Second-generation refugees in Israel see life as far from perfect

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: While many once saw Israel as a land of hope, many are now turning outwards.

 SOME OF THE thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are living in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
SOME OF THE thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are living in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

At age 17, Selam Abraham fled her war-torn country of Sudan and set off on a perilous month-long journey through Egypt’s Sinai desert. Her destination: Israel – a country she believed would offer a safe haven and a new home to build her life. Leaving behind her parents, friends, and a country plagued by poverty, instability, genocide and other atrocities, Abraham sought a brighter and safer future.

“I fled Sudan because the situation in my country was very dangerous – especially for young girls,” Abraham told The Jerusalem Post. “I had many dreams at that age. I wanted to study, to advance in life. But where am I today?”

After 11 years in Israel, Abraham, now 28, is married with three children and, like many other asylum seekers, resides in South Tel Aviv. Her life is far from what she had dreamed it would be. Living in poverty and relying on charitable assistance, she is a woman with no status.

And she is not alone. Abraham is just one of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who escaped genocide and war-scarred countries and made their way to Israel seeking safe refuge. Beginning in 2005, with a few hundred refugees illegally crossing the border into Israel, soon a mass wave of asylum seekers followed, with the peak between 2009-2012, until Israel built a fence blocking their entry. It is estimated that during this time more than 60,000 refugees crossed the border into Israel illegally, with the majority relocating to South Tel Aviv.

According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a leading organization protecting the rights of refugees, there are about 19,500 Eritreans and around 7,150 Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israel. They have limited rights, are not officially allowed to work, and are not entitled to medical or welfare services, except in extreme cases.

Israel maintains a policy of temporary protection for asylum seekers by granting them a legal status with a 2a5 visa. However, it denies asylum seekers all rights except the right to remain in Israel until their deportation is possible. Israel views the vast majority as “infiltrators,” a controversial classification with a derogatory connotation. The hotline points out that, to date, Israel has only accepted 0.15% of asylum seeker claims – the lowest recognition rate of refugees in the Western world.

As such, during the last decade, Israel’s coalitions have instituted policies encouraging asylum seekers to leave the country. These policies include the incarceration of all asylum seekers in the Saharonim and Holot detention facilities in the South, as a means of deterrence; the “deposit law,” which confiscated a part of the asylum seekers’ salaries, to be returned to them once they relocate; and attempts to deport asylum seekers to third-party countries, mainly in Africa.

“The situation has not changed much. On the one hand, the last refugees to enter came already 11 years ago and many have learned the language and culture. But on the other hand, there is a deterioration – a community that has no rights, lives in poverty and is subject to racism and segregation,” Miri Barbero-Elkayam, director of the southern Tel Aviv Social Services Unit at the Tel Aviv Municipality, told the Post.

Miri Barbero-Elkayam: The situation of the new generation is concerning. (credit: TEL AVIV MUNICIPALITY)Miri Barbero-Elkayam: The situation of the new generation is concerning. (credit: TEL AVIV MUNICIPALITY)

FOR NEARLY a decade, Barbero-Elkayam has headed Mesila, a municipal unit run by the Tel Aviv Municipality, in collaboration with the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, with the aim of providing assistance and social services to asylum seekers.

“The [Eritrean and Sudanese] community centralized in the southeast of Tel Aviv, mainly in the Naveh Sha’anan, Hatikva and Shapira neighborhoods,” she said. “Rent has significantly increased, but they are still able to find apartments to rent and can find work in restaurants, hotels and as cleaners.

“Still, the situation is not good for them. They live a very difficult life here, and the community is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic,” she said, noting that the asylum seekers were particularly hard hit by the pandemic and are still experiencing the aftereffects.

“In 2020, the community almost entirely stopped working because hotels and restaurants shut down. About 80% were suddenly unemployed and ineligible for any government stipends, due to their status,” she said. “They went hungry overnight. Even though they received aid, many are still in a lot of debt and living in poverty.

This crisis is further exacerbated in regard to children. “There has been a major increase in births in recent years, because most of the asylum seekers entered as young teens and have since gone on to have children,” she said, noting that since 2018, there are some 6,000 children of migrants living in South Tel Aviv, of which around 80% are Eritrean.

“There is a generation of children being raised in Israel. They study in Hebrew and see themselves as Israeli. But they are not enlisted in the IDF, they cannot study in university unless they pay tuition as foreigners, which is very costly, and they cannot find meaningful employment,” she said.

“The situation of the new generation is concerning,” she added. “There is a mass of children aged six to 12 who will soon become youth. They suffer from a lack of a future and there is a very real concern that when they become teenagers, we will see even more difficult phenomena.”

Barbero-Elkayam said that Mesila helps these children at risk along with their families through various projects, including daycare centers, working with youth, and even operating a social grocery store that provides food to those in need.

“Not in Israel, and not in the world, do you see a municipality opening a special office, paid for by the municipality and the Welfare Ministry, to provide aid,” she said. “There are a lot of projects and actions being taken, but we cannot really help on a massive scale.

“At the end of the day, the government must make a decision. It is a painful decision, but it must be made. They have been living in limbo for nearly 15 years and it is time they regain their future,” she added.

Indeed, the status and welfare of the children of asylum seekers is a genuine concern for many NGOs working with the Sudanese and Eritrean communities.

IN THE PAST decade, great strides were made by local NGOs and the municipality to ensure suitable frameworks for the children, from supervised daycare centers to dedicated schools.

“We established our first daycare center in 2017, and due to the high demand, we established a second in 2019. Today, we have 230 children [of asylum seekers], aged three months to three years, under our care,” Yael Boneh Levy, manager of the Lasova Daycare, told the Post. 

Lasova is a nonprofit organization that provides aid to refugees as well as others in need throughout the country. As part of the organization’s efforts to aid asylum seekers, it operates numerous homeless shelters, restaurants and food kitchens, as well as daycare centers in South Tel Aviv. 

“We operate daycare centers at a very high level, six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Fridays, when the day ends earlier,” she said. “The municipality provides us worthy facilities; we provide the games, toys, four meals a day, and employ staff from the community of asylum seekers who receive intensive training by pedagogic trainers.”

According to Boneh Levy, the daycare centers provide a much-needed alternative to the infamous “baby warehouses” of South Tel Aviv, which jam numerous children into a makeshift daycare, often in a single room under unacceptable conditions.

“Our daycares are subsidized, though we still need to help nearly half of the families with subsidies, despite the low cost,” she said.

“From my personal experience, I really appreciate the parents. They are wonderful, hardworking people who are very involved and only want the best care for their children,” she added. “They arrive here without any support and alone and live under very minimal conditions, yet they try to be the best parents they can be for their children.”

“They arrive here without any support and alone and live under very minimal conditions, yet they try to be the best parents they can be for their children.”

Yael Boneh Levy, manager of the Lasova Daycare

But what happens once the children are out of daycare? Boneh Levy said their only option is to study in segregated educational institutions. “They are not considered citizens, they have no standing, and many are dealing with poverty, rising prices, racism. [Some] are still carrying the burden of the atrocities in their home countries and of human trafficking,” she said.

“They want to stay in Israel, but with rights. Unfortunately, I hear from many parents that they feel they are not wanted and are looking to leave, but they want to find a worthy country to live in, where they can finally live with dignity,” she added.

This sentiment is echoed by Abraham. Although she has taught herself Hebrew and has adapted to Israeli culture, she struggles to find work and continues to live in poverty, relying on assistance from organizations like Mesila and Lasova. Today, she works three days a week at the Social Grocery Store, a Mesila and Lasova initiative that provides groceries to nearly 1,000 asylum seekers in need. 

Serving as a liaison between the asylum-seeker community and the municipality, Abraham provides aid to the weakest members of her community, while herself receiving the same assistance. “I see how difficult it is for mothers who cannot feed their children,” she said. “We need to help them. We provide food and assistance to anyone in need.”

Regarding her own financial situation, Abraham said that she lives in a run-down, two-room apartment in South Tel Aviv, for which she pays NIS 5,000 per month. While she and her husband work, they are barely able to get by.

“It is very difficult. Rent is very expensive, everything is very expensive, and we also must get food from the social grocery store,” she said.

POVERTY IS not the only obstacle Abraham and her family face in Israel. Racism and segregation are a common part of life, she said.

“I not only feel that I am not wanted, I see it. We see that our neighbors do not want us here,” she said. “There are, of course, some good people, but most of the people don’t want us here.

“Our children study alone, with only other [refugee] children. They also are not wanted here. Other kids say to them: ‘Go back to your country,’ and my kids ask me: ‘Why do they say this to me?’ It is very difficult; I don’t know how to answer them.”

When asked if she has considered moving to another city, given all the hardships in Tel Aviv, Abraham said the situation for asylum seekers in other cities is even worse.

“I have friends who moved to Rishon Lezion, but they are unable to find work because they do not have an ID card,” she said. “Work is very important. If we do not work, we have no income, because we are not entitled to any [government] allocations.”

Additionally, Abraham said that the level of education in schools for asylum seekers is not up to par with schools for Israeli children. “Kids are unable to integrate into school. They are lagging behind in their studies and the other kids do not get along with them; they do not want them there,” she added. 

Asylum seekers in other cities, she said, “will come back [to Tel Aviv].”

“We don’t have citizenship, we have a visa, but we don’t really have any rights and it is very difficult,” she said.

While a young Abraham had a dream of building a life for herself in Israel, today she has a new dream: “To leave this country,” she said.

“I am looking for a way to move to Canada. I heard that they welcome you there, and my children can study in school along with other Canadian children. I could even study, too,” she said. “I have friends who moved there, and it is a much better life.

“I did not choose to be in Israel; I am a refugee seeking a safe haven. Until my country will be better, and I can one day return home, at least let me feel like a human being. Give me some basic rights, and just see me and my children as human beings,” she added.