Israel's New Shut-ins: Migrants Afraid to Leave Home

Illegal migrants in Tel Aviv rely on activist groups for food. Increasingly desperate, some are even asking welfare authorities to take care of their children.

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Four Sudanese quickly gathered up the things brought them by Levinsky Soup, a group of activists who provide hot meals to migrants. There were two large sacks of rice, fresh bread, vegetables and fruit, canned goods, disposable utensils, a large cooking pot and an electric hotplate, as well as a few mattresses. Within a few minutes the four of them - two adults in their 20s and two boys of 14 or 15 - disappeared into a building in one of the cities in Gush Dan, where seven families were waiting for them.

The food was supposed to last for a few days, until the next delivery. Even if they do not actually suffer from hunger, as in some of the African countries, many migrants do not know if and what they will eat tomorrow. In some cases the distress and the despair have become so great that a number of such families have recently turned to welfare authorities in Tel Aviv and have asked them to take their children.

Most of the families in question are from South Sudan. The parents hardly go out into the streets, for fear they will be caught and deported. This is also why they do not come the central bus station in Tel Aviv, where Levinsky Soup, established some seven months ago, does most of its work.

According to one welfare services source, the requests are "to take the children for a week or two and sometimes also for a longer period." Another welfare worker notes these are families "that aren't managing to see to food for the children. The families have no money because the parents cannot work and their savings, if any, are being used to pay rent. The parents are simply asking us to take the children under our care and send them to boarding facilities or somewhere else. They want their children to be safe, at least in the meantime."

A third source confirms that migrant families have indeed applied with such requests but noted that the background isn't "hunger, in the sense of malnutrition like in Somalia, but rather the lack of nutritional security. The desire to hand over the children is not only because of this, but rather is part of the personal distress they are experiencing."

"The situation in which a parent is able even to consider separation from his children so they will get food is terrible and extreme. This is the situation to which government, with the help of the public's silence, has brought some of the refugees," says Yigal Shtayim, one of the founders of Levinsky Soup. "There are parents who are asking themselves which is preferable: to suffer from hunger together with their children or to give them to other people. The parents are hungrier than the children because they have denied themselves food, limited their intake. They don't have anything more to save."

Fear of immigration authorities

Some Sudanese parents in this predicament recently approached the Mesila Aid and Information Center for Migrant Workers and Refugees, a nonprofit operating under the auspices of the Tel Aviv municipality. Though the organization does sometimes deal with removing children from families of refugees and migrants, this is only in cases of injury and abuse - not because of economic distress or a shortage of food, as the families were describing. Mesila staff did not know what to do about the requests, and contacted the Levinsky Soup activists in the hope they would be able to help.

At 9:30 P.M. on a recent Tuesday, after another shift at Levinsky Soup at the central bus station, Shtayim and fellow activists Orly Feldheim and Lior Levy packed up the little food that remained from the distribution, stopped along the way to get some more to cram into the car, tied mattresses onto the roof of a second vehicle and set out to meet the migrants. Fear of the immigration authorities is so great that the meeting took place on a side street and not at the families' apartment.

'A place of death'

D. says he arrived in Israel from South Sudan five years ago. He is in his 20s, married and the father of a son who is a few months old. In an apartment in the center of the country, where they came after leaving Tel Aviv a few months ago, D.'s family is now living crowded together with six more migrant families - all with children of various ages. In an earlier conversation, D. had asked for mattresses because there are not enough beds. In recent months, he relates, the young children have not been examined by a doctor. One tenant is in her eight month of pregnancy.

After the group took the things from the activist, a Sudanese teenager asks for powdered milk. Fresh milk gets used up very quickly and they prefer, insofar as possible, to avoid going out to the street. The powder, he explains, lasts a long time.

"You (the Israelis ) don't understand that South Sudan is a place full of death. I don't want to go back there now. Maybe in the future, when the situation there stabilizes," says D. He keeps using the phrase, "a place full of death," about the country that received its independence just over a year ago.

According to him, the seven families shut themselves into apartment during the day and try to go out only in the evening.

"In the meantime the neighbors are fine," D. says, "but I don't know how long we will be able to be here. We don't always have anything to eat. There are days when we go hungry. We are trying to manage. Each day is a new struggle." Of the possibility his family will be caught and possibly imprisoned for a certain period, he smiles and says: "In a case like that, at least we won't have to worry about food."

Meanwhile, in a makeshift clinic in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, Physicians for Human Rights members are increasingly treating migrants who are "hungry, asking for a little bit of money and a place to sleep," says the medical director of the clinic, Dr. Ido Lurie. "These are refugees mainly from Sudan and Eritrea. They come into the clinic because of medical problems, but the background of social problems like housing, food, access to medications and to medical services, is very salient."

Waiting patiently

Levinsky Soup operates seven days a week, and every evening the activists distribute about 500 meals. The menu changes, depending on the donations obtained each day and the dishes volunteers have cooked at home.

On this particular day the meals consisted of a small portion of rice with meat, bread and a few vegetables. Dessert was fruit and a slice of bread with chocolate. At 7:30 P.M. the volunteers began preparing the tables. Within minutes, there was a long line of scores of migrants from Africa, along with a few veteran Israelis. Everyone waited patiently. In turn, each person took a disposable bowl and sat down on the unkempt grass. According to some of the migrants, this is their only meal that day.

A simple calculation shows that since the start of the soup kitchen's activity, about 100,000 meals have been distributed here. Without Levinsky Soup it's possible that some migrants would be walking around with the swollen belly of malnutrition.

In the meantime, the project led by the Interior Ministry for deportation back to South Sudan is in full swing. So far some seven flights have taken off, the last one carrying 70 adults and 30 children. So far about 1,000 migrants from South Sudan have been deported, out of a total of about 1,500.

Migrant children eating in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik



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