For African migrants in Tel Aviv, confusion and apathy about the rockets

Like their Israeli neighbors, few migrants seek bomb shelters during rocket attacks.

African migrants at Lewinsky Park in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
African migrants at Lewinsky Park in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2014.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
A little over an hour after the second rocket attack at Gush Dan on Thursday, Lewinsky Park in south Tel Aviv didn’t really look like a city under fire. Groups of African men lazed about on the grass underneath the trees, and next to the playground, a group of Israelis and Africans sat in two circles passing around bongs filled with unknown substances, apparently not in a hurry to get anywhere fast.
When asked about the rocket sirens, one Eritrean man said he was more concerned with what is happening with African migrants at the Holot detention center in the Negev.
Another Eritrean man said he had confidence in the effectiveness of the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Only a few dozen meters away from the park sits a bomb shelter and library. A security guard sent to supervise the bomb shelter said only one or two African migrants came in during the air-raid siren, and stayed near the door.
“They’re very apathetic to it, but not just them, the Israelis around here are too,” said Aviv Ronel, 21, sweating through the middle of his 12-hour shift watching the shelter.
The area in and around the park in Neveh Sha’anan seemed particularly detached from the conflict, much like the African migrants who have called it home. For tens of thousands of migrants in the Tel Aviv area, the rockets that have targeted the city in recent days have caused confusion, ambivalence, and in some cases, have brought back trauma from past conflicts they’ve survived, migrants and activists said Thursday.
Tzigi Gibrewhetm, an Eritrean asylum seeker who works for the ASSAF aid organization, said most of the African migrants remember the rocket sirens from Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, and that for some it brings back stress, while for others there’s a feeling of ambivalence.
“Many of them had experience either with hearing sirens here or back home in fighting or in the army, so they’ve been through things before and it’s not a new thing for them,” she said. Gibrewhetm added that many of them don’t have access to bomb shelters and are more worried about friends in the Holot detention center or Saharonim Prison, having heard that in those facilities they have no access to protection.
Sivan Weizman of the Prisons Service said Thursday that despite reports to the contrary, there is a large safe room inside every cellblock at Holot and Saharonim, and sirens sound alongside announcements warning of rockets in Tigrinya and English. She added that the Home Front Command messages have been translated and posted throughout the facilities in both languages and in Arabic.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean- Swedish human rights activist who runs a Tigrinya online radio station in Sweden, said on Thursday she did a show about rocket safety and how to stay safe during the current escalation, both for callers from Israel and for relatives of Eritreans in Israel who listen to the show from North America or elsewhere.
Ambivalence among African migrants is not too different from the feelings of Israelis in Neveh Sha’anan and elsewhere in south Tel Aviv.
Asher, a grocery store owner on the Neveh Sha’anan pedestrian walkway, said he didn’t seek shelter during any of the sirens, not only because he didn’t fear the rockets, but also because of shoplifters.
“If I leave here for five minutes, I’ll come back and I won’t have a store left,” he said.
At a Chinese restaurant a few doors down, two Israeli men said they felt a general apathy toward the rocket fire in Tel Aviv.
Ricky Baker, 41, said when sirens were heard in the Florentin neighborhood, “people sat in the cafe and waited to see it shot down in the sky.”
He added that one person was hurt “when he spilled his espresso on his knee.” Baker added that the moment one of the rockets actually lands in Tel Aviv and does damage, it would be a different story.
Eating a plate of duck-stuffed dumplings and noodles, Baker’s friend Shai Yochai, 40, said the mood among the African migrants is mirrored across most of the city.
“Everything they say, all the cliches about Tel Avivians and their apathy, it’s all true. You’re seeing it right now.”