Asylum Seeker Turned TV Star: 'It’s as if Israelis Forgot What They Went Through'

As a child refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sean Mongoza experienced racism on the streets of south Tel Aviv. Now he's the star of a powerful new TV series that wants to be the Israeli answer to 'The Wire'

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Sean Mongoza as Eritrean refugee Gabriel in the Israeli TV show "Asylum City."
Sean Mongoza as Eritrean refugee Gabriel in the Israeli TV show "Asylum City."Credit: Nati Levi/Courtesy of Yes
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

On a very rainy evening in Tel Aviv last month, a few hundred people crowded into the cinematheque for the premiere of new Israeli TV series “Ir Miklat” (“Asylum City”). While two of the show’s stars, Hani Furstenberg and Mali Levi, dazzled in evening gowns, most of the other cast members avoided ostentatious fashion statements.

The exception was Sean Mongoza, who was sporting a colorful silk suit and pair of blue velvet moccasins. Mongoza, 24, had never experienced so many flashing cameras before, not even while working as a model. But what really excited him was the presence of his parents in the auditorium.

“My family had never been to such a large and dazzling event,” Mongoza tells Haaretz afterward. “My father is very proud to see his son become part of Israeli society and a well-respected actor. He even helped me with my outfit. This is something he’ll remember all of his life. Think about it: He came from a country where this would not be possible.”

That country is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mongoza was born and where he lived until age 5. When he was still a baby, in the mid-1990s, his father left home in search of a safer place to resettle the family. He flew to Egypt and crossed the border into Israel, which he saw as a safe alternative to their war-torn homeland.

After four years of being apart, Sean Mongoza and his mother joined Mongoza Sr. in the Jewish state. Since then, his parents have been living in Israel on temporary visas that are renewed every year. Sean Mongoza received his Israeli ID card three years ago.

At first they all lived in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, where Mongoza’s father was a chef’s assistant. Within a few months, though, the family had moved to south Tel Aviv’s hardscrabble Hatikva neighborhood.

“My parents started working and I remained home alone,” recalls Mongoza. “I was a curious boy and couldn’t stay indoors for even a moment – so the minute they left, I went outside and roamed through the local market, going to the Dohl [cultural] Center and the Beit Dani Community Center. I was magically drawn to the theater even at that young age. That’s how I learned Hebrew.

“When I started roaming like that, my father became violent, beating me every time I returned home. He was worried about me – but it didn’t help. I kept going out, and at some point I realized I could no longer return home.”

Because you knew he’d beat you?

“Exactly. I couldn’t stay home. I tried watching the Children’s Channel on TV, but that didn’t work for very long. I tried cooking for myself, but kept burning the frying pan. One day, I postponed going home by an hour, then another – and suddenly it was midnight. I stood outside my door and felt that if I went in, I’d be dead. My legs started moving, then running. I went to a police station and complained that my father beat me. Within four hours I was placed in a foster family in Tel Aviv.”

A slap in the face

The foster family turned out to be less protective than expected. Within a few months, with the help of a social worker, Mongoza was transferred to the Beit Hayeled boarding school in Tel Aviv, alternating between there and the family home. He continued his schooling in the Hatikva neighborhood, which was when he became aware of racial abuse being directed at him. “It was classic racism: I’d walk through the neighborhood and some thugs would chase after me, calling me names,” he recounts.

That year, at age 7, something happened for the first time in his life: he had a birthday celebration of sorts. “I remember my first white friend at school. He came over a few times. I made up a [story about a] birthday I was about to have in a few days. He got excited and bought me a gift. That day, my parents came home early from work. I was showering and heard someone knocking at the door. My father opened the door and asked who it was. This kid had bought me a soccer ball, but my father told him ‘Sean doesn’t have a birthday,’ and shut the door. That was on a Friday, and when we went to church I saw the gift wrap flying around on the sidewalk.”

Thankfully, his childhood improved as he grew older. He made new friends at the boarding school and was embraced by its counsellors and other staff members. He attended high school at the Herzliya Gymnasium, where he set up a youth band and became popular with his peers. He smiles broadly as he remembers his days at the boarding school. “For the first time I felt warmth from people, not fear and alienation. That’s where I developed,” he says.

However, aspects of his violent homelife did occasionally resurface at the boarding school, where he admits to “violent outbursts” if he ever encountered racism: “I’d go from 0 to 100 in one second flat. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I’d close the door and not speak to anyone. I took out my anger mainly on objects. There was a lot of anger there.”

At 16, when he first attempted to get his ID card, he encountered institutional racism as well. When he arrived at the Interior Ministry branch to receive his card, he was forced to line up alongside hundreds of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Mongoza couldn’t understand why someone who grew up in Israel and spoke fluent Hebrew, and whose friends were all Israeli, needed to go through the same bureaucratic channels.

At the time, he felt he had nothing in common with those Africans waiting in line. Now, though, his résumé includes roles playing African asylum seekers in the series “Alifim” (“Ninth-Graders”) – which he landed at age 17 – and then “Betoolot” (“Mermaids”) and “Metim Lerega” (“Dead for a Moment”), the latter two coming while he was still studying at Tel Aviv’s Nissan Nativ Acting Studio.

Persistent casting director

“Asylum City,” which premiered on Yes Edge in Israel last week, is Mongoza’s first starring TV role. He plays Gabriel, an Eritrean who entered Israel illegally with his sister, having seen her be raped in front of him as they were crossing the desert. In Israel, he joins a refugee center where he meets a volunteer (Mali Levi), who pays a high price for trying to be the Don Quixote of south Tel Aviv.

The series is directed with great sensitivity and tries, according to director Eitan Tzur, to be an Israeli version of David Simon’s groundbreaking show “The Wire.” And after watching the first two episodes, it seems that such lofty pretensions are not completely unfounded.

Mongoza, Levi and Furstenberg (who plays a police officer trying to crack a criminal case) are all equally impressive, each of them part of a dark and disturbing mosaic in which asylum seekers are the weakest link.

Mongoza wasn’t exactly busting a gut when he attended his audition. To him at the time, the part seemed like another of those stereotypical African refugee roles. But the casting director, who saw him facing the camera with an air of disinterest, did not give up and asked him to concentrate. Some 18 months later, he received an offer and was asked to show up for filming two weeks later. “I came to the first rehearsal and asked Eitan the director, ‘Why did you choose me? You could have taken any non-actor Eritrean who knows the language.’ He said he wanted an actor who could hold it all together. I told him, ‘Great, that was good for my ego.’”

The actor contradicts my assumption that he probably doesn’t have much in common with his character. “I found many points of identification with him, actually,” he says. “The fact that he’s a painter and an artist was important for me, as well as his loyalty to his family. I learned a lot from the character. It led me to appreciate my family and my place as a black man in Israel.

“Gabriel did not have the opportunities I have had. He walked through the desert with his sister, who was raped. He performed menial jobs here, but still kept his joie de vivre – which I can relate to. Something about his dignity really impressed me.

“As a child, I felt that my color differentiated me,” continues Mongoza, saying it was only as he grew older that he learned to live at peace with his identity as a black man in Israel. “When it came to relationships – with the parents of partners who didn’t want me because of my color or because I’m not Jewish – that was very painful,” he admits. “Some people have blue eyes that they can cover with colored lenses; I can’t paint myself white. That’s my personality, my identity and scar – and it’s there for the better.”

Sean Mongoza.Credit: Aviv Avramov

Now he’s the star of a TV series and has become something of a household face, he doesn’t deny that he is part of the Tel Aviv art scene and a proud member of Israeli society. “It’s the embodiment of a new generation: I’m a Congolese-Israeli,” he smiles, “another color in the world, another genre. It has been confusing for me in a way since for many years I’ve distanced myself from my culture, my African identity, and I didn’t want any part of it. I feel like I don’t know my roots.

“I’m interested in going to Congo one day, but don’t want to go as a tourist,” he says. “In any case, I’ll feel different there. I don’t speak Lingala very well. They’ll immediately spot that I’m different. And I don’t want to go on a ‘root-finding’ mission. When I go, I want to do something significant – maybe set up a school. It has to be something else.”

Warning sign

Although Mongoza has Israeli citizenship, he notes that many members of the Congolese community here are at risk of deportation. For him, “Asylum City” serves as a warning sign. “The Interior Ministry recently decreed that everyone who came here from the Democratic Republic of Congo must leave by the beginning of next year. This doesn’t apply to my nuclear family, but it does to my uncle and to a good friend of my mother.

“There are 4,000 Congolese in Israel, not a significant number,” he says. “How does it hurt the country to let these people live here? For me, this TV series is a protest, it’s part of the whole issue. There is an entire community here. Jews also experienced hardships, they went through the Holocaust. Now they come to someone and deport him – it’s as if you forgot what you went through and where you came from. I never for one moment forget where I came from. Even when I’m in the limelight I don’t forget it.”

I ask Mongoza how racist Israel is and he doesn’t hold back. “It’s really racist. The fact that I can’t marry a Jewish woman here is racist. We’re living in 2018 and that’s a racist law. And that’s before you’re called ‘N*****,’ and before they make you go through hell to get an ID card. Look at Tsahi Halevi and Lucy Aharish, who had to conceal their relationship,” he says, referring to the Jewish actor and Arab news anchor who secretly married in October. “You are always on the defensive living here. I ask myself if I want my children to live like that. I don’t want them to go through what I went through. It wasn’t easy.”

Despite those damning words, Mongoza concedes there have been small signs of improvement. “Israel is changing slowly. The generation of Africans who were born here is slowly integrating into Israeli society and its cultural world. We have some influence over the way Africans are accepted here. It’s easy for young Africans to complain about how they’ve been deprived. If something doesn’t suit you – try to change it. You can start with your own milieu or your art or with how you talk or see the world. A lot is in our hands too.”

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