No work, no food, no prospects
"We sleep on the floor," says 10-year-old Tadela Munges. "Mom on the mattress, we, the brothers, on the cartons. There are blankets, but it's very cold at night."
For the past week 120 Ethiopian immigrants from the Beit Alfa absorption center have been protesting their difficult living conditions in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. There are no bathrooms or showers; their daily diet consists of donated canned food, bread, snacks for the children and bottles of water.
Women complain of headaches as they hold sick infants and children suffering from colds, while beaten, exhausted men continually repeat: "We won't budge from here until a solution is found for us. We have no home to go back to. We want work."
Before Yom Kippur about 200 immigrants demonstrated about financial distress, a lack of access to jobs, hunger and a disdainful attitude on the part of Jewish Agency counselors. The Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency established an investigation committee on the matter, which is supposed to decide in about a week and a half.
"We have come once again to demonstrate, and this time we won't give in," says Vatatu Gamet, 33, who immigrated to Israel nine months ago and is among the initiators of the struggle. "We don't believe the committee that convened. It's not an objective committee, it doesn't include a representative of ours."
"We came to demonstrate because Beit Alfa is not good. We want to leave there," he explained. "We don't have a school, a kindergarten or a day care center nearby in the area. Our children travel in the morning by public transportation. They arrive at school tired. We are situated at the end of the kibbutz. The kibbutz has factories and industry, but nobody is offering us work. We are in a neglected place, with an unpleasant smell, full of snakes and scorpions, and the children are afraid to go out and play. We have crowded one- or two-room apartments for large families. In the summer it's hot and on rainy days water penetrates the houses. The Jewish Agency is offering us housing and suggesting that we add NIS 150,000. From where do we have such sums?"
Gamet was one of seven Ethiopians arrested on Sunday by the police when they attempted to enter the PMO's compound.
"There is no democracy in Israel," he says. "The only message of the police is to beat people up."
It's hard to ignore the presence of the children. About 60 small children wander around in evident poverty and participate in the demonstration with their parents. The parents sit on the sidewalk and stare into space in despair, most of them speaking Amharic and broken Hebrew, saying, "There's no work in Beit Alfa. There's no food."
The children get into mischief, run around, breathe revolution and speak for their parents in Hebrew: "We left Beit Alfa on foot and walked for three hours to Afula, and from there we traveled here by bus," say the children, describing the route they took.
"We have no food. We have no money. We have no work. We want to switch absorption centers," says Katara Attala, 14, waving a cardboard sign composed by him and his friends.
"You know, yesterday the police arrested seven people," adds a boy fearfully. "They beat up my friend's father."
"The police beat people up. The police are not good. Four policemen took an adult and hit him," continues his friend, Atamo Kalata, 13.
And if it rains what will you do?
"We'll open an umbrella and continue the demonstration," he replied, and his little friends nod their heads in agreement. "The prime minister has no ears," says another child defiantly. "We won't leave until they listen to us."
Avi Maspin, spokesman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, who is accompanying the struggle, says: "They're suffering from hunger. A refugee camp has developed here during the past week under the government ministries' nose, and everyone ignores them as though they were transparent."
The Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency said they are calling on the demonstrators to honor the agreement they signed, and wait for the investigation committee's conclusions.
According to the ministry's director general Erez Halfon and the director general of the Jewish Agency Department of Immigration and Absorption Eli Cohen, most of the complaints can be solved.
They added that the best way to solve problems is through dialogue rather than demonstrations, and that the immigrants even accepted most of their demands at the end of their previous demonstration, on the eve of Yom Kippur. In parallel to the committee's work, the immigrants' complaints are handled immediately, they added.