How foreign workers feel on Yom Ha’atzmaut

The longer migrant workers have been here, the more likely they are to celebrate Independence Day.

April 16, 2010 16:43
4 minute read.
Thai workers mark holiday honoring their king.

Thai workers 311. (photo credit: Eilon Gadiel)


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‘Do you know Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day?” The young woman, a caretaker from the Philippines, smiles, then laughs and shakes her head in response.
“Ma?” (What?) says another.

But these two migrant laborers have been in Israel less than a year. An informal survey conducted at the Central Bus Station, South Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park, and at a Filipino basketball game found that the longer a foreign worker is here, the more likely he is to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. Filipinos, many of whom feel a special affinity for Jews because of Christianity, appear fondest of the holiday.

Beth Aguilo, a caretaker from the Philippines, says that, like many migrant laborers, she doesn’t celebrate the holiday because she is too busy working. However, she helps her employer hang flags. “We [Filipinos] are very sympathetic to the Jewish people,” she says. “We know it’s a very important day for the Jews.”

It seems that some foreign workers might even be more aware of this than Israelis themselves. One Filipina caretaker, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that when she offered to hang an Israeli flag, her elderly employer declined.

Perhaps because of their religious backgrounds, Indian and Nepali workers are less concerned with Yom Ha’atzmaut. When this writer speaks with those groups, the conversation quickly turns instead toward their national holidays.

“I have Yom Ha’atzmaut off, but I don’t celebrate,” says Gil Deepa, from Delhi. “On August 15 [India’s Independence Day] I hang an Indian flag and cook food with my friends.” To mark India’s freedom from British rule, Deepa makes chicken curry, rice and chapatti, an Indian flatbread.

Deepa, a caretaker who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from an Indian university, has been in Israel for four years. Unlike some Indian workers, he has been fortunate enough to get a good employer who pays him according to the law and gives him his days off. He likes living here, he says, because he is making money and he feels freedom from family pressures.

Nepali worker Maya Lama has been in Israel for over three years. She isn’t familiar with Israel’s Independence Day, pointing out that there isn’t one in Nepal. In her home country, Lama says, the biggest holidays are Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of light, and the Nepali New Year. Falling in mid-April, Israel’s Nepali population will celebrate the New Year the weekend before Yom Ha’atzmaut with a concert in South Tel Aviv.

Sue Bravo, a Filipina who has lived in Israel for 12 years, says that her two-and-a-half-year-old son will celebrate Israel’s Independence Day at the kindergarten he attends. The gan her little boy goes to includes volunteers from Mesila Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community, which is operated by the Tel Aviv municipality. At the gan, the kids learn Hebrew and celebrate all of Israel’s holidays.

Bravo and her husband, an editor of a local Tagalog publication, also mark the Philippines’ Independence Day, June 12. In Tel Aviv, the Filipino community commemorates the end of Spanish colonial rule with a parade in Lewinsky Park, cookouts and other gatherings.

Kim Mariano, a Filipina who has been in Israel for 16 years, never forgets the Independence Day of her homeland. But that of the Jewish state is deeply important to her, as well. Mariano, her husband, and their son celebrate the event with a mangal (barbecue).

Though Mariano is Christian, as are most Filipinos, her neck bears a Star of David pendant with a hai [symbol of God’s name] etched in the middle. “It’s a symbol of my love for Israel,” she remarks. And Mariano named her nine-year-old son Rabin, after the slain prime minister.

She remembers the assassination well. “November 4, 1995,” she says.

“My Rabin was born in 2000.” His name, she says, is “a symbol of peace, unity, hope.”

Like any Israeli mother, Mariano is anxious about her son’s mandatory army service. But it’s important to her that he does it. “It’s his responsibility to his country,” she says.

While Mariano is clearly a patriot, her time here hasn’t been easy. She was illegal when the last major wave of arrests and expulsions swept through Israel’s foreign community. Mariano and her son gained permanent residency in 2006, when Israel allowed some children of illegal residents to be naturalized.

Mariano, who works at a nursing home, reflects on the current crackdown on illegal residents and the planned deportation of children and families. “It’s not easy, “she says. “It’s sad for them.” A former volunteer with Mesila, Mariano is now active with Israeli Children, a grassroots movement that is fighting the expulsion of minors who lack legal status.

Mary Sugaste, the mother of an eight-year-old boy, Joshua, has lived in Israel for 18 years. With the end of the school year in sight, she is anxious about the possibility of deportation to her native Philippines.

“Always I’m afraid,” she says. Joshua, sitting next to her on the bench, is oblivious to the conversation we’re having in English; he only speaks Hebrew.

What does Joshua think of Yom Ha’atzmaut – is it his favorite holiday? He answers like most Israeli kids would: He likes Purim best.

Joshua looks over the other side of a chain link fence, where a group of Filipino men are playing basketball, something of a national sport in the Philippines. What he really like best, he says, is kadoor regel (soccer).

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