The Twilight Zone / The lost boys of Levinsky
Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid made it out of Darfur all the way to Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, but as long as the state uses scare tactics to make sure he can't find work, he'll have to continue sleeping under a slide and begging for food.
The sun has already risen over Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, the home of Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid-Fata-al-Rahman but he is still shivering from the cold. It's been a week since his last shower, at Saharonim Prison.
It's been nearly a whole day since he had anything to eat - since the last meal of leftovers brought to him yesterday at noontime by refugees from Eritrea who had been celebrating a wedding.
He spent the night, like the seven before it, under the colorful children's slide. A thin and tattered blanket he received from one of the aid organizations did not do the trick against the cold.
Nor did the clothes he was wearing, the same he had on when he set out about a month ago from his home in Darfur, Sudan. His shoes did not even complete that journey. They were confiscated from him by Bedouin in Sinai, who ordered him to remove them so he could run more easily from the Egyptian soldiers.
Now Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid is wearing the rubber flip-flops he was given at the prison in Israel. He is desperate. Only twice during the day we spent with him this week did he show any sparks of life: The first time was when he managed to read the sign saying Hayarkon Street in Arabic and the second was after the meeting at Assaf: The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, where he received explanations of his meager rights, and was able, on his return to the park, a de facto community center for refugees, to serve for a moment as a guide for the asylum seekers gathered there.
At Assaf, a wonderful but impecunious aid organization that helps hundreds of asylum seekers, they also promised him they would try to find him a place to shower, but by nightfall no shower had been found and Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid again settled in for the night, a carton for his bed and the slide for a roof over his head.
It is a bit after 7:00 in the morning, and the line is getting longer for the amazingly clean and orderly toilets at the corner of Levinsky Park, where it slopes down to the old Tel Aviv central bus station. The toilets are closed at night and now the Africans are standing in line for the two tiny stalls above which an Israeli flag - also tiny - flies.
The adjacent building has a sign reading "Etz Chaim [Tree of Life]: the Synagogue for the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus in Israel."
The park is clean and well-tended, certainly taking into account that it serves as a nighttime hideaway for so many people - asylum seekers - especially during their first days in the metropolis.
The line of people standing and waiting for a day's work in what is bitterly referred to by some as the "slave market" at the edge of the park has also grown longer, but not a single car has stopped. In the past few days, since the passage of the "infiltrators law," which threatens to throw these unfortunates into prison for three years without trial and to incarcerate anyone who employs them for up to 15 years - if their workers were involved in terror or drug smuggling, something rare but sufficient to terrify potential Israeli employers - no one has come.
The sign says: "Dear Visitor, at this site it is prohibited to let dogs roam unleashed, to hold private events and to light fires."
A night's sleep is not considered a private event. Next to the water fountains, which in a pinch serve as a shower here, sprawls an African absorbed in reading a book in English, "Peace with God."
Noa Kaufman, of Kav LaOved - Workers Hotline, is making the rounds of the people clustered in the park. They cluster around her. Some of them ride for hours on the swings intended for children.
"Go back to Africa," shouts a passerby with a heavy Russian accent. Graffiti on a nearby wall, accompanied by a Star of David, reads, "We have come to expel the darkness," words from a Hanukkah song. Scores of Sudanese and Eritreans sprawl basking in the sun with nothing to do.
Sundae Dean, who comes from Southern Sudan, has been in Israel for six years and is now a student of political science at Tel Aviv University, a rare success story with a Blackberry in his hand and patent leather shoes on his feet. Dean serves as our translator to Sudanese Arabic.
Refugees need not apply
Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid, 31, was born in Jebel Marra in Darfur, one of nine children in his family. He completed high school and dreamed of becoming a journalist, but when the war broke out and the poverty and hunger spread, he decided to flee. When he heard about Israel, "a good place, a democracy where there are good people and work," as he says, he decided to try his luck.
He saved the money for the trip, $1,500, from three years of work mining gold.
On December 18, about a month ago, he bid farewell to his parents and his siblings and traveled to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. In Khartoum he received a visa for Egypt and bought a plane ticket to Cairo. On December 24 he flew to Cairo, slept three nights in a storeroom and hooked up with Bedouin who promised to take him to the Israeli border, in return for a lot of money.
There were 13 Sudanese who set out on the way. The Bedouin abuse many African labor migrants but not the Sudanese, who speak their language. Late at night, the migrants crossed the border, and, after trying to evade capture for several hours, they were detained by Israel Defense Forces soldiers.
They were taken to a military base and from there to Saharonim Prison, where they spent 13 days.
Finally they were released and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv and a four-month residency permit. On it is stamped: "This temporary license does not constitute a work permit."
Daniel Sher, the border control supervisor, wrote in the permit: "I have decided to release the bearer under the following conditions: He will cooperate fully with the state authorities for the issuance of a travel document for leaving Israel or for enabling temporary residence in Israel, as decided."
Israel allows his entry and is prohibited from deporting him, since he is an asylum-seeker, but it does not allow him and tens-of-thousands of people like him to work here. However, according to a bulletin issued last month by a number of refugee aid organizations, the state explicitly told the High Court of Justice it would not enforce the prohibition on work and employment until the construction of "the holding facility for infiltrators from across the Egyptian border."
According to the document, which the organizations distribute to the many employment seekers who apply to them so they can show it to potential employers, as of the date of its publication, asylum-seekers in Israel are entitled to work at any job, anywhere in the country, and there is no need for a permit to employ them.
But to no avail: The explicit stamp prohibiting them from working, which appears in the permit, and the incitement and scare campaigns, serve to deter many employers from hiring them.
Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid set out for the big city last week along with another 105 labor migrants who were released from the prison that same day. At the beginning of last week he still had $100 in his pocket, the remnants of his savings, but the money ran out immediately after he used it to buy food for himself and others.
At the moment, all he has in his pocket are his passport, his Sudanese identity card, the Israeli residence permit, a plastic card issued by a Sudanese human rights organization and a slip of paper with the phone numbers of his family in Darfur, whom he has called only once since he left his village. At that time he told them there is no work in Israel and that he was in despair.
"Maybe you'll try to get to America, Canada or Australia," said his mother, trying to encourage him from Jebel Marra. All his attempts to find work, if only for a day, have failed.
In the rain he huddles into a sheet of plastic, in the cold he wraps himself into the tattered woolen blanket. None of the Sudanese who have already found a job and lodging have invited him to stay with them in their apartment. Not even to take a shower.
He is convinced that if he spoke English or Hebrew he would already have succeeded in finding work. During the day, as we made the rounds of restaurants, cafes and construction sites, it was evident that he was embarrassed to apply to employers, in part because of the language barrier.
The transition from the meager refugee park to the fashionable Tel Aviv Port, reached via a Number 4 bus, was swift and sharp. Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid went into the Castro fashion store, which has a sign advertising a "Final Sale, Last Opportunity" in its show window, and gazed silently at the stacks of clothing, at the sweaters and the jackets. He did not dare touch anything. Then he went out and inquired at several places if here was any work.
At one cafe he asked "shuroul?" - "work" in Arabic. And the sales clerk thought he was asking about chocolate. At a well-known fish restaurant - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres ate here once, and their photos are on the wall - they do in fact need workers, but not ones that have that stamp in their permit.
"Come after 5:30, Ovadiah the boss will be here and we'll see," one person says. But at 5:30 Ovadiah too explained to Ishaq-Muhammad-Sayid that he would not hire him, because of the stamp.
Maybe only on Saturdays, he finally conceded, because there aren't any policemen then. The page of explanations and the page of information from the aid organizations were of no help. Nor was the intervention of Haaretz welfare correspondent Dana Weiler-Polak, who accompanied us for the whole day and told the people at the restaurant to take the identifying details of any policemen who violate the state's commitment to the High Court of Justice.
We sit down for a meal, and Ishaq-Muhamad-Sayid is quiet as a fish. Afterwards, he goes out and stands, leaning on the railing of the pier, looking out sadly over the stormy sea, still silent. Toward evening he returns to his park, wraps himself in his blanket and goes to sleep under the slide - like yesterday, like the day before yesterday, like tomorrow.