In search of a new home

The absorption of thousands of the Falash Mura appears likely to encounter another hurdle as the housing crisis in Israel places their arrival in jeopardy.

Falash Mura women 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Falash Mura women 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s a Sunday afternoon in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa Gimmel, and two elderly Ethiopian men sit together on a rickety old bench in the grassy courtyard between two run-down buildings.
“They told us this was Bat Yam, and only after we bought apartments here did we realize it was actually part of Jaffa,” shrugs one of the men when asked what he thinks of the neighborhood, which, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, is one of the weakest socioeconomic areas in the country and is often referred to as a ‘slum’.
Preferring to remain anonymous, the man tells me he has been living here since leaving the absorption center seven years ago, he does not speak much Hebrew – we are talking with the help of a translator – and he had originally requested to live in Kiryat Gat or Ashkelon, where there are already large Ethiopian immigrant communities.
“But we don’t mind it here,” he says of the neighborhood, which today houses a growing Ethiopian community alongside immigrants from the former Soviet Union, veteran Israelis mostly of Sephardic origin and a sizable number of Arab families. “The police come around to check up on things, so it’s safe and relations with our neighbors are okay.”
As an afterthought, he adds: “Of course we are worried that our children will end up getting into trouble, but we try to have our finger on the pulse, and we keep watch over them.”
While the 400-strong Ethiopian community in Jaffa Gimmel tries to keep tabs on its youth, welfare organizations are becoming increasingly concerned that this area and others where Ethiopian Israelis have been forced to live due to economic circumstances will end up turning into poverty-stricken ghettos.
“These are the only choices they have,” comments Ziva Mekonen-Degu, executive director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), explaining that the size of the government-allotted mortgage and certain regulatory restrictions on where Ethiopian immigrants can purchase homes “leaves them with no options at all.”
Information provided by the IAEJ, shows that the small mortgage allowance and accompanying housing grant for Ethiopians is not enough to match the continually increasing housing prices and the immigrants are left with little option of where to buy homes.
Efforts to start their new lives in Israel are further complicated by an ongoing Immigrant Absorption Ministry policy that pinpoints only 10 neighborhoods, and then only certain streets within them, where the mortgage can be used. Most of the buildings available to them are in neighborhoods socioeconomically similar to Jaffa Gimmel.
The path that brings these new immigrants to these crime-ridden slums is symptomatic of an aliya that has been dogged with setbacks and controversy for more than a decade, say experts working with the community.
They believe that the restrictions and bureaucracy, coupled with the current housing crisis and exploding market prices, will not only have an impact on the absorption process of the country’s newest immigrant community, but could also threaten aliya from the East African nation. This could be disastrous, they say.
Last November, under a unanimous cabinet decision, the government committed to continuing this controversial aliya and bringing over what most hope will be the final group of Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago. Representatives of the North American Coalition on Ethiopian Jews (NACOJ), a nonprofit that provides essential aid and schooling to the community still living in the northern Ethiopian province of Gondar, believe there are roughly 6,000 people who are eligible for aliya, under various government resolutions and regulations approved in the last decade. They also say there is a humanitarian crisis brewing, because the longer they wait in Ethiopia, the less they work, and the worse conditions become.
It’s all connected, points out former NACOJ president Joseph Feit, who is still very active in advocating for this aliya and supporting the entire process.
“The housing prices in Israel are continuing to rise. This has repercussions for the Ethiopian community here and, in turn, it has implications for the aliya of the Falash Mura,” he says, explaining that on the current trajectory, space in the Jewish Agency for Israel-run absorption centers, where the immigrants spend their first two years here, will run out by next February.
This means, theorizes Feit, that “even those who have been officially approved for aliya will have to wait possibly up to three more years or until others leave the absorption centers before they can come here.”
He adds: “The problem is that the longer this aliya is drawn out, the more chance there is that additional people will arrive from the villages and also claim their Jewish heritage.”
AS NGOs lament the ongoing struggle to bring the remnants of this Jewish community to Israel, the Finance Ministry said this week that it had submitted its recommendations on how to tackle the housing problem over the next five years.
In a written response, the ministry explained that currently the government provides a housing grant of between NIS 300,000 and NIS 600,000 to families, depending on their size and where they want to buy.
This grant is in addition to a mortgage that can be paid back over time.
However, in light of the last government decision on the matter, explained the ministry, a special committee formed and headed by Director-General Haim Shani has already recommended increasing these grants for larger families, and enabling smaller families or singles to receive rental subsidies for a period of five years, during which time their grants will be frozen.
Information provided by the ministry shows that the grant increase for families with four or five children will be NIS 35,000-NIS 50,000, and for larger families, up to NIS 60,000.
While ministry officials seem certain that this is the answer to the problem of housing for the new immigrants, organizations working in the field have rejected the idea of rent subsidies outright and are simply demanding increased grants for everyone or opening up more neighborhoods in which they can purchase apartments.
Under the plan, the government hopes to provide single people and families with five members or fewer with a three- or four-year rental subsidy before handing out a mortgage – the hope being that by then, the housing market prices might be lower. Larger families will be given their mortgage and grant allowances to purchase houses.
This plan has been rejected outright by organizations working with the immigrants here.
“Without any real assurances from the government, no new immigrant will agree to this new rental scheme,” says Dr. Avraham Neguise, executive director of South Wing to Zion, a grassroots organization that lobbies the government on behalf of the Falash Mura population. “They will only see it as a strategy to push them out of the absorption center, but without being given a mortgage to actually purchase property.”
He adds that “giving out the rental subsidy might be suitable for young singles who have not yet decided where they want to live, but it is totally inappropriate for families. The government should just increase the mortgage and not restrict the neighborhoods where they can buy. It should open up peripheral areas, too.”
Neguise says that one solution, albeit only temporary, is for JAFI to reopen some of the absorption centers that were closed two years ago, after representatives of the previous government announced that aliya from Ethiopia was over.
However, JAFI spokesman Haviv Rettig-Gur says that reopening the absorption centers is only a short-term solution and will not address the growing community’s needs in the more distant future.
“The Finance Ministry has led a process of trying to figure out a real long-term solution for immigrants from Ethiopia to get out of the absorption centers, and we welcome that,” he says. “This is an important issue, and we are happy it is being handled seriously.”
IN THE meantime, the more veteran, Sabra-born residents living in Jaffa Gimmel are also growing concerned over the government’s failure to help the immigrants once they start their new lives here.
“The situation is very bad,” states one man who identifies himself as Yoel. “I have noticed three or four families living in one apartment together, and their children play outside all day long. I often see them wearing the same clothes for days on end.”
“Some of the children throw stones, and there is no adult supervision of them,” gripes another resident called Ronnie. “This is a very poor neighborhood. I think most of the Ethiopian families are on welfare.”
Both men also point out that while there are obvious problems during daylight, after dark, when the youths come out to play, “it’s a catastrophe.”
“Friday nights are the worst,” observes Yoel shaking his head. “The youths are out drinking alcohol, the young Ethiopian women getting drunk with ‘the cousins’” – a reference to the young Arab men from the neighborhood. “It’s a bad situation and no one seems to care.”
Ronnie adds: “It’s like the state sent them to live here and then simply forgot about them.”