Following a recent wave of violent crime in Tel Aviv, tensions between African asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv and their Israeli neighbors have deteriorated considerably.
The arrests of Eritrean asylum seekers in connection with two highly publicized rape cases, along with aggressive statements by Israeli politicians, have made an already tense situation especially volatile.
In an attempt to defuse the tension, a number of African asylum seekers have written open "letters to the Israeli people," with the help of Mesila, an aid center for foreign workers and refugees run by the Tel Aviv municipality. In the letters, the asylum seekers seek to tell their stories in their own words, while attempting to disassociate their community from acts of crime and violence.
"I have two kids and a beautiful wife whom I love," wrote Koneeh Vayabatee, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Liberia who has lived in Israel for the past decade, in one letter. "I wouldn't let anyone harm her or them, or anyone else's children in this country. I empathize with the victim of the rape, and her family."
"I, personally, know what rape is. I have experienced it, because women in my family were raped during the years of massacre in Liberia. I am too shy to write or talk in the media, but my conscience tells me that now is the time to speak out," he wrote.
Vayabatee is from the Mandingo ethnic group, which he said are known as "the Jews of Liberia." The group has a reputation for being hard workers and social climbers, and has been persecuted and massacred.
"After the massacre and the expulsion, they took our land. I came to Israel and asked to be recognized as a refugee, and to this day I am here conditionally, and the request is still being processed," he said.
He added that while he is grateful to Israel for granting protection to refugees, he wishes the authorities would refrain from casting aspersion on the entire community for the crimes of a few.
"In recent weeks, we have heard harsh words that frightened the public. We were called criminals and infiltrators," wrote Ghebrehiwot Tekle in a separate letter. Tekle is the head of the community of Eritrean refugees living in Israel. "It's important to say that rape is not a part of our culture, and is still rare within the community."
"What can you expect from the Eritrean community, which numbers 35,000 people – almost the size of a city – when all of its people are oppressed, out of work and lacking official status, whose lives are difficult? People who suffered harsh torture in Sinai, were forced to flee their country, who come here with psychological problems and don't receive treatment."
He also noted that many of the infiltrators and asylum seekers have difficulty understanding the cultural differences between Africa and Israel. "There are no representatives of the police to explain what is legal and what is illegal," he wrote.
Maharaldin Adam, an asylum seeker from Darfur who has lived in Israel for five years, has had a hard time absorbing all of the insults that have been hurled at him in recent months.
"We came here looking for protection and recognition, but I don't feel that here at all. When I walk down the street, when I take the bus, I get called names. Every look tells me that I am not wanted, that I'm a threat."
"It comes from above, from the government. It trickles down to the media, and from there to the people. They call us labor migrants, but we did not come here for work, but for personal security," he added.
In Adam's eyes, the Darfuris and the Jewish people share a similar fate. "We are walking on the same path of hatred, attempting to live with dignity and raise our children properly."
In his letter, he asks that the State of Israel stop evading its responsibilities toward the refugees.