A Love That Knows No Boundaries

Infuriating inefficiency at the Interior Ministry exacerbates saga of two Israeli-African couples who are trying to make a life here against all odds.

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On June 14, the Interior Ministry came out with a new regulation, according to which an Israeli citizen can only apply to arrange residency status for a foreign-born partner if the latter entered the country legally. Many African partners of Israeli citizens (the couples need not be married, but have to show they are indeed living as couples ) were told to leave the country within 14 days, and the terror of being arrested and deported gripped them immediately. Among the mixed couples - there are dozens or maybe more, but the Interior Ministry does not provide data - are some with children. Some had been on the verge of finalizing the process to legalize their status in Israel. Shared lives of months and even years were about to be severed.

But on September 13, the regulation was rescinded following several petitions submitted to the courts and to the relevant department in the Interior Ministry - without their ever being discussed. But nobody bothered to tell the couples in question. The ministry's branch clerks were not even informed of the change, nor has the ministry website been updated to this day. A handful of couples that went to battle accompanied by a lawyer benefited; there were doubtless couples that split up without knowing the directive had been revoked.

No migrant from Africa has entered Israel legally. This also goes for the tens of thousands of people that Israel cannot deport because it is a signatory to international conventions that bar it from doing so. This is the way of refugees: They come knocking on the doors of a world that does not want them, and end up entering through its back doors. But here we are also talking about the rights of Israeli citizens, women and men, to live a life of love and raise a family freely.

R., an Israeli woman who wishes to remain anonymous, is in love. "I'm sick of the racist reactions - of questions like, 'Why can't you find an Israeli?' - and of all the stigmas about black men. My taste is actually for European men. I fell in love with a person, not with where he came from. The African-ness actually creates cultural problems, but I fell in love with him."

R., 27, grew up in a well-established town in the center of the country, and is a fourth-year student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Her beloved, K., is 28, a native of the Ivory Coast whose family fled the civil war there to Guinea. He carries a Guinean passport.

The couple live in a tidy one-room apartment in south Tel Aviv: A double bed, a teddy-bear, purple curtains. A musty stairwell and iron doors to the apartments and an iron gate at the entrance. Pictures of African leopards and of the couple on the walls, alongside a clock with an illustration of Jerusalem on it.

And the books: "Nemesis," by Jo Nesbo, "Fall of Giants," by Ken Follett, "Shut Your Eyes Tight," by John Verdon. "I'm a bookworm. That's what pisses me off: People think that someone who goes with Africans is a bimbo," R. says.

Her (Israeli ) father lives in Angola, but she's not really in contact with him. She was a commander and instructor at the Israel Defense Forces computer school, and dreams of becoming an opera singer. R. loves hip-hop, and in May 2011 went dancing at a club in south Tel Aviv. She had already had a romantic attachment with one African, and decided that because of the reality in Israel - "where black is trash" - she wouldn't let it happen again. R. was coming to the end of a relationship, as was K., and after several weeks of courtship on his part, mainly via Facebook, the spark was lit. "If it's going to be an African, then him. I saw in him charisma that I hadn't seen in anybody else."

Since August 2011 they have been living together in his apartment, on the margins of the old central bus station. R. hates the area and is scared to come home alone after 6 P.M. because of the junkies: "I want to get the hell out of here. I can't stick my nose out of the house. But as long as K. can't work, we have no money."

A couple of months ago they were rudely woken up in the dead of night: The police's Oz immigration unit raided the building. Four neighbors were taken into custody. "They pounced on them as though they were criminals. I thought about the people who hid during the Holocaust. It's the same sense of persecution," says R.

She fondly recalls the first months of falling in love, but adds: "Now we are drowning in problems. It's not like it was in the beginning anymore. Our paths have nearly separated."

K. is handsome, muscular, slim. He says he got offers to work as a model in Israel, until it became known that he is Muslim, so he converted to Christianity. In 2007, when the civil war in his country was raging and his family went into exile in Guinea, he flew to Cairo, did not find his place there and eventually entered Israel. A Guinean woman was murdered along the way in his presence, after she refused to have sex with her Bedouin smugglers.

After three months in harsh conditions at the refugee shelter on Levanda Street in Tel Aviv, he moved into an apartment with friends. Occasionally he got some "chick-chack" work - as the Africans in Israel call odd jobs.

A few months ago, the collective protection for the Ivorians in Israel was removed, after the war in their country ended. K.'s chances of being arrested and deported grew, while the odds of finding work fell. Providing a livelihood is thus entirely on the shoulders of R., a student. "It's ruinous, it destroys everything," she says despairingly.

In August the two had their coveted interview at the Interior Ministry to prove that they are indeed a couple, after months of anticipation and submission of countless documents. When they arrived, a clerk was waiting for them with a curt letter in her hand stating that because K. had entered the country illegally, he does not meet the criteria and the request for residency was denied outright. This was a few days after the new regulation had gone into effect - about which they knew nothing.

R. burst into tears: "A clerk sits there and seals my fate. I asked her: 'What am I supposed to do now?' She replied: 'If you want him - fight. I told her I had fought enough already. I thought this was a violation of my human rights. It isn't fair. It doesn't hurt only him, it violates my right to maintain a romantic relationship. We cried for hours."

K. was told to leave the country within 14 days. The next day the couple turned to Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer with The Hotline for Migrant Workers, who agreed to take on their case pro bono. Weitzen handled the cases of several other couples who found themselves in a similar situation, and he filed a petition to the Interior Ministry. A few days ago they learned from their lawyer that the new directive was secretly canceled.

Now they do not know whether they will have to start the whole process all over again, or be summoned to complete it. No one has bothered to get in touch with them.

R.: "Every day that passes, we live from hand-to-mouth. I don't feel like living this way. I'm not used to living like crap. They're trying to drag it out as long as possible, so that couples will break up. They are doing everything possible to make us separate."

A narrow pathway leads to the tiny and equally neat home of Hadas Zehavi and Jacques Sangari in a quiet residential suburb of Ramat Gan. They live here with Chief the dog and a cat. A tattered Israeli flag hangs in the front yard of the rented house. Zehavi, 32, works for a company that organizes trips to Africa. She has a bachelor's degree in life sciences and a master's in natural resources and environmental management.

Her connection to Africa began in her childhood, following a safari with her parents. She met Jacques at a party in south Tel Aviv in honor of Nelson Mandela's birthday. He is 27, and also a refugee from the Ivory Coast whose family fled to Mali because of the war; he got here via Egypt.

Sangari is a professional soccer player, who played for the elite soccer team Africa Sports National, the second-ranked team in his country's league. No Israeli was willing to employ him because of his status as an illegal migrant. He says he lost his zest for the game here. He has been living with Zehavi for about two and a half years.

Maybe it's the peaceful residential surroundings - the Oz hunters do not come here - but this couple does seem to have a less tumultuous life than others in their situation. Still Sangari, too, has been sitting home for years, hardly working. They too waited for months for an interview at the Interior Ministry, which they had scheduled for March. Then they were informed that they must get hold of a document attesting to Sangari's entry into Israel. They do not have such a document.

At one point, R. telephoned this couple and told them about the new regulation. Zehavi hoped that because they were at the end of the process and had proven that they are a couple, the rules would not apply to them. But the clerk at the Interior Ministry checked her computer and announced that Sangari would be deported within 14 days.

"I told her: 'Nobody will decide for me who I will spend my life with,' and the clerk answered: 'No problem, but not in Israel.' After that crushing comeback, I had no more energy left, but also no time to wait."

This couple also took their case to attorney Weitzen. This week the lawyer informed them that the regulation had been revoked - something he too only found out once the Interior Ministry deigned to reply to his letter on the matter.

On Tuesday, the couple went to the ministry office in Ramat Gan. The branch manager told them she could not find any change regarding the regulation. Now they are waiting for a telephone call, as the manager promised. They dream of traveling together to visit Sangari's family in the Ivory Coast (and know he will be allowed to return ), though he still dreams of playing soccer here. Zehavi's sister is married to a Canadian, who obtained residency status in Israel relatively easily. But not Sangari. He is from Africa.

The spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's population administration, Sabine Haddad, said this week in response to Haaretz's request for a comment: "The initial change that was made to the procedure was done as part of an overall and comprehensive reconsideration of the administration's procedures and was posted as required on the Internet site. A few weeks later, it was decided to introduce additional changes, among them dropping the clause in question. An updated procedure will appear on the site in the coming weeks. It must be clarified that at issue is a work procedure and not a regulation, as you state."

Jacques Sangari and Hadas Zehavi. The hunters from the immigration unit don’t bother them in Ramat Gan.Credit: Courtesy

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