Home away from home in Israel

Being black in Israel presents special challenges.

african migrants in tel aviv black 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
african migrants in tel aviv black 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was born in Ghana, a small West African country with almost four times more people than Israel. I came to Israel three months ago for a four-year residency at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in pediatric neurosurgery. My studies here with some of Israel’s best surgeons will give me skills that I couldn’t get in many other places. Every day, I am reminded of how privileged I am to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with world-renowned experts in the field.
But when I leave the protective walls of the institution, out on the streets of Tel Aviv, things are often not very nice.
I have had the good fortune to visit several Western countries, but I have never been more conscious of my blackness than I am in Israel. This is the first country where I was accosted by a uniformed official, on the tarmac as I stepped off the plane, and asked for my ID. I had not even begun to walk toward the arrival hall.
It was a good introduction, because I have found that here, my color influences many of my social interactions. Israel is cosmopolitan, a country of immigrants, a country that opens its arms to development and diversity. But black is not exactly beautiful here.
I have found being black in Israel to be an isolating experience. My color dictates who my friends are, what assumptions people make about me and where I am not expected to be. In Israel, I miss being able to walk into a museum without being stared at like one of the exhibits, or the ability to sit in a fancy restaurant without feeling out of place.
At the bank, a totally flustered young teller who was actually surprised to learn I actually had an account asked me for my passport before even asking my name. When I wanted to help an old lady with her bag she recoiled and hobbled away faster than her joints could actually move. When a friend of mine offered some popcorn to a toddler sitting with his parents in the park, the boy’s mother snapped him away.
Then, just when I have set up all my defences, I meet a local who is so outrageously color-blind and kind, my whole situation gets confused. This keeps happening, so I have had to learn to disregard my feelings about color and keep my heart open for confusion.
In Israel I am illiterate. I cannot read or understand Hebrew. My nanny back at home also can’t read, and I used to wonder why she kept browsing through the newspapers I brought home everyday. Now I understand.
I do the same thing here. Sometimes I have turned the newspaper upside down, and started reading at the end. I have used shampoo as bathing soap, hair conditioner as skin cream and frustrated taxi drivers about addresses. I am learning, but the going is slow. My mind keeps rebelling at writing from right to left! Sometimes I get tired of carrying my passport around, but I have heard stories of people sent to the horrible immigration prison because they weren’t able to answer the question “why are you here?” I am beginning to realize that this is a question that Israeli society asks Israelis on a near-daily basis. I suspect that the effort to answer this question is what makes this country one of the best places in the world for start ups. I have discovered that the quest to matter, to account for something, is a palpable pulse running in the deepest recesses of this society. It is only fair that I should also be asked to answer that question.
Ultimately, that question will be best answered when I leave Israel in four years and return to Ghana to work at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital. There are very few neurosurgeons in Ghana and even fewer pediatric neurosurgeons. My achievements here will help me provide good solutions to the challenges that face my country, and not just in the medical field.
Ghana is a deeply agricultural country. When people hear that I’ve returned from a country where luscious tomatoes grow in what used to be a desert, they likely will listen.
Here in Israel, I have also been a target of generosity.
The friends I have made here have quickly become like family. Family I did not know until I came here, but family nonetheless. The family I’ve found here cares for me and looks out for my well-being, like my biological family in Ghana does. They make sure I have a place to sleep, food to eat and above all the training I came to Israel for. None of my journey so far would be possible without family.
Of course, I miss my family and my home, but I have been blessed to learn about this intriguing country at the same time I develop my skills as a doctor.
May God, who makes all things possible, bless my new-found family in Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Ramat Gan and Ramat Aviv.
The writer is a surgical resident at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.