Deportation to where?

Hundreds of families with parents from different countries are facing separation as Israel gears up to deport foreign workers and their children.

Filipino children 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Filipino children 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sitting in their low-rent South Tel Aviv apartment with their two children, Fayad and Marisa say they haven’t decided where they’ll go if the government goes ahead with its plan – due for execution shortly – to deport hundreds of foreign worker families like theirs. Fayad, a construction worker, is from Turkey; Marisa, a house cleaner, is from the Philippines.
They met in Tel Aviv and became parents to Justin, five, and Yasmin, 18 months. They’re not married. “We can’t get married in Israel,” says Marisa, noting that she is Catholic and Fayad Muslim; interfaith marriages made in Israel are not recognized by law.
If she is deported with the children, Marisa says she can’t even guess what it might take to get the Philippines to let Fayad join them. Fayad is equally daunted about the prospects of bringing Marisa and the kids to Turkey.
But even if they could live together in either of their home countries, they say they would not be welcome in either of their conservative, religious societies as a mixed Muslim-Catholic family.
When I ask if they know of such families back home, they both shake their heads, laughing lightly at the absurdity of the idea.
Fayad and Marisa are not alone. Among the foreign worker families slated for deportation – the government puts their number at 400 to 600, activists fighting the decree say it’s closer to 1,000 – there are “hundreds” of families headed by parents from different countries, says veteran activist Sigal Rozen.
“I’d say somewhat less than half of those slated for deportation are headed by parents of mixed nationality,” says Rozen, public policy coordinator for Tel Aviv’s Hot Line for Migrant Workers.
“In these cases, it’s not just that the children are going to be deported with their parents from the country they’ve grown up in – it’s that their families are in great danger of being broken apart.”
Asked about this, Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, said: “This is not our issue. We don’t intervene. These parents have to decide on their own which country they want to resettle in.”
Despite broad domestic and Diaspora Jewish opposition to the deportations, along with the worldwide attention given the issue by the recent Oscar for the documentary short Strangers No More, the government still says the expulsions are coming soon.
Last week the Population Authority told Yediot Aharonot: “For months we’ve been announcing in all the media that enforcement measures against families of illegal residents will begin shortly.” The deportations haven’t yet begun, the authority said, “because we want to make the best possible preparations for carrying out this sensitive task.”
The cabinet decided last July to deport families of foreign workers who did not have sufficiently deep roots, e.g. did not reside here for the last five years, did not enter legally and whose eldest child was not enrolled in at least first grade for this school year.
Fayad and Marisa’s family, for instance, does not meet the criteria because Fayad entered the country illegally – crossing the Egyptian border with Beduin smugglers whom he says he paid $3,000 – and because Justin is only in kindergarten.
He was playing in the apartment with a friend, Buram. Taking Buram into his lap, Fayad says: “His father is Turkish and his mother is Filipina, too, and they’re also fighting deportation.”
Binational marriages among foreign workers are most common between Turkish men and Filipina women, says Rozen, because the Turks here are nearly all men and those from the Philippines nearly all women. She has personal experience of the sort of bureaucratic maze awaiting a family trying to move to, or get official documents from, Turkey. “When I got married in Turkey, I had the feeling that every government clerk in the country needed to have passport photos from me,” Rozen recalls.
Other often-seen couples are Ghanaian or Nigerian men with Filipinas, African men and South American women and couples from different South American countries, she continues.
The reason that so many families of foreign workers are of mixed nationalities, Rozen says, is that “a large number of parents who came here from the same country have simply taken their kids and gone back in the last couple of years, rather than wait to be deported.
The parents from different countries can’t go back together so easily, if at all, so they’re taking their chances.”
EMANUEL, A Ghanaian living with his Filipina wife in Pardess Katz, a section of Bnei Brak where many foreign workers and African refugees live, says that many families who signed official documents saying they were leaving “voluntarily” actually did so under pressure following their arrest.
“Some years back, immigration police arrested me when I got off a bus in Tel Aviv, they took me to [detention facilities in] Holon, and said I should sign papers that I’m leaving the country, but I refused. I called the [Ghanaian] embassy and they let me go,” he says.
Emanuel, his wife Elvira and their two sons, Joseph, 13, and Joel, 11, are not in danger of deportation; they gained legal residency, renewed routinely every year, in 2006 as part of the government’s first attempt to “rationalize” its policy toward foreign workers.
Yet their family has been broken up as a result of immigration policy. Their two eldest sons, Kevin, 16 and Brian, 15, have been in Ghana for the last 12 years. The parents have been fighting in court to bring them here, but without success.
Emanuel, 49, was a merchant seaman in 1989 when his ship docked in Ashdod for repairs. He went to Tel Aviv, met some old friends from home and decided to stay. “There’s work here, you can make a good life,” he says. “It’s the Holy Land.”
Elvira came here legally as a caregiver in 1991 and a few years later met Emanuel. They were married in a local church and became parents to Kevin and Brian. Then Elvira, who’d lost her work visa upon becoming pregnant the first time, became pregnant again; meanwhile, Emanuel suffered a mild stroke.
As illegal residents, they could not get health insurance. “It was very hard for us, and my brother in Ghana offered to take Kevin and Brian for a little while until I got better,” says Emanuel.
But it took years for Emanuel to get over the stroke, while Elvira also developed severe health problems. The two younger boys, Joseph and Joel, were growing up Israeli, and the economic prospects in Ghana, not to mention the level of health care, were not encouraging. “We wanted to go back to Ghana, but it was too difficult. Physically, I’m not sure my wife would have survived,” says Emanuel.
After they were granted legal residency, the family visited Kevin and Brian in Ghana for a month. “I was a little bit happy and a little bit sad,” says Joel. “When we saw them at the airport, I didn’t know which one was Kevin and which one was Brian,” says Joseph.
Since then, Emanuel has been to see them twice and Elvira once. The brothers here are in contact with their older brothers in Ghana by phone and e-mail.
WHEN FOREIGN worker couples from different countries talk about the pitfalls and hardships of uniting their families in one of their two home countries, they sound like new immigrant couples from different countries who married and had children here.
The main difference, of course, is that the foreign workers are not Jewish and thus cannot integrate into the “native” population, limiting themselves necessarily to the country’s “international community” based in South Tel Aviv.
Here they’re outsiders in a subculture of outsiders, a mix of races, religions and nationalities where everyone fits in, where virtually everyone is poor and struggling. There’s little in the way of social pressure from the community to get between a binational or bireligious couple. Not so if, as a consequence of deportation, they try to raise their children together in a country where one spouse is at home and the other is a newcomer.
“My wife’s parents want our son, their grandson, in the Philippines,” says Neng, 34, who is from Thailand. “And his parents want our son in Thailand,” says Ivy, 31, who’s from the Philippines.
They’re sitting in their tiny apartment near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
Their son, Lemuelle, two, is in nursery school. Between them, they say they paid $8,000 to work agencies for permits to come here, but Neng’s has expired, Ivy’s was canceled upon her pregnancy and Lemuelle is too young to qualify them for legal residency, so, according to the government’s criteria for residency, they’re all up for deportation – mother and son to the Philippines, father to Thailand.
The decision taking shape is that the three of them will try to reunite in one of the two countries, hopefully with enough money saved to start a little business. Equipped only with an elementary school education, Neng, a cook in Tel Aviv, says he makes NIS 7,500 to NIS 8,000 a month – for an 85- to-90-hour work week, with a day off every two weeks. Ivy makes another NIS 4,000 a month cleaning houses.
“It takes a couple of years to pay off the agency for the work permit, but after that you can save money,” she says. “It’s good in Israel. You just have to be patient and not be lazy.”
In the Philippines or Thailand, their prospects of getting hired for jobs would be nil, they say. “There’s no way he’ll get a job in the Philippines,” says Ivy. “There it doesn’t matter even if you are qualified or not, you have to know the boss or somebody high up to get hired. And people our age are considered too old to start a new job.”
Says Neng: “In Thailand maybe I could get a construction job that would pay enough for rent and food – to survive, nothing more.” This, they say, grinning at the obviousness of it, is why people from the Third World flock here.
So they’re saving all the money they can, hoping that the Interior Ministry will give them another year or two here so they’ll have enough to give their boy a decent life, whether in Thailand or the Philippines.
“We’ve been sending money back to our families, but now it’s time for us to save for our family – and time is running out.” Neng, who came in 2004, doesn’t see the logic behind the deportation.
“If they let us start families, why won’t they let us stay?” Ivy tells him this is not how immigration policy works. “Actually,” she says without a trace of sarcasm, “they don’t let us have families. They only let us work.”