After 12 years and a respectable career in Israeli soccer, Paty Yeye Lenkebe – know to local fans as YeYe Paty – is about to lose the life he built here.
It follows the decision by Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority in October to suspend a policy in place since 2001, which protected citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from being deported.
As of January 5, any Congolese citizen in Israel without a visa, or not in the process of obtaining a visa, must leave the country or face the consequences for living here illegally.
“I’ve been here for 12 years, my whole life is in Israel. I have nothing anymore in Congo. I can’t go back there; I’ll be killed,” says Lenkebe, whose contract with second tier side Maccabi Ahi Nazareth ended this summer, leaving him unemployed at age 36.
- Asylum seeker turned TV star: 'It’s as if Israelis forgot what they went through'
- UN refugee agency concerned by Israeli plan to deport Congolese, warns Ebola and violence await
- Netanyahu: Israel will keep deporting 'infiltrators', Eritrea-Ethiopia peace treaty will help accelerate expulsion
“People who go back to Congo disappear. It’s certain death,” says Lenkebe, whose career in Israel also encompassed spells for Maccabi Herzliya, Bnei Sakhnin and FC Ashdod. “The situation there is so bad that there’s reverse migration from the cities to the countryside. In the city, they can monitor you and follow you. It’s harder for them to do that in the villages,” he says.
Lenkebe came to Israel in 2006 and proceeded to spend the bulk of his professional career here. Though he didn’t play for any of the big clubs and didn’t win a major title, he is still well-known among Israeli soccer fans and is one of the foreign players who has really connected with Israeli society in his time here.
For years, he was one of the most reliable defenders in Israeli soccer, and at times was even eyed by top clubs Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv.
In 2017, Lenkebe – who lives in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv – was part of the Team for Social Responsibility, a project aimed at combating racism in Israeli soccer. This is something he cares deeply about and has spoken about in the media on more than one occasion. He has lived and worked with Jews and Arabs, from Herzliya to Nazareth and from Ashdod to Sakhnin.
His wife left Israel after her visa expired and now lives in Belgium. Asked why he doesn’t move there, he says he cannot get a Belgian visa, for reasons similar to those in Israel.
“I have no idea where the rest of my family is, I haven’t been in touch with half of them for years,” Lenkebe says. “I want to build my family here in Israel with my wife. She also wants to live here. This is my place in the world. This is my home. I have nowhere else.”
An inherited civil war
For close to 20 years now, DR Congo, the fourth-largest nation in Africa with a population of some 84 million, has been in a state of chaos. Since 2001, the country has been headed by Joseph Kabila, who inherited the throne from his father along with one of the world’s most savage civil wars. “We’re waiting to see what happens in the next election,” says Lenkebe. “If Kabila wins, it will be a disaster for Congo.”
One reason for its many wars is that DR Congo is rich in valuable resources: copper, diamonds and cobalt (the material from which smartphones are made). Combine that with a war culture fomented by various militias for decades, regional tribal conflicts, a government that doesn’t intervene but profits from the battles and quarries, and it all adds up to one of the toughest places on Earth.
The country’s soccer stadiums have actually become one of the last places where criticism of the regime can be voiced. Earlier this month, the return match of the CAF Confederation Cup Final was held between Raja Casablanca and AS Vita, one of DR Congo’s biggest clubs, at Stade des Martyrs in the capital, Kinshasa. (Lenkebe played for AS Vita before moving to Maccabi Herzliya in 2006.)
The venue was packed with 75,000 fans, whose singing and chanting created an electrifying atmosphere – a stark contrast to the situation outside the ground.
Much of this chanting was directed against Kabila, with tensions mounting ahead of the presidential election later this month. Kabila initially said he wouldn’t run, but recently changed his mind and announced he would run again.
“I watched the game and felt simultaneously happy and sad,” says Lenkebe. “I was happy to hear people taking a stand against Kabila, but I was also well aware that they were doing so in the stadium – because if it happened anywhere else, these people would soon go missing.
“If Kabila is reelected, there will be trouble,” he adds. “If you saw the final of Vita against Raja [Vita lost 4-3 on aggregate], you could hear the fans chanting against him. The Moroccans came with security from the army and the Moroccan secret police. Is that a normal situation in which to play soccer?”
Voice of the community
According to Interior Ministry figures, there are just 404 Congolese citizens living in Israel. Many of them have been living in Israel for at least 10 years. Some arrived in the late 1990s, at the height of the civil war in DR Congo, and others made their way here after Kabila came to power. Hamoked – the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants says about half of the Congolese community here is now slated for deportation, while just a few have refugee status. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been here or if they have family and jobs here. Whoever lacks a proper visa will be forced to leave the country by January 5.
Lenkebe is one of them. To date, more than 180 new applications for refugee status have been submitted by Congolese in Israel. Interior Ministry policy says that someone whose application is being processed cannot be deported and returned to his country of origin. Lenkebe has a temporary UN visa that will expire on December 31; currently, no more visa applications that extend beyond January 5 may be submitted. So Lenkebe is one of nearly 200 now due to be deported back to DR Congo.
“I’m speaking out on behalf of the Congolese community in Israel. Yes, it’s not a lot of people – just a few hundred – but you must understand: They have no voice. They don’t know what to do in a situation like this and they’re absolutely terrified to go back to the hell that’s in DR Congo.”
Hamoked and several other human rights and civil rights organizations have called on the Interior Ministry to freeze its decision to deport the Congolese residing in Israel – at least until after the election there and stability is restored in the country.
Lenkebe isn’t pinning much hope on the appeal that has been made to soccer’s governing body, FIFA, either. “I don’t think FIFA will do anything about it, just like the authorities in Israel,” he says. “In the best case, it will be the same situation as with Pedro [Galvan],” he says, referring to the Argentine soccer player who is the top foreign scorer in Israeli soccer but is also threatened with deportation after his contract expired with Hapoel Tel Aviv. “I’ll just sit and wait, and I won’t know what’s going on,” says Lenkebe. “I won’t be here or anywhere.”
If his fears come true, we’ll see another foreign player who spent a major chunk of his career here, making Israel his home, forced to make an unpleasant departure from Israeli soccer. But unlike Galvan, who would return to Argentina, Lenkebe would be forced to return to the vicious civil war he escaped in 2006.
The Population and Immigration Authority says its decision regarding Congolese citizens residing in Israel was made following an expert opinion from the Foreign Ministry, which was itself based on a UN ruling that Congolese not require collective protection.
Uri Levy is the founder and editor-in-chief of BabaGol and an expert on Middle Eastern soccer.