'We are slaves of hope'
The entrance to the refugee shelter on Levanda Street in Tel Aviv is at the back of the building, via a muddy path full of junk overlooking the Ayalon Freeway. Dozens of people stand at the entrance, trying to get some air. The shelter now houses 170 people under extremely overcrowded conditions.
Inside, the stench hits immediately. The small, windowless hall is dim and the air is close. The floor is lined with mattresses, tattered blankets and endless piles of donated clothing. The smells of cooking emanate from a rudimentary kitchen, despite the dangers of operating an electrical appliance in such conditions.
In side rooms, shelving units serve as bunk beds and clothing as blankets. The showers are flooded with muddy water and a single toilet serves all the "residents."
This is one of the shelters housing asylum-seekers, who fled to Israel from war and oppression in Africa. Another shelter is nearby, and because of the demand, a third is to open today, near the central bus station.
"The new shelter will house about 80 refugees and it is much better," Yohannes Lemma Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), said.
About 1,000 asylum-seekers have infiltrated into Israel over the past two years, mostly via Egypt. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel has granted some of them refugee status, which gives them the right to residency visas and work permits from the Interior Ministry. More than 300 are now in ARDC shelters in Tel Aviv.
Bayu, a refugee himself, came to Israel 10 years ago from Ethiopia. About five months ago, the ARDC began to assist the refugees and asylum-seekers. Bayu said they found many sleeping in the streets. "We can't give them three meals a day and they are often hungry. No one cares about them. I am surprised the Israeli government doesn't intervene and help them. You of all people, the Jews, with your bitter experience, should not have this in your country," he said.
Lema added they survive on contributions from individuals and organizations, such as the New Israel Fund. "But it is not enough."
Asylum-seekers can wait months before their status is arranged by the UN and the Interior Ministry. "They are afraid to go out because of the Immigration Police and have no money because they can't work. They are afraid, and are suffering from depression and trauma," Lema said."
A lone woman
The shelter on Levanda Street houses Africans from Eritrea, a dictatorial regime on the brink of renewed fighting with Ethiopia; the Darfur region of Sudan, where genocide is taking place; and the Ivory Coast, where a civil war just ended. Tense silence reigns in the shelter - each ethnic group living in a different space in the building.
D., 34, sits on a mattresses, her eyes full of tears. She is the only woman in the shelter, where she has been staying for the past 10 days. Three years ago she fled Eritrea with her husband. Her children stayed with her parents. "They are safe in the meantime," she says. "I don't dare shower or change clothes. There's no privacy here; it's uncomfortable for a woman. We haven't gotten a work visa and we don't know what will become of us."
K., 27, from Darfur, has been at the shelter for 15 days, and had no difficulty getting temporary residency and a work visa. "True I'm hungry sometimes and it's hard to sleep under these conditions. I work at Kfar Hamaccabiah and clean houses," he says. "After what I've been through, I say thank you for the roof over my head and the chance to work," he says.
Outside another shelter, on Matalon Street, dozens of men had escaped from the suffocating air in the crowded basement interior. Among them are 20 women. Seven are living on one tiny room. N., mother of a two-year-old, is pregnant. Her leg is bandaged. "I was hurt when I jumped over a barbed-wire fence between Egypt and Israel," she said. She has been here a week, having left her husband behind in Eritrea.
"Every day more refugees come," said Gila Israel, who coordinates volunteer work with the refugees for Hanoar Ha'oved Vehalomed youth movement. Israel said they want to open an ulpan for some 40 children ages 13-17 who came here without their parents. "We have 15 kids signed up, because the others have to work."
G., who had been a chemistry student in Eritrea before he was arrested there, has been living at the shelter for four months.
"As a student, I was thrown into jail and tortured." He says that after arriving in Israel he was placed in an army camp under reasonable conditions. "A month later they threw us in the middle of the road in the Negev."
Since coming to the shelter, G. has been helping other refugees, and is active in the ARDC. "It's important to tell the Israelis that we are not here out of choice. We want you to help us help ourselves," he says.
"My friends are finishing university and I am living here as a refugee," G. says. "I used to have plans, now I don't know what tomorrow will bring. We are slaves of hope, slaves of a dream," he adds.
The Tel Aviv Municipality said in response that asylum-seekers are a national problem, but the city is caring for their needs in "health, education and food," and that next year the budget for this population will be doubled "and we will aspire to better results to solve at least some of the problems raised in the article."