Migrants Find a Home Away From Home on Israel’s Sports Fields

WATCH: Eritrean soccer players, Filipino volleyball players and Sri Lankan cricketers use sports to make a place for themselves in a country that has not always welcomed them with open arms.

For six days, they are indoors and invisible: washing dishes in restaurant kitchens, cleaning bathrooms, caring for the elderly and handicapped in cramped apartments.

But on Saturdays, they come outside to play.

Migrant workers can be found on courts and fields in the Tel Aviv area every Saturday, playing the games they learned to love as children in their home countries. For these migrants, sports offer a bit of respite from their often mundane, claustrophobic working lives. And the leagues that they have formed provide a sense of security in a country that has not always welcomed them with open arms.

On several recent Saturdays, Haaretz spent time with three groups of weekend warriors: Eritrean footballers, Filipino volleyball players and Sri Lankan cricketers.

Part soccer league, part support group

“Soccer is like an addiction for me,” says Filimone Tesfa, one of about 40 Eritrean migrants who play regularly in Levinsky Park, across the street from the central bus station. The players, all of them young men who arrived in Israel alone, say they have found a support network in the informal Eritrean soccer league.

“We're like a family, helping each other if there's a problem,” says Tesfa, who works as an electrician and has lived in Israel for five years. “It's like a kibbutz.”

Several months ago, when the league had more than 80 members, the Eritreans played at the Maccabi training grounds in Kiryat Shalom. But the security guard who surreptitiously let them in kept raising his fee, so they had to find another spot to play. The cement court in Levinsky Park is not ideal – several people have fallen and injured themselves, Tesfa says, and the branches of a nearby tree are filled with errant balls – but the diehards still show up.

Dani Kahsay was among those working up a sweat and shouting instructions in Tigrinya to his teammates on a recent Saturday morning. “I grew up playing soccer,” says the 27-year-old, who works in the kitchen of a Tel Aviv restaurant. “It reminds me of home.”

Oshrat Hochman of the Center for Immigration and Social Integration at the Ruppin Academic Center says playing sports together helps the migrants maintain a sense of who they are. “These kinds of leagues allow them to preserve their connections to the places they arrived from, whether they wish to return or not, and to establish a sense of a positive self-identity,” Hochman says.

Sports also help the young men stay out of trouble. “If we didn’t play soccer, we might get into other things,” says 20-year-old Samara Kubro, who has a fierce dragon tattoo on his arm. “There’s a lot of balagan [mess] in this neighborhood.”

A short while later, sirens pierce the air and paramedics jump out of an ambulance to treat an elderly Eritrean man, the apparent victim of stabbing, lying in the street nearby. As police officers scour the park in search of suspects, the soccer players shrug off the violence – “This is what happens when they don’t let us work,” one says, referring to the government’s refusal to grant work permits to Eritrean asylum seekers – and continue with their game.

Volleyball as respite

In contrast to the Eritrean soccer league, the Filipino volleyball league is much more formal, with coaches, managers and team uniforms. This summer, eight women’s teams and four men’s teams are competing in a tournament organized under the auspices of the Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel, whose mission is to nurture ties among the 30,000 Filipino migrant workers in Israel.

The majority of the migrants work as live-in caregivers and receive just 24 hours off each week, which makes leisure time that much more precious. It also makes scheduling games and practices at several courts around the city a bit tricky.

“We have 13 people on the team because sometimes we don’t know if someone’s not going to be available,” says Gina Cayubit, captain of the Candelarians women’s team. “Of course, the priority is our job.”

Like many of her teammates, Cayubit left family behind in the Philippines when she moved to Israel. She says she stays in touch with her four children “by Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Viber, every communication that I can use.” Yet even with the help of modern technology, Filipino caregivers still suffer from homesickness and boredom, according to Philippines Ambassador to Israel Generoso D.G. Calonge.

“I’ve noticed that there has been a slowly creeping number of individuals who are depressed because they spend six days within four walls,” Calonge says, adding that sports “give them some joy in their lives, at least for the moment.”

After a Saturday evening practice in Hayarkon Park, players from the Tarlakenyos women’s team gave several reasons for joining the team: They get to see their friends and gossip in their native Tagalog, they develop their volleyball skills, they raise money for causes back in the Philippines and they get much-needed exercise.

“We play not for others, we play for ourselves,” says team member Rhean Umali, 32, who started playing volleyball in the Philippines at age 14. “It allows us to express ourselves, inside and out.”

Cricket in the Levant

It’s just after 8 A.M. on a recent Saturday, and the members of the Sri Lanka Tel Aviv cricket team – one of three all-Sri Lankan teams in the Israel Cricket Association – are gathering on the sidewalk outside of an apartment in south Tel Aviv. Once the bleary-eyed stragglers have arrived, the men pile into a battered van with their gear and drive 20 minutes south to Lod. Today, they will face off against the Super Lions, a team of Indian-Israelis considered to be the best in the league.

“Many people in Israel don’t know about this game,” explains Suranga Hettiarachchi, who has worked in Israel for the last three years after stints in South Korea and Iraq. For Hettiarachchi and his teammates, all of whom are caregivers, cricket is a lifeline.

“As a Sri Lankan, this is a very good opportunity to find new friends,” says 26-year-old Anurabha Kiribathgodage Don, who recently joined the team. “If the guys have some money problems or need to find a job, we help them,” adds Nuwan “Sadun” Priyalal, the 28-year-old team captain.

Priyalal cares for a wheelchair-bound man in Haifa and spends his time off in Tel Aviv with his girlfriend. He says his job is stressful because his employer is entirely dependent upon him. “I help him with everything, since there’s nobody for him in Israel,” he says. “I’m like a son for him.”

While Priyalal’s employer encourages him to play cricket as a way to release his stress, others say their employers do not approve of their hobby. “One time I sprained my ankle and couldn’t work; that’s why my employer doesn’t like it,” says Aloka Alexander, who looks after a 90-year-old blind man in Bat Yam. “Now I play not as hard.”

Damith Rathnayake, 32, says that the family of the handicapped man he cares for in Holon takes an active interest in his cricket career. “When I go back on Sunday they ask, ‘Damith, what happened yesterday?’ Many games we won, so they say in Hebrew, ‘Mazal tov!’ It makes me happy.”

The match begins. Sri Lanka Tel Aviv bats first, notching 139 runs, including three six-runs (in which the ball is hit beyond the boundary) by Priyalal. During the break between innings, the players eat traditional Sri Lankan food – string hoppers (rice noodles), pol sambola (a grated coconut dish) and chicken curry – and chat excitedly in their local tongue, Sinhala.

Despite the intense heat and uneven patches in the field, the team holds the Super Lions to 123 runs and pulls out a surprise victory. They have since won two more matches, for a record of 5-1. But winning is beside the point, the players say.

“If we win or lose, it doesn’t matter,” says Dilip Pathirathna, who cares for a former Israel Defense Forces soldier wounded in battle. “When we get together, we are talking to each other and everything is fine. We have a change of mind and body.”

Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-on
Daniel Bar-On