what reason,” said Naor.

Attorney Oz Eldad, representing Lama and Bakla, claimed that the two Ethiopian immigrants had nowhere else to go if the Jewish Agency evicted them from the Mevaseret Zion center.

Opened in 1999 to house Ethiopian olim, the center provides housing at minimal cost for around 1,300 new immigrants, but for a limited period of two years. However, several hundred olim have remained at the center for far longer than this limited period because they claim they cannot find suitable housing elsewhere.

In the petition, filed in March, Eldad had slammed the state for what he dubbed “a lack of any government obligation towards immigrants from Ethiopia, whose difficulties adjusting to life in Israel, together with the failure to understand the language, customs, people and daily reality in Israel... renders them powerless against the failures of [the] state and brings them to a situation where they are likely to be thrown into the street with their families.”

However, in Monday’s hearing, Naor suggested both sides agree to delete the petition after the Absorption Ministry told the court it would pay the petitioners NIS 1,500 towards housing costs.

That sum is part of a five-year rental assistance grant for Ethiopian olim created by the government in August. Attorney Daniel Marks, for the state, also said that Ethiopian women who make aliya to Israel under the Law of Return are also now entitled to state housing assistance.

While he agreed to delete the petition, after the hearing Eldad criticized the state’s approach to dealing with what he said is a serious housing problem for Ethiopian olim and said that the NIS 1,500 housing grant would not help the issue.

Eldad said that around 500 Ethiopians face eviction from their temporary housing in the Mevaseret Zion absorption center because they have exceeded their two-year stay, and the NIS 1,500 monthly payment will not address the deeper problem that led to their reliance on the absorption center.

“OK, so now they can find a place to rent for five years, but this is just a temporary solution,” Eldad said. “But the state needs to solve the long-term housing problem... the government [needs to] sit down and talk with a representative from the Ethiopian community in order to look for a long-term solution.”

At the heart of the problem, Eldad says, are the difficulties that Ethiopian olim like Lama experience integrating into Israeli society, which he believes the government has failed to adequately address.

One of the petitioners, Mangasha Lama, made aliya from Ethiopia in 2001, and 18 months later moved into the Mevaseret Zion absorption center.

Lama was assigned a tiny two-by-three meter studio apartment in the center, after signing a two-year tenancy agreement in Hebrew that he says he couldn’t read or understand. He also claims staff told him that if his family circumstances changed he would be offered a larger living space, or given mortgage assistance.

In 2007, Lama’s wife, who is not Jewish and therefore not entitled to the same benefits as olim, came to Israel and moved into the studio apartment with her husband. Since then, the couple have had children, who also share the tiny apartment with them.

However, because Lama’s wife is not classed as a new immigrant she is not entitled to live in the absorption center, therefore in June 2010 Lama received an eviction notice saying that he violated his tenancy agreement.

The Jerusalem Post learned on Monday that the Jewish Agency moved to serve the eviction notice because it believed Lama was using the accommodation inappropriately as a housing solution for his family, and also because Lama had lived in the absorption center for far longer than the permitted two years.

Both the petitioners’ attorney and Ethiopian immigrants’ rights activists slammed the absorption center’s two-year policy, saying that it does not give enough time for Ethiopian olim to integrate into mainstream society.

“We’re talking about people who don’t understand daily life in Israel. These are people who are frightened, and for them their home in the absorption center is the only thing in their lives that they know and understand,” attorney Eldad told the Post after Monday’s hearing.

Speaking to the Post on Monday, Ziva Mekonen-Dagu, executive director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews, slammed the NIS 1,500 rental assistance offered to Ethiopians as a “poor, temporary solution” that did little to address the real issue.

The reason so many Ethiopian olim stay on in Mevaseret Zion is because there is no reasonable alternative, she said.

Although since the 1990s the government has offered mortgage assistance to Ethiopian olim, according to Mekonen- Degu, the housing offered them is in peripheral, low socioeconomic areas with few employment opportunities. As a result, Ethiopian olim preferred to stay in Mevaseret Zion, which is close to Jerusalem, where it is easier to find work.

“The rental assistance offered to olim doesn’t help them, it’s not logical,” said Mekonen- Degu.

The IAEJ instead has proposed helping Ethiopian olim purchase homes in better areas, where they will have a chance to create a life for themselves.

Mekonen-Degu also accused the state of offering the housing grants as a way to clear out long-term residents from the absorption centers to house thousands of new Ethiopian immigrants, following the government’s decision at the end of 2010 to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

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