Tales from South Tel Aviv: African migrants describe life in the shadows

Last week, we spent time in south Tel Aviv chatting with asylum seekers on the verge of deportation as well as with residents who expressed their concern over the degradation and crime in the area.

15,000 protest the deportation of African migrants in south Tel Aviv, February 24, 2018 (Rebecca Montag)
The shaver buzzes as the sound of chatter, music and laughter fill the air.
Cropped pictures of male hair models line the walls of the barbershop in south Tel Aviv. All of the customers are African migrants and the barber is sure he can give them that exact haircut – the one they point to on the poster.
In between our conversations about deportations and the situation African migrants are facing – many claim they are refugees or asylum seekers – the younger boys chat about American football and the Super Bowl. It dawns on me that many of the youngsters chatting to us are just teenagers. They all speak Hebrew perfectly – Hebrew and not a word of English.
“I walked here all the way from Sudan, from Darfur with my family. I was five years old,” says 17-year-old Ali*. “I remember it very clearly. I remember the heat and sand… and the thirst. We were thirsty, always. We didn’t have a lot of water. It took two months to get here with all the stopping and starting. It was difficult; I complained a lot. We didn’t know when we would get our next meal or where we would sleep.”
Between 2006 and 2012 some 38,000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel illegally. Many say they were fleeing war-torn conditions, forced military conscription at a young age and totalitarian rule and other horrors faced on a daily basis.
Others have made it clear that they came to Israel for a better life, a more “economically stable” life and have openly said they don’t consider themselves refugees.
However, Ali says his family was escaping the atrocities being committed in Sudan: “There was a bad war, people were dying, small children were being made into soldiers, learning to shoot guns and fight. Children should not know these things. That’s why we ran. That’s why we came here to Israel, to the Promised Land. We wanted a peaceful life, a better life.”
He relates that once he and his family made it to the Sinai Desert they rode with Beduins across the border into Israel.
“My mother gave them the only thing of value we had: a bracelet. They took us and told us not to make a sound. They hit us or beat us if we did. Once we arrived, they left us at the border and we made our way here to Tel Aviv, where I’ve lived with my family for the past 12 years,” he says.
“Now they [the Israeli government] want to make us go back there. I speak Hebrew and hardly any Arabic; if I go back, I will die. If the people there find out I speak Hebrew, if they find out we came back from Israel, they will kill us. The [Israeli] government is sending us to our death.”
Many of the African migrants agree that the first to be sent back will be the single men aged between 18 and 35, and on Sunday morning, just days after The Jerusalem Post Magazine visited the area, this is exactly what happened. The Population and Immigration Authority began handing out deportation notices aimed at unmarried, childless men.
The notice stipulated that the migrants must leave Israel within 60 days or face forced deportation or imprisonment.
Despite rumors that the migrants would be sent to Rwanda, the notice only stipulated that they will be sent to a “safe, third country” and that those who leave voluntarily receive a grant of $3,500 at the airport prior to boarding the flight, as well as an entry visa for the unidentified third country.
In reaction to this, several of the asylum seekers tell the Magazine that they were concerned because no matter what country they were sent to, that $3,500 would be confiscated from them upon arrival and they would be left with nothing.
The notice handed out on Sunday also said that those who refuse to leave Israel will be granted a hearing within seven days of receiving the notice at an undisclosed facility, during which time they may present their case.
“Before making a final decision in your case, you are invited to attend a hearing that will take place at the enforcement facility where your permit is extended,” it states. “You must arrive at the facility with all the documents relevant to your case. You have the right to be represented. Should you fail to report, enforcement and relocation proceedings will be initiated against you.”
Last year, the government passed a law that imposes tough restrictions on illegal migrants and began to make plans to deport them. It ordered the closure of the Holot detention facility in the Negev by mid-March.
However, the government has reportedly made several exceptions, including not to deport women, children, parents of children and victims of human trafficking for now.
A MAN walks in from the building next door. He runs a small side-street store filled with sundry items such as socks, games, headphones and chargers.
Asim* is also from Sudan. He shows us his visa, which he renews on a monthly basis. “I want to do this the legal way. I have to stand in lines for hours each month, but it’s the only way. I want to get a work permit so that I can do everything legally.”
He says that he worked in Eilat for five years before moving to south Tel Aviv.
Asim and the owner of the barbershop, Faiz*, say that some people walking past call them names. “They tell us we’re a cancer in the body of Israel. They call us son of a bitch, too. We are human beings; if you cut us open we have the same organs, the same color blood running through our veins. They don’t talk to the illegals from China or Thailand or Nepal like this.”
Both Faiz and Asim say that it is unfair that only African migrants are being forcibly deported. “Those Chinese and Thai people who have overstayed their visas are not targeted; they stay here, they work, they have families and lead normal lives. Why should it be any different for us? Again, it’s because we are Muslim and they are Christian.”
Faiz highlights that despite the fact he is Muslim, he knows the Torah and says has read and learned about it.
“What the Jewish state is doing goes against the Torah. Jews, Muslims and Christians are all one and the same. We obey the laws of Noah, we work hard, we are honest, we do not steal or kill. All we want is a good life – nothing more.”
He says that when people do steal, it’s because they have nothing.
“It’s not an excuse. They’re not bad people. It’s just because they have nothing. We’ve had no help, so some see it as the only way to live.”
Faiz, who is 30 and has lived in Israel for seven years, says he has been turned down several times for a work visa.
“My monthly visa says I can stay but I cannot work. But I do – I work hard. I want to eat, I want to live. I live in a room with a partition – one side is mine; the other belongs to a man from Eritrea. It’s full of cockroaches and bugs, but what can I do? I can’t live in a better place because all the owners want a check. I can’t open a bank account here, so I can’t get a check book and I can’t live in a better place. If I did, I would start a family. I want to start a family, but it would be irresponsible to do so without a proper place to live and without making enough money to feed them. If I could open my barbershop in a more legal way, I’d be able to do it all.”
He says if he could study a degree, he would. “But I can’t. I want to! I wish to!”
BUT THE situation is not simple. As in every story, there are two sides. Several former south Tel Aviv residents who still own property in the area tell the Magazine that in the last 10 years, since the African migrants moved in, it has become a slum.
“It’s not safe there. It’s like walking into Harlem in New York,” says a man who identified himself as David.
“I didn’t feel safe bringing my family up there. We relocated to northern Tel Aviv because where we lived was going downhill and fast. It’s dirty and there’s crime. It’s not safe to stop at a red light at night. The buildings are getting dilapidated; they are falling apart because there are too many of the Africans living in them and they’re not taken care of. Yes, they may be refugees, but we cannot take all of them! We just can’t! They must go back… I can’t sell my property, nobody wants to rent it and I won’t rent it to the Africans because they’ll just damage it.”
He says that Israel should take in those who are legitimate refugees, “which is probably less than a third. The rest must go back to where they came from. It’s enough. You walk around south Tel Aviv and you have to check your pockets and watch your bags all the time, make sure no one is trying to take things or steal. It’s unfair.”
David said that if people like the African migrants come into a country illegally, they should at least try to live by the rules and not be destructive.
“You can’t do what you want. You’re a guest in our country. You live by the rules – visa or no visa. We have to protect our sovereignty. No other country in the world allows people to stay illegally.”
Yael, a mom of four who also owns property in south Tel Aviv but moved because of the degradation and dilapidation in the area, says that although she is angry about what’s happened to the area, she doesn’t believe deporting the migrants and asylum seekers is the “absolute answer.”
“Those who are just migrants looking for better economic status or the like must go back – no question. The refugees, however, should stay. We must integrate them and look after them. The rest must leave. They have no business being here. But to throw them out like this doesn’t make Israel look good. The whole situation is a mess… I don’t know what the right thing to do would be.”
SEVERAL TIMES throughout the day, Faiz and Asim offer us something to drink – coffee, tea, Coke. Later they even offer us food. We politely decline but are deeply touched by the hospitality.
They bring chairs for us to sit us and continuously tell us to make ourselves at home.
As the afternoon wears on, a group of teenagers comes to chat. Some are wearing American football and basketball caps with emblems of the New England Patriots and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Dzifa*, a 17-year-old from Ghana, has a slightly different story to tell. Later this year, after he finishes his final year of school, he will enlist in the IDF.
“I was born here, so I have papers, but 16 years ago, when I was one year old, my father, who didn’t have papers, was deported back to Ghana,” he explains. “I haven’t seen him in 16 years and I’m hoping to go back to Ghana this summer to see him before I enlist.”
Dzifa says that he is Christian, but most of his friends are Muslims from Sudan and Eritrea.
“We are close, we all speak Hebrew to each other… most weren’t born here, so unfortunately, once they are 18, they will probably be deported like my father was.”
He says that he is a religious Catholic but in many ways feels Israeli.
“I want to try and get my father back here because I want him to be here for my ceremony when I go into the army. It’s really important to me that he’s here.”
He says that the deportations are “really sad.” “For them, either they live here like a shadow or get sent back to die. It’s terrible.”
A man dressed all in denim walks in – 19-year-old Fikru* from Eritrea. He shakes my hand and we begin to talk. He tells me that at age 14 he managed to get across the border with Beduin caravans. “I came to Israel alone to escape being a child soldier. My father was in the army and he was never allowed to come home and they didn’t give him a salary. My mother was alone with me and all my younger siblings; we were very poor. At age 11, I started working, but it wasn’t enough so a few years later I decided I’d come to Israel and help my family, try and send money back. I walked with some people and we got to the Sinai, that’s when I took the Beduin caravans.”
The Beduin “treated me terribly. I wasn’t allowed to leave for a year and a half. I was beaten. I was taught nothing; all I knew how to say was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Arabic. I slowly started to pick up words. A small Beduin child would sometimes teach me at night.”
Eventually, Fikru escaped the Beduin and managed to make his way to the religious community of Nitzan, near Ashdod, where a woman took him in. “She saw me on the street near Beersheba and kept asking, ‘Where do you live?’ She helped a lot of people.”
He learned Hebrew while living there and says the teachers and people there were kind.
“They taught me a lot of things. They taught me some trades and how to make things so I could make a living. They saw us as people; they didn’t see us being any different from them. They helped me to contact my family back in Eritrea – I was able to tell my mom not to worry, that I was okay.”
Six months later, he made it to south Tel Aviv, where he works as a street vendor.
“I’m broken over the situation. I’m begging them not to make us go back. I want to have a family here one day. Now, like most, I live in a small, broken-down room. I can’t rent a good room because like everyone else has said, you need a checkbook and I can’t get one if I’m not a citizen.”
He added that he’s desperate to learn computer programming at university.
“I hope they change their minds and see that all we want to do is live freely and live in peace,” he says.
As we leave the barbershop, a man dressed all in white, cap backward and jewelry hanging from his neck, greets several migrants sitting on the street. They laugh and chat jovially in Hebrew and as we walk along the street snapping a few pictures, careful not to identify their faces. The area seems to come alive with migrants – meeting at cafés and chatting at store counters, some riding bikes or playing basketball in the streets. For many this is home, but it seems not for much longer. 
*Names have been changed.