Just after Israel entered its third lockdown in less than a year, dozens of new immigrants at a Jewish Agency absorption center in northern Israel were asked last week to relocate, setting off what one newcomer described as a “rush” to find alternative accommodations.
The request was made in order to create room at Kiryat Yam’s Sapir Absorption Center for a group of immigrants from Ethiopia, Haaretz has learned. However, the Agency did not explain that explicitly to the current residents, generating intense confusion and uncertainty. Many of them have only been in the country after making aliyah for a matter of months and are still far from fully integrating into mainstream Israeli life.
Last Thursday, “I and all the olim [new immigrants] from Latin America and Russia were informed that we have to leave this building as soon as possible,” one resident, a recent immigrant from Brazil who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz.
Although staff at the center stressed that the residents were under no obligation to leave – while also offering financial inducements to those who agreed to vacate the premises by the end of the month – the move set off a scramble among present and incoming residents to find new places to live in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are families already in isolation in the hotels here in Israel that were entitled to come to this absorption center and they had to find different places to go in a rush due to this new institutional position,” the immigrant from Brazil told Haaretz.
Those who have chosen to leave are feeling “scared and pressured” while “running to find a place to go,” residents asserted.
The Jewish Agency would not initially explain to Haaretz the reason behind its decision to ask the group of several dozen new immigrants to leave the Sapir center, noting that the Agency “continually works to encourage olim to establish their independent lives in Israel and assists them in moving out from the absorption centers to their own housing. Those who prefer, can stay at the absorption center for the remainder of their time.”
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After repeated inquiries, however, the Agency explained that it was looking for accommodations in advance of the arrival of some 2,000 Ethiopian Jews, slated to take place in February. Encouraging the residents in Kiryat Yam to leave would, it said, “enable us to absorb additional immigrants, including those arriving from Ethiopia, as well as to support those immigrants who are ready to move on to live independently.”
Until recently, the Sapir facility catered almost exclusively to Ethiopian Jews, many of whom spend up to two years in such facilities, as opposed to olim from Europe or North America who are usually housed in them for about six months.
Meanwhile, it is not clear why the Agency had not fully explained the situation to the Sapir center immigrants, many of whom are deeply disturbed by the lack of clarity regarding their status. Those who decided to move out were told that they could either go to another absorption center, in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, or find an apartment, for which they would be provided two months’ rent. But finding and moving into a new apartment, which can be difficult for immigrants during the best of times, becomes exponentially more complicated during a pandemic and a countrywide lockdown with movement restrictions.
“At first I was scared. You can’t go to see apartments. We need more time to stay here because of the corona,” one woman explained.
The pressure to leave the absorption center has generated anxiety among many residents, who had their own theories of why they were being asked to leave. Some guessed that they were being asked to move out because of an incoming group of olim from Ethiopia, but there was no official confirmation of their suspicions.
One 46-year-old immigrant, who arrived in Israel from Rio de Janeiro in October, claimed that he was told that the Jewish Agency was looking to remodel the facility, while others put forward theories about a possible funding shortfalls.
“It was a surprise for everybody. We need to know what exactly the reason for this is. We want answers,” one of them said.
Upon being informed of the reason for the Agency request, one new immigrant responded angrily, telling Haaretz that the organization was probably engaging in obfuscation in order to avoid pushback from the residents.
“I totally understand the situation of vulnerability that affects our brothers from Ethiopia,” he said, but it seems that the Agency believes that this “was a reason that we would not accept because it makes it seem that there are olim who are more important than we are.”
In 2013, the government of Israel made a controversial decision to end its decades-long effort to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, even though thousands of would-be immigrants belonging to the Falashmura community – descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity – remained un-repatriated at the time. Despite the resumption in 2015 of efforts to allow the community to immigrate to Israel, less than 2,300 of the approximately 9,000 Falashmura left in Ethiopia have been allowed to make aliyah.