ETHIOPIAN RESIDENTS at Mevaseret Zion 370.
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion on Sunday against a raise in their rent and general frustration with the authorities and Jewish Agency over their situation.
In an effort to ensure the absorption center has room for incoming immigrants, the Jewish Agency is raising the rent for residents who have been in the center for over four years – from NIS 500 to NIS 1,500 per month.
“No one wants to be here, but we can’t leave without a solution,” said Sifinew Reta, one of the demonstration’s organizers who has resided at the center for eight years. Reta is a mechanical engineer but only makes NIS 3,500 per month as a general technician and said he can’t afford to pay more rent – whether at the center or for another apartment.
Residents held an all-day protest outside the administration offices of the center, home to 2,000 Ethiopian immigrants.
They received the necessary permits from the police, but when absorption center director David Mulla tried to address them, they chased him back into his office waving sticks and hurling insults. Mulla filed a complaint with police.
All non-emergency services at the absorption center, including a summer camp set to begin Monday are canceled until the situation changes, said the Jewish Agency’s Yehuda Shars, director of Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations.
Shars accused a small, violent group of politically motivated activists of taking advantage of the Ethiopian immigrant community at the center and encouraging them to resort to violence. He said the Jewish Agency would not place staff members in danger if they are still concerned about the possibility of violence.
But demonstrators said the core of their frustration came from the hopelessness of their situation: While they did not want to stay in the absorption center, no one could afford to leave.
“When the immigrants stay in the absorption center for more than two years, it’s not healthy, they need to be involved in the community,” said Dr. Avraham Neguise, director of the South Wing to Zion organization and an Ethiopian aliya advocate. “They’re in ghettos, it doesn’t give them independence, it doesn’t give them confidence,” he said.
Neguise explained that because of the great cultural differences, these immigrants need a sheltered environment for their first year or two in Israel, but afterwards must be absorbed into the community.
“Someone who wants to leave can leave, that’s what we see,” said Elad Sonn, Immigrant Absorption Ministry spokesman.
As part of a special absorption basket, Ethiopian immigrants are entitled to a NIS 1,500 monthly rent assistance, as well as an interest- free loan of NIS 330,000 for the down payment for a house.
Reta said home ownership is the only way out of the cycle of poverty for immigrants at the center, who have trouble holding down steady jobs and are worried that the NIS 1,500 grant could be canceled at any point.
Zena Argawi, one of the coorganizers of the demonstration, said that although he finally left the center after living there for six years, he is constantly worried about becoming homeless, a widespread concern among older immigrants who did not benefit from the same level of education in Ethiopia.
“The worst part and the most expensive part is the apartment – if there is an apartment we can survive the rest,” he said.
Demonstrators want the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Finance Ministry to offer the grant assistance as part of the loan – in order to get closer to owning an apartment. Sonn said the division of the funds was a Finance Ministry decision, and the Finance Ministry refused to comment on the matter.
“We’re ready to leave, but to where?” asked Reta. “We don’t want to be a drain. We want to be a part of the state. We came to the state to build it, not to stand in the street and say ‘rescue me.’”