Sabina wept as municipal workers dismantled her makeshift stand on Tuesday. For the past four months, she has been serving tea and coffee to thousands of fellow African asylum seekers who crowd the barren parking lot that serves as a holding area outside the government offices they are required to visit to arrange visas.
“I only charged people who could pay,” said Sabina, who is from Eritrea. “Anyone who couldn’t was allowed to take their drinks for free.”
Beside her, Jacob – who had been selling sandwiches in a neighboring stand – said he did the same.
“It wasn’t just a business, it was a way to help our community,” she said, speaking in this nondescript part of Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city next to Tel Aviv.
Video filmed by Eritrean volunteer Atakliti Abraham showed how, escorted by police, municipal workers arrived at the outdoor waiting area, roughly confiscated Sabina’s wares, and knocked down the cobbled-together shelter that shaded her and other vendors and their customers from the sun, next to several other similar stands.
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As they did, Abraham pleaded with the municipal workers that while he understood why they would shut down the businesses, there was no need to take down the makeshift shelters of wood and netting, which offered protection from the sun for those who often wait long hours for entrance to the government offices.
But the structures were dismantled completely.
The next day, the workers returned to clear away all traces of debris. The municipal officials, according to Abraham and others who were on the scene, also threatened to remove the sturdier white and metal shades in place for those who wait in line to enter the Population, Immigration and Border Authority office (part of the Interior Ministry).
If the tents were not removed by those who put them there, volunteers on the scene were told, they would be taken down as well.
The shelters, bolted to the ground, had been donated by the group Ultra-Orthodox Against Deportation in an effort to make the waiting area more bearable. They also donated a row of chemical toilets.
By Wednesday afternoon, all that remained of the makeshift compound were the donated white tents and toilets.
Plumbing new depths
Underneath the awnings, seated on the bench, were the dejected stand owners, their salvaged goods in front of them; Israeli volunteers, who continued to offer assistance to those seeking to renew their visas; and the informal, small group of Africans who quietly charge money for places in line and maintain order at the compound – profiting from the vacuum left by the authorities.
Alarmed by the municipality’s threat to remove the donated materials, the leader of the Orthodox group, Faigy Lifshitz (not her real name; she uses a pseudonym to protect her identity), contacted MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) for assistance.
Rozin told Haaretz that informal assurances were given to allow the donated tents, benches and toilets to remain in place.
“After my petitioning on the matter, the relevant authorities in the municipality reconsidered the issue and understood that the canopies are not their enemy,” she said. “The resources will be better devoted to improving the conditions and service given to asylum seekers in the immigration authority.”
Rozin expressed outrage at the treatment of the asylum seekers.
“Even when it seems as if all opportunities to abuse refugees and asylum seekers have been exhausted, some manage to find new ones,” she said. “The attempt to dismantle the shade canopies is another manifestation of inhumaneness toward asylum seekers. Forcing hundreds of men, women and children to stand every day in long lines under the sun, without even elementary conditions, makes no sense.”
Volunteers said that Rozin reached out behind the scenes to ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset who, while unsupportive of the asylum seekers’ presence in Israel, were understanding of the need to provide them with more humanitarian conditions at a site where they are forced to spend so much time.
The ultra-Orthodox politicians convinced the municipality to allow the canopies to remain, they said. The municipality did not respond to requests for comment.
Respect and dignity
HIAS and the Hotline For Refugees and Migrants sent an urgent letter of protest to the Interior Ministry, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and other authorities on Wednesday. In it, they stated that conditions at the Bnei Brak compound violated statutes that require government offices providing services to migrants and asylum seekers to offer appropriate shelter, access to toilets and drinking water.
The letter demanded that conditions at the site be drastically upgraded or, alternatively, that asylum seekers and migrant workers be permitted to renew their visas in the population authority’s regular offices around the country, alongside Israelis – as was the case until 2014, when it was announced they could only complete their paperwork in two facilities: Bnei Brak and Eilat, in southern Israel.
Members of Lifshitz’s group of volunteers returned to the site Wednesday night. They painted the metal sheeting that separated the compound from the rest of the parking lot, covering hostile graffiti.
Lifshitz said that despite the loss of the stands, ultimately she was pleased with the newly clean physical appearance of the compound and the assurances passed to Rozin.
“My goal is for the people who come to this place – which is a government office of the State of Israel – to feel like they are human beings who are respected and given dignified. I am a dignified woman, and I wouldn’t want to have to spend hours in a place with graffiti that had slurs against me. I wouldn’t be able to stand for that, and neither should they.”
Abraham said it was wrong to expect the asylum seekers to wait for hours without access to food and water. Though a large supermarket is only steps away from the site, “many don’t want to leave and buy anything there because they will lose their place on line,” he explained.
He admitted that the makeshift commerce had become problematic in recent weeks, since an Israeli man – operating beside the African food sellers – began selling what he claimed was food past its expiration date, and dangerously set up a gas generator out of the back of his car to make falafel.
Israeli volunteer Amira Ityel, sitting beside Abraham, called the situation “shameful.”
“In Israel, for a onetime event where this number of people are gathered, there is security, food, water, toilets – everything people need,” she said. “Here, there is nothing, no consideration of their humanity. These people may as well be insects as far as our government is concerned.”