Strangers in a strange land

Sderot residents find refuge in a Jerusalem hotel.

Sderot residents 298 88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Sderot residents 298 88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The scene is not necessarily a strange one: Small children and some elderly citizens clap along as a singer enthusiastically performs renditions of Adon Olam, while parents push strollers and try to break up the skirmishes that inevitably ensue between siblings in small spaces. All the while, soldiers hand out snacks and water as needed, supplying the crowd with whatever it may require. The singer is the main attraction tonight, but most people seem only passively interested at best. It makes for a strange gathering, but then again, the evening is catering to an unusual cause. Roughly 100 Sderot residents, forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza which the government is unable to halt, have taken up temporary residence in a Jerusalem hotel. The air of the chaotic, cramped Jerusalem Gold lobby is filled with desperation and frustration. Some Sderot residents are new arrivals, and some have been staying at the hotel for three weeks. To some, the hotel getaway can be as stressful as the fear imposed by the daily rocket attacks. A woman in her 80s, sitting by her many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, describes their stay in the hotel as a jail sentence. She laments the fact that she is not in her own kitchen cooking her own Moroccan dishes and that she is not in her own bedroom where she can sleep in her own bed. Instead, she is spending her days sitting in the lobby of the hotel, doing very little except observing her grandchildren fight. She has considered returning to Sderot, as have many other residents after several day- or week-long stays at the hotel. In the end, she has decided that the fear of living under red alerts and Kassams falling nearby would only raise her blood pressure. "This is no solution to our problem," says her daughter-in-law, a tanned woman with bleached blond curls who is hugging her youngest son while her three other children sit beside her. "For seven years we have lived under the threat of Kassam rockets, and the government has done nothing to help us. Many of us are out of work now and struggling to find ways to make ends meet. For years I have worked as a kindergarten teacher, but six weeks ago, parents stopped sending their children to the school because it is not fortified against Kassam rockets. The school principal decided to close it down because he did not want to take any chances. For me, this has meant six weeks without a job and without income. My husband and I have worked very hard all of our lives to build what we have and I am lucky that my husband still has his job, but who knows how long this will last?" Her words resonate with all the Sderot residents at the hotel. Everyone is in the same boat, knowing all too well the fear of Kassam rockets, the inability to concentrate on anything, and the breakdown of everything in their city, from schools, to workplaces, to industry and business. The Sderot residents' temporary stay at the hotel is organized and paid for by the Israel Defense Forces. An IDF spokeswoman explains, "We are available to accompany people back at any point if they feel that they simply have to return home." Elaborating on the homesick sentiments of some of the Sderot residents at the hotel, the army spokeswoman says that some people simply feel that "you can't run [from the situation] forever. People have to go to work, children have to go to school." For the time being, the soldiers simply try to provide the families with whatever they need: a snack, a ride to the hospital, a bottle of water. Unable to say how long the army will carry out such services for the residents, the army spokeswoman simply states that "we have orders to provide them with whatever they need for the time being," as she excuses herself to help break up a fight which has broken out in the middle of the lobby between two children. Although the residents certainly appreciate the efforts of their assigned soldiers to meet their needs, some of them also lament the fact that the military is not being put to use in a way that targets the root of the problem. One Sderot resident squarely places the blame on the shoulders of the government. "How can our government expect us to live like this? We, the residents of Sderot, are simple, modest people. We do not need much to be happy. But when our lives are threatened several times a day, it is clear that our government does not care about us. I know the family of a young woman who was injured several weeks ago by a Kassam, and I know that no one from the government contacted or visited the family to show concern." She continues: "During the height of the intifada, when suicide bombings were unfortunately common in Jerusalem, the government immediately assessed the situation and ordered the army into Palestinian cities to root out the networks of terror. In our case, though it is up to the government and the army to come up with a solution to our crisis, they have done very little." Gavriel Cohen, another Sderot resident staying at the hotel, was forced to close his clothing business in Sderot after seven years of Kassam attacks simply became too much. "The prime minister is a coward," he declares. "For every Kassam that falls, our army should hit Gaza and make them feel it too. We want to live in peace, but if that's the path that they choose, we have to do something about it." Cohen's friend from Sderot, Avi Cohen (no relation), agrees. "We hope the government keeps doing all it can," he says hopefully, but stresses that "all the businesses [in Sderot] have lost money and we can't live like this." He notes also that a house bought in Sderot for $300,000 can barely be sold today for $60,000 or $70,000. That fact, both Cohens agree, holds their lives in a sort of limbo. Asked about plans for the future, Gavriel Cohen very bluntly states, "I want to leave Sderot," despite his having lived and raised a family there since making aliya from Morocco when he was 18 years old. "Who will buy my house though?" To illustrate their point that life in Sderot has become unbearable, residents mention that the city has become a ghost town. They say that more than half of Sderot's residents have left the city temporarily, very few cars can be seen on the city's streets, and that not even a stray cat can be found wandering the town. The terms "red alert," "kassam rockets," "shelters" and "death" have become integral parts of the vocabulary of all Sderot residents, including young children. When several children in the lobby become aware that we are interviewing their families and friends for a piece in a newspaper, they are eager to speak to us. As we sit with them for an hour, they speak over one another, trying to capture our attention and the attention of the world with their stories about daily life in Sderot. "I once witnessed a Kassam rocket fly right over my head," a pale chubby nine-and-a-half year old says. "And once, a Kassam rocket fell about 15 meters from me." His cousin, a dark-haired eleven-year-old girl, articulates matter-of-factly that her "earliest memory was running to shelters when Kassam rockets started falling on Sderot seven years ago when I was four years old." She emphasizes that her "mom does not let me leave the house to walk 10 meters to the local kiosk to pick up milk or bread like she usually does. She doesn't even let me go outside to the garden to play. She's afraid I might get hurt, or worse." Her friend and neighbor, a studious 11-year-old girl who lives on the same block, says that she is upset that she hasn't had school for over a month. "I had some end of the year tests coming up for which I have been studying hard. Now, I've forgotten everything I studied, and I don't know what my grades will be when and if we go back to school." Peeping up from behind, her little brother humors us by mentioning that he doesn't miss school at all. He says, "The best thing about living in Sderot is that school has been canceled for the year." As we finish speaking with the children of Sderot at the hotel, we overhear the children's sing-along from another part of the lobby. The chorus of the famous song goes "Veha'ikar, Veha'ikar, lo lefahed, lo lefahed klal," translated as "And the most important thing is not to fear at all." As we walk out the lobby door, a young man stops and asks rhetorically, "How long can we go on living like this? We want our normal lives back. There's nothing like home."