Gambling on Israel

Many of the thousands of workers who came to Israel from India, hoping to support their families back home, find reality much tougher than they were led to believe.

Indian Israel 88 224 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Indian Israel 88 224
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Colorful Bollywood movie posters and richly-hued spices in red-lidded jars crowd the small storefront of Om Indian Store - The Taste of India, located on Lewinsky Street at Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station. It's a warm Shabbat in early summer and the glass door is propped open. Business is brisk and a steady stream of Indian and Nepali customers passes through the store to purchase the ingredients for dishes that are a link to home. On their way in and out, they pass a sign that goes, for the most part, unnoticed. Printed on a plain piece of white paper and scotch-taped to the door, it seems unremarkable. But when you stop and look at it, you understand it's a clear indication of a fragile, struggling community far from home. A sacred Om symbol, flanked by images of Israeli and Indian flags, crowns the sign, which announces the formation of the Om Shakti Singh Indian Community and states that its primary purpose is to help our Indian brothers and sisters in their difficulties here in Israel. The sign also mentions the group's hope of providing a place to pray for all Indians. It concludes with a request: We would like all our brothers and sisters here in Israel to come forward and register their name in our community. Inside, the narrow store's shelves overflow with Indian snacks, rice, and every imaginable kind of lentil. Behind the counter, The Taste of India's proprietor, Beni Naidu, is scooping mustard-hued curry into a small plastic bag for a waiting Nepali woman. He says that he initiated the Om Shakti Singh Indian Community only six months ago, and that the fledgling group is trying to get organized. Their biggest project right now is collecting money, which they share with one another. He explains that many Indian workers don't have health insurance, and some are even without jobs. "We are helping each other," he says. "And always I'm telling the people, 'if you need help, come here and take the help.'" The wave of customers subsides. A large group of Indian men has congregated on the sidewalk outside The Taste of India. They're sitting on folding chairs around a white plastic table. As the group grows, they run out of chairs, and some of them stand. They seem to revel in each other's company, talking loudly and animatedly in Hindi, their conversations punctuated by laughter. With the exception of their voices, the store is quiet. "I will tell you a story," Naidu says, puncturing the silence. And so he begins. Like the stories of the men just outside the store - whose words drift through the open door, accompanying Naidu's voice - it begins in India. His is the tale of a young Indian man in his thirties, who has a wife and two children. He is struggling to support them; he is barely able to make ends meet. This young man hears of opportunity in Israel…the possibility of making good money, which he can send home to his family. Excited by the prospect, he sells his house, all his belongings, and takes out a loan to fund his trip to Israel. "But he is gambling to come here," Naidu says, his tone ominous. The man arrives in Tel Aviv and hears a different story than the one that convinced him to leave his home. Here, the man is told about Indians who can't find employment in Israel. He becomes worried that he, too, will fail to find work, and that he has thrown his money away for nothing. "He feels very bad," Naidu says. The young man feels so bad, the story goes, that he dies of a heart attack in his sleep his first night in Israel. But there's more - a somewhat encouraging ending. Naidu explains that he asked all his Indian customers to contribute whatever money they could. Together they raised enough funds to return the man's body to India and to send approximately $2,000 to his widow. Many Indian workers told Metro the same moving story. As it is retold throughout the community, it takes on life as both a narrative of their expatriate culture and a map. The story illuminates the circumstances many Indian foreign workers find themselves in, while simultaneously in-structing the listener - usually another Indian worker - to rely on his own people for help. The story's message is clear - even though the Indian community takes care of its own, coming to Israel is a big risk. The workers gathered outside The Taste of India can attest to this. When asked how things are for them in Israel, one of the men answers, "I think good," he begins, "but sometimes not good." He explains that for those working as caretakers, "If you get [a] good family, things [are] very good for you. But there are many families [that] don't give food, don't give water." He furrows his brows, clearly upset. "Now the dollar is less," he adds, "and they're paying us in dollars. What [is] good for the family, they give us. But we don't have a choice," he says. His name is Keshu and his story is typical. Like many Indians who end up here, he is from Gujarat, a province north of Mumbai. He works as a caretaker and earns about $600 a month - a portion of which he sends to his family in India. He lives in a small apartment in south Tel Aviv with eight other men, all of whom sleep on mattresses on the floor. In this respect, he feels fortunate, offering examples of men who live 40 to 50 an apartment. He says Indian workers in Israel face many challenges. There are the immigration police who, Keshu says, come to their apartment in the middle of the night and on Shabbat - the one day a week the men have to rest. And there's the question of how to retain his religion. "We are Hindu and there is no temple. This is a problem for religious people [Hindus]." Like many others of his faith, Keshu has resorted to worshipping in his apartment every morning, using pictures and incense. In addition, Keshu, like many Indian workers, paid an agent $9,000 to come here. He spent the first two years of his five-year work visa repaying the money he owed the agency for arranging his job and visa - leaving him only three years to make money for himself and his family. "We don't have a choice," Keshu says again, and the other men nod in agreement. However, he feels that the Indian workers support each other, and recounts the same story Naidu told Metro - the story of a young man so traumatized by leaving home and coming to this foreign land that he died - the story about the people who pulled together and rallied around him, even in death. It's a testament to the community's solidarity…and its fragile existence in this country. No matter how many years a foreign worker has been here, existence in Israel always feels tenuous, with the threat of losing that all-important piece of paper - the work visa - hanging over his or her head. Chidambaram Chandrashekar Pilla, known as Shekar, came to Israel from Delhi in 1987. He has worked as both a cook and a manager at a string of Indian restaurants throughout Israel, all owned by Reena and Vinod Pushkarna. Though he has been a productive member of society for over 20 years, he is still neither a citizen nor a permanent resident. And now, he finds himself without a visa. There is pain on his face as he says, "After 20 years of working here, now I can't [work here]. The Interior Ministry says, 'five years - that's it. We have [a] new rule. You should leave the country.' I've spent my whole career in this country." Shekar feels that he dedicated the best years of his life to Israel. "This is my life now, I can't go anywhere else," he continues, revealing another common problem for Indian workers - if they return to India after working for so many years in Israel, they're returning to nothing. No jobs, no opportunities. Existence in either world becomes uncertain. Because Shekar has retained the services of a lawyer and has a case working its way through Israel's legal system, he is safe from deportation for the time being. But he can't work without a visa, so he's living in limbo and finds himself relying on his Israeli girlfriend and his friends for help. Although Shekar doesn't believe that there is a cohesive Indian community here, he does see Indians helping each other. "We are different, but we are together. We are from India. We have to help." As far as practicing Hinduism in the Jewish state, Shekar is not concerned by the lack of a temple. He says he worships at home every morning. He also visits the Western Wall, synagogues, and churches. "God is one, so there is no problem," he says. But he confirms that there is no Hindu temple in Israel despite the fact that many Indians have tried to build one. "The country doesn't allow [it]," he says. Though The Taste of India serves as an informal community center, there is another spot that Indian workers, the men in particular, frequent. It's a Friday night at 50 Rehov Salame in south Tel Aviv. The outside of the building that houses La Villa - a nightclub exclusively for zarim (foreigners), according to manager George Alam - is exceedingly plain, save for the Israeli, Nepali and Indian flags flapping in the wind high above the entrance. Hindi music set to a techno dance beat accompanies the chatter of the Nepalese and Indian workers crowding the small courtyard, waiting to pay NIS 20 so they can head upstairs to the dance floor. Benny Ashkenazi, who works as a bouncer at La Villa, comments: "This is their place. It's like the embassy or something." Upstairs, the dance floor is filled with a pulsating crowd and the bar is decorated with Israeli flags. Off to the side, alcoves washed in red light are lined with couches and a painting of an Indian woman in traditional garbs overlooks the scene from her spot on the wall. A woman's high-pitched voice and the crisp notes of a sitar come through the speakers, vibrating to the furthest reaches of the dim club. The dancers move in time to the thumbing percussion. The women are mostly Nepali and many of them dance together. Two girls - sisters - dance tirelessly, mirroring each other, high-heeled step for high-heeled step. Some of the Indian men dance with one another, and three Hindu women with red dots on their foreheads sway together in a circle of their own. As the night wears on, more men and women start dancing together. Many Indian men opt to watch, sitting in clusters on the couches. Their stories are similar. They come from Mumbai, they come from Gujarat. They work as caretakers. Now, they live in Herzliya, in Nahariya. They come to Tel Aviv for Shabbat to see their friends, to go to La Villa. They paid thousands of dollars to come to Israel, and once they've paid that debt off, they send money home. One of the men shouts over the music, "There are thousands here without jobs. Ten thousand dollars it costs to come here. They come here and have no job," he says. He is referring to a scam to which many Indians have recently fallen victim. Prospective workers are shown a forged document that appears to be from the Interior Ministry. This paper states their name and passport number, the name of their future employer, and states that the worker has been granted a visa. Jumping at the chance to come to Israel and work, the victims gather money to pay the "agent." But when they arrive in Israel, they learn that the agreement was a sham. This man is angry, and he feels that the government should be doing more to protect Indian workers. He gestures around the room at the people dancing. They have smiles on their faces and look carefree and happy. But his face is troubled. "Because they drink and dance, now everything is okay. Tonight everything is okay." "[There is] nothing here," the man continues. On another early summer Shabbat, another group of Indian workers congregates outside The Taste of India. Like the previous week, Indian and Nepali customers stream in and out of the store. They enter with empty hands, but leave with a bag full of the flavors that remind them of their far-off homes - a tender thread that attaches them to their far-away families. The men sit outside, this time on a railing across from the store. The man from La Villa is there - the one who angrily proclaimed that there is "nothing" in Israel - and he's calmer now. His name is Raz Sisodiyla, and his anger comes from experience. He paid $10,000 dollars to come to Israel six months ago only to discover that there was no job for him. He has found a job as a caretaker and secured his stay - for a little while, at least. Hitas Timba, an unemployed caretaker, and a friend of Sisodiyla's, is among the group. Although he lived in Israel legally for two years - working all the while - he has been without a job for four months now. How does he survive? The men he lives with support him. "Today I don't have a job, tomorrow he don't have a job," he says, gesturing to one of his friends. "We are friends and together we live. Together we help. There is no community." Reflective of the many divisions within Indian society, Timba states, "The Indian people are not like Indian people." Not too far away, the sign on the shop's door urging Indian workers to unite to form the Om Shakti Singh Indian Community remains taped to the glass, overlooked.