Despite Possible UN Plan, Asylum Seekers Say They Want to Remain in Israel

Aside from skepticism regarding the agreement's execution, Eritreans in southern Tel Aviv attest they have bonded with its people and culture. They think of Israel as their country

 A boy takes part in a protest against the Israeli government's plan to deport African migrants, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 24, 2018
\ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

It was notably quiet in south Tel Aviv Monday night after Israel announced a deal with the United Nations that would stop the forced expulsions of asylum seekers, just before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended its implementation. Whereas aid agencies rushed to claim credit for the victory, asylum seekers didn’t seem to be making much of a fuss. In Levinsky Park, there was little activity aside from the journalists besieging it. They seemed much more excited than the asylum seekers, some of whom hadn’t heard about the deal.

A 24-year-old asylum seeker named Salem said she was happy about the news, but added that she and her neighbors don’t really know what’s going to happen next. “I hope it’ll work out,” she said.

Djem, a 22-year-old Eritrean who has been in Israel for six years, was also skeptical. He said he wouldn’t believe the government had changed its policy until he sees the new plan being implemented. “But this is good news; we need for some country to absorb us and give us personal protection,” he added.

Djem doesn’t know whether he will one of those relocated to Western countries or one of those who remains here. But if he has a choice, he’d rather stay. “I’ve connected with the language and the culture, and I have a lot of Israeli friends,” he explained.

Michael, a 34-year-old Eritrean who quit his job at a nursing home to focus on fighting the deportations, also wants to stay. “I think of this as my country,” he said. “If Israel decides to send me to Europe or America, it will be hard.”

“I’m full of emotion,” he added. “The refugees suffered too much. I cried today. I’ve fought for my rights for four months now. I’m grateful to the people of Israel.”

Shula Keshet wasn’t fighting for her future. But as one of the founders of south Tel Aviv’s campaign against the deportations, she felt entitled to celebrate the decision.

“There’s something symbolic about the fact that this happened on the Passover holiday,” she said. “Ever since the state dumped the asylum seekers in Levinsky Park, they’ve become our friends and neighbors.”

But there were also some who mourned the government’s decision, like Sunny, 57, an Israeli who lives in Hatikva, a neighborhood in southeast Tel Aviv. On Monday evening he sat with friends at a kiosk on Levinsky Street and explained why he still thinks asylum seekers don’t belong in south Tel Aviv.

“If all the bleeding hearts would take them to live in their neighborhoods for a month, then they’d understand what we’re going through,” he said, adding that longtime residents were afraid to walk around at night. The asylum seekers “hurt my livelihood and there’s crime everywhere here. Why should I have to be afraid in my own country? I served in the army and pay income tax; their money goes abroad.”

Yet Sunny’s views didn’t seem typical, even in Hatikva.

“It’s very good that they’re not being deported,” said Yaakov, 58, who runs a fruit stand in the local market. “These are people who do no harm. People here in the market felt relieved.”

Avram, 68, who works a few stands away, agreed. “They’re good customers. They buy a lot, generously, they don’t talk back, they don’t haggle. Eighty percent of them are good people, but because they have no work, they sit on the grass and wander around.”

Yaakov, a 23-year-old from Darfur, does have work, selling fruit at a market stall. “Things are good for me now,” he said. “We’ve already gotten used to being here. To move now to a new place, a new language, to get used to new people — that’s hard.”

Moriah, a south Tel Aviv resident shopping at the market, was also happy about the UN deal, noting that the Bible says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“Aside from that, they’ve caused the people of Israel to wake up and understand how important it is that this is a Jewish state,” she said. “They’re good, innocent people. You shouldn’t believe everything written about them in the papers. There isn’t a lot of crime.”

Avi, a neighborhood resident who runs a small barbershop, said economics was behind the desire to deport the asylum seekers. “They take all the apartments, and prices have risen,” he explained. “I’ve lived here 20 years and see it every day. The stores love them, because they buy, but I don’t think the residents will let them integrate here.”

Ben, a 20-year-old who described himself as “right-wing but not racist,” said the area’s poverty isn’t only because of the “infiltrators.” Nevertheless, he said, they are dangerous and should be deported, “though not sent someplace where they’ll be killed.”

A man in his 50s sat on his doorstep after a long day’s work as a repairman, saying “mazal tov” to every asylum seeker who walked by. He has lived in Hatikva all his life and definitely considers asylum seekers suitable neighbors.

“They’re a helping hand for the country,” he said. “They’re good people, they’re quiet, they live in poverty,” he said. “They’ll serve in the army and study and be like everyone else. In another few years, even I will have an African girlfriend.”