Up from underground

The Eligados made a life in Israel. Their's an extraordinary tale.

October 18, 2007 11:14
Up from underground

foreign worker family224. (photo credit: Jonathan Bloom)


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The Eligados survived desperate conditions and arrest to eventually beat the odds and make a life in Israel. It's an extraordinary tale. And there are many more among the 100,000-strong illegal foreign worker community. It's Friday evening in the neighborhood around Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, the capital of the country's foreign worker community. With the possible exceptions of the Rehov Ben Yehuda-Jaffa Road area of downtown Jerusalem and the Checkpost district of Haifa, no place in the country has larger weekend crowds, and no place - without exception - has a gaudier, more vital street life. The bus station and its surroundings are a bombardment of neon signs, of grimy sidewalks and tenements, of vendors and customers for every kind of cheap item, of pork on the barbecue, beer and vodka, and of tens of thousands of Filipinos, Thais, Chinese, Indians, Nigerians, Sudanese, Turks, Nepalese, Romanians and other nationalities in motion. Families are out in the park. Young men and women are dressed to hook up. Wayward kids stand around waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, stabbings and ethnic brawls break out, sometimes with fatal results. On weekend nights, the Immigration Police ordinarily lay off, the deportation bureaucracy basically shutting down until Sunday. For the country's foreign workers, it's a release, a night or two of freedom and excitement after a week of long hours at hard, low-paid, usually dirty work. Some 50,000 of them, nearly all "illegals," live around the bus station, but tens of thousands of others, "legals" and illegals alike, come here from around the country on weekends. The neighborhood, a slum for decades, has been Israel's international enclave since 1988 when, in the wake of the first intifada, the government decided to import "guest workers" to replace Palestinians in the country's menial labor force. All told, there are now about 100,000 illegal foreign laborers here, plus another 80,000 legal ones. The largest group is the Filipinos, mainly caregivers, house cleaners or restaurant kitchen help. The Thais are farm hands, the Africans house cleaners, the Turks and Eastern Europeans construction workers, the Indians and Nepalese caregivers, the Chinese construction workers or restaurant help. As taxis and pedestrians clog the main street, Rehov Levinsky, a long line of people on their way into the cavernous, labyrinthine bus station wait to be frisked by the security guard. Inside, on "Manila Avenue," the row of Filipino shops on the fifth floor, two women are singing karaoke as dozens of listeners in plastic chairs surround them and thousands of people buzz around below. On Rehov Naveh Sha'anan, where the sidewalks are laid out with clothes and trinkets, Chinese construction workers buy fish at a Chinese market. Eastern European construction workers sitting at an outdoor cafe stare at an Eastern European TV program, their table stacked with empty beer bottles. In Levinsky Park, the grass and benches are filled with people grouped by nationality, except at the jungle gym where everyone brings their kids. In the playground, Filipino teams play basketball and volleyball. At the park's edge, Filipino vendors barbecue spicy pig's ears and intestines and sell plastic cups of hallo hallo - crushed ice milk, sugar, yams, tapioca, flan and fruit. An African man hands out fliers for the Messiah Baptist Tabernacle, one of the evangelical churches in the area. Nobody is fighting, at least not yet. The air is cool, the atmosphere is lively and carefree. SITTING ON the grass around a plastic plate of pork skewers are Arnold Eligado, his wife Luisa and their daughters Hazel and Kathleen. Arnold, 35, and Luisa, 33, both from Manila, have lived in Tel Aviv for nearly a dozen years. Both their daughters were born here. Their first child, Eugene, 11, was born in Manila and has never been to Israel; the couple left him in the care of Luisa's family. They intended to work here for two years, save a few thousand dollars, go back to their impoverished country and set up a little business. By now, though, their hope is to be legally entitled to bring Eugene here one day so the whole family can finally be together for good. The couple are terribly articulate, self-aware, observant, candid and irreverent. Arnold speaks more quietly and impassively, possibly because of the insomnia he developed here after years of nighttime cooking shifts. Luisa seems more at ease, more trusting, possibly because she hasn't been as harassed as her husband by employers and police. Arnold's soft-spoken manner clashes with his chesty, muscular build. He goes around in a black baseball cap. Luisa is petite and pretty in a simple, modest way. The Eligados are not a typical family of foreign workers. Arnold has a degree in information systems management, Luisa a degree in computer science. Their English is virtually perfect. Their first daughter, Hazel, 10, is an unusually gifted child who attends one of Tel Aviv's most prestigious schools. Arnold comes from a wealthy, high-status family, but his father disowned him after he eloped with Luisa, whose family is poor. Yet despite their education, the Eligados are "part of the migrant worker culture in Israel," as Arnold puts it. They know that life from the bottom up, they've survived here for nearly 12 years and, because of their powers of expression, can probably describe such an experience as well as anybody - in English, maybe better than anybody. Another way Arnold and Luisa are atypical is that their family's long travail ended happily. "I'd go through it all again tomorrow," says Arnold. This year, all four Eligados became naturalized, "legal," safe from deportation. Hazel received permanent residency and will become a citizen when she enters the IDF at 18. Arnold, Luisa and Kathleen, seven, received temporary residency and will become permanent residents when Hazel gets her citizenship. So far, about 600 children of illegal foreign laborers have been naturalized along with their families, says the Interior Ministry. The total number of children of illegals is probably about 2,000, says the Hot Line for Migrant Workers. THE ELIGADO family's saga began in Manila in December 1995. Living in a tiny room in a sweatshop, with Luisa pregnant and the two of them down to their last egg and strip of salted fish, Arnold accepted his mother's offer to come work in Israel. She was here recruiting Filipino laborers, and gave him the $1,500 for a ticket, plus a few hundred dollars to convince passport officials at Ben-Gurion Airport that he was coming for a brief holiday. His mother also waived the $4,000 fee she normally took from recruits. "She told me I would be working in a managerial position, making $1,000 a month, which is an executive's salary in Manila," says Arnold. She was telling the truth about the wages, but not about the managerial position. In retrospect he thinks his mother lured him to Israel because she missed him and wanted to help him, but also because she wanted to break up his marriage to a poor merchant seaman's daughter. Fooling airport officials with his story, Arnold, then 24, got a two-week tourist visa, then took a taxi to meet his mother at a cheap hotel for foreign workers on the Tel Aviv beachfront. During the ride, he remembers looking out the window and thinking, "This is a First World country, not like the Philippines. The parks were nice, the streets were clean. The taxis were all Mercedes Benzes!" He knew nothing about Israel. "Rabin had just died," he says, "and I heard there was political turbulence." The couple are sitting in their living room on Rehov Ha'aliya, a gritty South Tel Aviv neighborhood, but one that's seen some bohemian gentrification, and which lies a comfortable several blocks outside the bus station's immediate sphere of influence. They moved in a month ago. Between Arnold's job at Manila-Tel Aviv, a Filipino weekly magazine published out of an office in the bus station, and Luisa's housekeeping job in North Tel Aviv, they can just afford the $750-a-month rent on the three-room flat. It's several steps up in class from the ones they lived in before. Laughing, Luisa says, "Now we can tell the girls, 'Go to your room!' because they have a room to go to; they aren't sleeping in the living room or the kitchen." Embarrassed at being so thrilled over so little, Arnold says, "We have an air conditioner. We have an elevator. Somebody cleans the stairwell. The things that other people take for granted, we finally got. We're living life." The walls of the flat are covered with prints and paintings. The furniture is "all from the flea market" near the Central Bus Station, says Luisa. Arnold's guitar sits by the TV. On the floor of the living room, Hazel is reading her book, Kathleen is drawing. The girls' shoes sit in a neat row in the hallway. On that first night here, after he saw his mother, Arnold says his thoughts weren't focused on starting a new life in a strange country. "I was thinking about the beautiful girl who checked my passport, and I couldn't comprehend how such a beautiful girl could scare me like that. The way she asked her questions - there's a racist look you can see in the faces of so many Israelis. They talk to you politely, but they have this look that says you're not part of their country, you're an outsider, you're not wanted," he says. "I never really felt that," says Luisa. "I never heard anybody degrade me because I'm Filipina. Maybe, at worst, some Israeli kids would see me and think I'm Chinese, and go 'chow, chow, chow.'" After checking into the foreign workers' hotel, Arnold went with his mother to visit some of her Filipino friends living around the Central Bus Station. "A lot of them were wearing a lot of gold jewelry. We went to this one apartment and they served us salmon, which is like gold in the Philippines. I thought wow, you can really make a lot of money in this country. But it was all show. Most of them were just cleaning houses. We Filipinos are so materialistic, we'll wear gold jewelry even we have no food." For the first week, while his mother was trying to line him up a job, he stayed all day in the three-room Kiryat Ono apartment they shared with a dozen or so other Filipinos. "All I did was drink alcohol and eat. I was miserable, I was calling Luisa all the time and complaining." Then he got his first job - taking care of an old man with Alzheimer's disease. "I was changing him, bathing him - I couldn't stomach it," he says. He quit after a few days, switching to a job at an old-age home, which he soon left for the same reason. This is a misconception people have about Filipino caregivers - that they're so devoted to their aged, incapacitated employers that they don't get nauseated by the various daily messes they have to clean up. Luisa knows different. "When Filipino caregivers get together, it's a like a contest who can tell the grossest stories. The reason it's so noisy around the Central Bus Station is because the caregivers are up all night laughing. That's the only way they can handle it," she says, laughing herself. Anybody who thinks Filipinos are quiet and meek should visit the bus station on a Friday night. After his first month here, Arnold's mother found him a night job as a dishwasher, which he could at least stomach. A visit by police scared them into moving to Jaffa, where they again lived in a flat crowded with Filipino laborers. Lonely, unable to save much money, and suddenly a father, Arnold told Luisa that their only chance to save enough money so they wouldn't be poor forever was to work as a couple. Luisa, then 22, gave Eugene to her older brother's family to look after for a couple of years, and, with a loan from Arnold's mother, flew to Ben-Gurion. Like Arnold, she wangled a two-week tourist visa. Like Arnold, too, she was moving to a country she knew virtually nothing about. "I usually associated Jews with Muslims," she says. "I knew Jerusalem was a holy city, so I thought Israel was a conservative country, a praying kind of country. I was surprised when I saw how 'liberated' it was." Her real shock, though, came when she saw Arnold washing dishes. "I cried," she remembers. "At college he was one of the student elite, affluent, well-dressed, and now he was down to doing this." Still, they went ahead with their plan, working long hours together for families, including one in Herzliya Pituah headed by a raging, violent restaurant owner. "When I did something wrong in the kitchen, he'd punch me in the stomach, kick me. He used to tell me, 'If you do that again, I'll cut you up and send you back to the Philippines in three pieces.' That was the most traumatic experience for me," Arnold says. "Luisa wanted to go home," he continues. "She was tormented over Eugene, she was always crying and calling home. But our mentality had changed. At first we wanted to save $2,000 to go back home and start a little business, but now we had a daughter, too. We'd managed to save about $8,000 by then. I said if we go back now, where will we be? Not much better off than when we left. So I said let's try to save $15,000, or save until I turn 30, and then we'll go back. "I managed to accept that I am a part of this culture of foreign workers. I rationalized it by reminding myself that I was making more money than my friends were back in Manila." THAT WAS the late 1990s. There were about 300,000 foreign workers here. Relative to now, the illegals among them were safe from arrest and deportation. "If I saw a police car, I didn't care," Arnold recalls. They had no Israeli ID, no mailing address and no health insurance, yet, like others in their situation, they had access, for a price, to the basic public resources they needed. The Eligados were healthy, but if one of them got sick, a doctor in Jaffa charged NIS 50 for a visit. Luisa went to the Red Crescent hospital in east Jerusalem to give birth to both girls. "It was cheap," Arnold shrugs. Afterward she took the babies to a Tipat Halav (well baby clinic), which never asked to see an ID card or visa. "Officially we didn't exist, but we could live," he says, taking a break at Manila-Tel Aviv, where he is now an "editor, writer, reporter, proofreader and sometimes janitor," and where Luisa works part-time. He remembers coming across a fair amount of racism from teenage Arab boys in Jaffa. "Sometimes you'd be walking in the street and they'd call out to you, 'Filipini, Filipini.'" In general, the Arabs he worked with "needed to show that they were above me, that they were to me like the Israelis were to them." Nevertheless, he says the Arab staff at Red Crescent treated his family with a lot more warmth than the nearly all-Jewish staff at a major hospital, to which he took his mother to the ER after an asthma attack. "At Red Crescent they really took care of us. They were like Filipinos. At the Israeli hospital, my mother was having trouble breathing and she had to wait two hours to be treated. The staff was very cold and professional. It was clear they weren't ready to prioritize a foreign worker." After three years of rotten jobs, he finally found a good one: cooking for a Jaffa caterer, getting paid well. "The head chef was a Russian with a terrible temper, and he cursed all of us, Israeli or foreign. But I liked it. Everyone was equal - we were all treated like shit." One morning in September 1998, two police vans raided the place. "There were seven of us [Filipino illegals] working there, and the police squeezed us all into a cramped bathroom. They were kicking us to get in." In the van on the way to jail, he remembers, "We were all crying. We all had families here. It was like somebody had died. I'd left Luisa in the Philippines, and now I was leaving her again." They were taken to Ramle prison, where they slept outdoors in big tents with other illegal foreign laborers. "It's a good prison. They feed you, you don't have to do any work. I thought of it as a rest after working 16 hours a day," he laughs. After a week, he was put on a plane to Manila. Upon arrival, Arnold was reminded of the poverty of the Philippines; the airport was surrounded by a sprawling shanty town. He went to see Eugene, now three. "It was hard for us to relate to each other. He felt uneasy talking to me." Through a relative with connections in the foreign labor industry, he fixed up his papers and in two months flew back to Ben-Gurion. Again, he walked out with a two-week tourist visa. Soon the intifada started, crippling the economy and making jobs scarce. Then came the real chill: The government, determined to free up jobs for unemployed Israelis, created the Immigration Police and turned them loose in South Tel Aviv to hunt down every illegal foreign laborer and send him and his family back where they came from. Before the sweeps began, Arnold's mother had gone back to the Philippines, Kathleen had been born, and the family had left Jaffa for a flat of their own in South Tel Aviv. The timing of the move wasn't good. Because of the danger, Luisa says, "We made a decision for Arnold to stop working and stay home and take care of the girls." They had to keep to this arrangement for three years. With the police, they played cat-and-mouse. Since the law forbids the detaining of children, the police were also barred from arresting single parents. But if they caught a mother and father in the company of their children, or if they caught the father alone, they'd arrest and deport him, expecting the wife and children to follow voluntarily. This policy remains in effect today, but it's been the cause of so many deportations that the Immigration Police is running short of targets. Whenever the family went to the park, Arnold would take one of the girls, and 10 minutes later Luisa would follow with the other. "A child was like a visa," he says. The family would sit divided and separated on the bus. Already working 16 hours a day, including weekends, to make up for Arnold's lost income, Luisa would come home later than necessary to cut down the time the four of them were in the flat together. Even when police couldn't arrest illegals, they could scare them. One afternoon Arnold was walking with Kathleen when an immigration policeman stopped them and asked him a bunch of questions. "Then he told me we could go, but next time we should pack our things. 'You don't belong here,' he told me," Arnold remembers. The immigration police were leafleting South Tel Aviv with appeals to illegal workers to come in from the cold. If they gave themselves up, they would have two months to get their affairs in order before being put on a plane. They could go home "in dignity." "We decided it was time to leave," says Luisa. She didn't know, however, that they had a guardian angel at home: Hazel. THIS SERIOUS little girl is not merely bright. At five, she wrote a series of illustrated stories. At six, she was reading her fourth Harry Potter book. Luisa, a former English teacher who started off homeschooling Hazel, was told by her employer about Beit Sefer L'Teva (the School for Nature) in old Tel Aviv, and she took her older daughter to the entrance exam. Of 475 applicants, Hazel was one of 19 chosen. At seven, she sat in a classroom for the first time, studied Hebrew for the first time and finished a year's schoolwork in the last three months of the term. "Her teachers told me they'd never come across a pupil like her," says her mother. Meanwhile, the media were giving the deportation policy a black eye with all the stories of poor children born and raised in Israel who were being forced to leave the only home they'd ever had. Then-interior minister Avraham Poraz decided to let a small number of them become naturalized with their families, but to deport the rest. At first, the ministry limited the offer to children 12 to 15, which left Hazel and Kathleen out. Over the next year, the minimum age gradually lowered to nine, by which time Hazel was turning eight. "It was torture," says Luisa. The police were bearing down. The Eligados' worst fear was for their daughters to see their father taken away. They went to tell Hazel's principal and teachers, who'd been with her now for nearly two years, that they would be taking her out of school and going back to the Philippines. Arnold recalls: "They asked us to promise that we would give Hazel the same quality of education in Manila that she was getting there, because she was so special. They told us most of their graduates become doctors, lawyers, top professionals. That's when I started to cry. I knew she would never have this kind of education in Manila, this kind of opportunity." Luisa's employer, a woman named Esther and a true friend of the family, told her about an immigration lawyer. They contacted the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, which was fighting child deportations in the Supreme Court. Media pressure was growing on the Interior Ministry. The Eligados decided to go for it: They applied for naturalization. They went for interviews, filled out heaps of forms, brought in utility bills, photos, character references, and above all Hazel's academic records and recommendations by her principal, teachers and classmates' parents. "My employer told me Hazel was the key for us," says Luisa. Their lawyer told them Hazel's age probably wouldn't be an obstacle, but Arnold's second unorthodox entry to Israel likely would be. "We didn't think we had a very good chance," Luisa says. On Sunday morning, January 21, she got a call from the Interior Ministry. "The man on the phone had a very rough voice, and he told me we had to come in for an interview. Because of his tone, I thought it was bad news. But then he said: 'All of you got in.' I couldn't believe it. I kept asking if he were sure, then he said we had to bring money for ID cards, and I thought if we had to bring money, it must be true." She called Arnold at Manila-Tel Aviv. "I started screaming," he says. "But I knew the other Filipinos would be envious, so I took my emotions outside." Luisa says that when she told Hazel, her daughter "just stood there for a few moments and didn't react. Then she fell into my arms and said, 'Now I can see Kuya,' which means 'big brother' in Filipino." In a few months, they'll be seeing Eugene in Manila. The news spread through Beit Sefer L'Teva. The parents of Hazel's classmates called to congratulate the family. In class, the children gave Hazel a bouquet of flowers. Arnold says, "They were shouting, 'Hazel isn't going back!'" He remembers the air that day "seemed different. Lighter." He and Luisa walked down the street holding hands, which for years they'd been afraid to do. "It was such a liberating feeling," he remembers. "That was really a wonderful day." IT'S BEEN an eventful 12 years. Arnold and Luisa lived and worked for a long time like galley slaves; Arnold was cheated, cursed, beaten, arrested, imprisoned and deported, and they had to raise two daughters while being hunted like criminals. But there were good things, too. Arnold learned to cook Japanese, Chinese, French and Italian food. "It enriched my mind," he says. He and Luisa are in a soft rock band, Rockend Rhythms, that plays at Filipino parties and clubs. The family made some friends, foreigners and Israelis, although they lost many of the former to deportation. Because of her closeness to the three-generation family she's worked for over the last nine years, Luisa can now say, "I love the Israeli people. They have a special place in my heart." Hard times taught the family to appreciate simple things, like freedom from fear. Hazel, whom Luisa says is too conscientious and concerned about others for a girl her age, now attends a weekly Tel Aviv University class in creative writing for gifted pupils. All her friends are Israelis. Kathleen goes to Bialik-Rogosin school, where 80 percent of the pupils are children of foreign workers. A happy-go-lucky girl, "bright but normal," as Luisa calls her, Kathleen waves to her best friend, Gabrielle, also a Filipina, as they pass with their families in the crowd near the bus station. I ask if Kathleen feels overshadowed by Hazel's accomplishments in school, and her parents light up. "Once she told me, 'Mama, it's okay. Hazel's the smart one and I'm the pretty one,'" says Luisa. "She's our princess," says Arnold. "She always wants us to buy her pink things." On a Friday evening nine months after the phone call from the Interior Ministry, Arnold and his wife are sitting snugly on a concrete block in Levinsky Park. Hazel comes over and wraps herself around her mother. Kathleen goes off to play with friends. A few young African men sit nearby, watching the spirited international picnic that's going on. Off in the corner, balloons are strung and tables of food are set up for the birthday party of a tiny Filipino girl dressed as a bride. "I guess," says Luisa, "that we're probably going to end up being grandparents in this country." They're still ambitious, though not so much for money. Luisa wants to start a neighborhood nursery school. "The day-care situation here is awful. You've got six-year-olds and toddlers crowded into the same dark little apartment. How can they develop like that? You see so many kids here running around like stray cats. It's heartbreaking." Arnold wants to go to school to become a gourmet chef. Recently he was hired by a Filipino company to help set up a satellite TV program in Israel. "We're taking it a step a time," he says. "We're so thankful for what's happening to us." In the end, Luisa did what she set out to do in her journey from the Philippines: She escaped poverty with her husband. "For me this was a cycle that went from generation to generation - leaving your family and going overseas to find work," she says, noting that her father and brothers did the same thing. "But it stops here. One thing I know is that my daughters won't have to go through what we did. They won't have to leave home and go to a foreign country to scrub people's toilets." Arnold was born wealthy, but he chose poverty and estrangement from his father rather than give up Luisa. For a long time he'd wanted to return to Manila a rich man, but now all he wants from Manila is his son to take back to Tel Aviv. "That's our last wish," he says. As for wealth, he doubts that he'll ever see it again. "But I think Hazel and Kathleen have a good foundation now," he says. "Just to know that what happened to us won't happen to them - it's enough."

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