Nataniel Furgang takes one long look at the glowing, cherubic black and Asian faces that are wholly immersed in their Taki card games and coloring books.
The image of children frolicking on a slab of concrete sandwiched between two bookshelves under a canopy in the heart of hardscrabble south Tel Aviv seems surreal. Then again, nothing about the lives of the migrant workers and refugees who gravitate toward Levinsky Garden is ordinary or predictable.
The Garden Library for Migrant Workers, which offers a collection of books in 16 languages for foreigners who have migrated to the country from locales as far off as South America and Nepal, is in danger of closing. Furgang, who himself immigrated to Israel nine years ago from his native Peru, can’t help but feel a sense of dread at the prospect that this tiny cultural cocoon may soon shut its doors.
“This library offers a different framework, an enriching one for people who live here in this area,” says Furgang, who is an aspiring filmmaker.
“When people think about migrant workers and refugees, they immediately think that we need to help them with food. Here we are taking it a step further. People also need culture, leisure activities and recreation, something with which they could live so that their lives are not confined to work, food and sleep."
“Life is also reading a book, seeing a movie, going to events and parties,” he says. “This library tries to give them some kind of a ‘plus.’”
Furgang watches as a camera crew from a children’s cable television network shoots footage of the kids fraternizing on one of two gray desks that serve the library’s patrons as they alternate between coloring books and games of Rummikub. Youth affords them the advantage of not having to concern themselves with mundane matters like the prohibitive insurance costs that threaten to sink the library.
“The volunteers who come here need to be insured and so do the children who come to the library,” Furgang says as the children ham it up for the cameras. “Because this is an open-air library with a lot of people around, a lot of children and elderly, the high cost of insuring them and providing some guarantee in the event that somebody falls or is injured on the premises has proven quite costly.”
The library opened with a great deal of fanfare over two years ago, with Mayor Ron Huldai presiding over the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The municipality even provided some of the funding to launch the project.
However, with local residents in south Tel Aviv pressuring the mayor and the government to crack down on services for migrants and refugees and with anti-migrant and anti-foreigner sentiment on the rise, library supporters say the municipality is not committing the money it had promised to keep the initiative afloat.
“We were always hopeful that the municipality or the government or some other cultural body or agency would recognize us as an official entity,” says Lior Waterman, a member of the library’s founding group of artists.
“That would have enabled us to receive support just like any other municipal, cultural institution. When we started this project, we believed that because we had a large number of people here as volunteers and a large number of visitors, it would be proper if the city or state that is host to so many migrant workers would also take care to provide a minimum of welfare and cultural services.
“We tried to persuade the authorities and we were very close to doing this,” Waterman says.
“But in the last 18 months, given the uncertain atmosphere that has taken hold as well as the wave of nationalist legislation, the municipality’s policies have also turned by 180 degrees so I’m pretty skeptical about it. We received rock-solid promises from the municipality that it would give aid, and it could still happen, but we still haven’t seen the money.”
In response, a municipality spokesperson told Metro: “The municipality encourages and supports the library’s activities and has aided in the soliciting of contributions from donors as well as provided logistical support and professional know-how to the library director.
The issue of financial support for the library will be discussed as part of the deliberations on the 2012 budget and it will be positively considered. It should be noted that the municipality approved an allotment totaling NIS 6,000 for the purchasing of books, but a list of the requested books has yet to be handed over to the municipality.”
The municipality also rejects the charge that it has failed to provide sufficient support for cultural and recreational activities for migrants.
“There are a number of community centers in the region, including the Shapira neighborhood, Kiryat Shalom and another center is due to be built in Florentin,” the spokesperson said. “These centers are open to the migrant community, which has consistently enjoyed the services that are offered to them there.”
According to Waterman the library serves 300 members and an estimated 100 to 150 children who patronize it on a weekly basis. The success and popularity of the library give its organizers hope that it will continue to endure.
“I’m optimistic,” Furgang says. “I don’t think it will close. We have created a connection with all of these children and it is so deep and genuine that it gives the sense that we will find a way to get by.
“The children will continue to come here, but they won’t have this safe spot that we are trying to provide them if the library does close,” Furgang says.
“Not only is it safe but it’s also creative and cultural, whatever you want to call it. From my standpoint, it’s a matter of the way in which people are treated. The closure of the library will just be another sign that the State of Israel doesn’t want them [migrants] here. This is just another blow.”
“I think this tiny library is probably the only institution in the country that provides these people with some sort of cultural framework,” says Waterman.
“There are numerous non-government organizations who offer legal advice and socio-economic services, but there is a huge lack of cultural activity. “People now take us for granted in the community because we’ve been an integral part of the neighborhood for over two years now,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”