Beyond the Rhetoric

U.S. immigrant leads tour of south Tel Aviv, offers an 'insider's look at the situation of refugees.'

On a hot Wednesday afternoon, 19 people congregate in south Tel Aviv's Levinsky park, listening attentively to an American woman who is trying to explain the difference between terms that have appeared frequently in the Israeli media in recent months - migrant, labor migrant, asylum-seeker, refugee, "infiltrator."

The woman is Lisa Richlen, and the people with her have signed up for a three-hour tour of south Tel Aviv, in English, dubbed "An Insider's Look at the Situation of Refugees."

South Tel Aviv, home to 40,000 labor migrants and more than 20,000 asylum-seekers, according to city officials, has been the site of several recent anti-migrant protests - including some that have turned violent. For NIS 45 a person, Richlen takes participants to locations in and around Levinsky Park, where many African migrants and asylum-seekers spend the night, and paints a picture of what life is like for migrants in Israel, while attempting to "break through the rhetoric" of the controversial topic.

Richlen, who came to Israel in 2000, says her interest in migration arose from a strong Jewish identification with refugees, and from past experiences with ant-Semitism. After some eight years working with organizations such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which runs similar tours in English, and B'nai Darfur in Israel, she has recently started giving private tours.

Wednesday's participants, mainly from the U.S. and U.K., offered different explanations for why they signed up. Alana, an American who is training to be a rabbi, and who has been studying in Jerusalem since September, says she wants to get a grip on the issue beyond "just reading about it." Zvi and Dorothy, a couple in their 70s from Zichron Yaakov, say they were inspired to learn more after Zvi became involved in a food distribution drive for migrants in Levinsky Park earlier this year. Gavin and Leila, a North Tel Aviv couple, say they are curious about the multicultural neighborhood. And Rabbi Aaron Liebowitz, from Jerusalem, says he has been watching the African migrant issue in Israel with growing concern, and feels that, as a rabbi, "it is my responsibility to take a stand."

'It's not just us'

Richlen premises the tour on the idea that migration is a global phenomenon. "It's not just us," she tells the group, citing the International Organization for Migration's approach, "You can't stop migration, you can only manage it better." This is something that, according to Richlen, the Israeli government is not doing very well. When Zvi asks about the government's policy toward refugees, she responds: "Get the word 'policy' out of your head. The 'policy' is to keep them from coming here."

Richlen's tour includes visits to locations nearby that are frequented by migrants: The Central Bus Station, a community library and a shelter set up by B'nai Darfur in Neve Sha'anan are the main stops.

At the Central Bus Station, up the road from Levinsky Park, the group meets Yasin Musa, who came to Israel from Darfur, Sudan, in 2005. Musa is one of 500 Darfurians who was granted temporary residence status under Ehud Olmert in 2007, and one of the founders of the organization B'nai Darfur. Today he works in an ice cream parlor.

Sarah, from the U.S., asks Musa how the community feels about the recent anti-migrant protests, and about the violence in south Tel Aviv. "I am in shock. There is real violence," Musa answers, adding, "When I got here, all the African population was around the [Central Bus Station]. Now there are 50,000 people here. White people have become a minority here. I feel bad for them, but violence is not a solution."

Musa relates his own story on a stairwell on the fourth floor of the bus station, with Mizrahi music blaring in the background. He fled Sudan in 2003, he recalls, and then spent time in Egypt before making the eight-day journey alone to cross the Sinai and reach Israel, where he was immediately imprisoned.

"How much did you have to pay the Bedouins?" asks Irene, a photojournalist from L.A. Musa answers that the Bedouin charge migrants from Sudan less to smuggle them into Israel because they know they don't have much money.

At the Garden Library in Levinsky Park, which is closed when the group arrives, Richlen talks about the government's approach to migrant children, as well as health care, housing and employment. "How much do they get a day?" asks Gavin, referring to the African migrants who are picked up for jobs in the park by Israelis. "NIS 15-22 an hour," says Richlen. (The minimum hourly wage in Israel is NIS 19.95. ) "A good wage is NIS 27."

Before taking the group into the shelter on Neve Sha'anan, Richlen points out a shop owned by Ismail, a Darfuri computer engineer who came to Israel in 2007. "I wanted you to see a successful person," she says. "I wanted to show what someone is capable of when you give them an opportunity."

The shelter, which is next on the agenda, provides housing for some 40 to 60 African men, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, and has been running since January of this year. It is tucked away between shops on Neve Sha'anan and is hard to spot from the street. "I never would have realized it was here," says Shayna, a graduate student from New York University.

Richlen takes the group inside for five uncomfortable minutes, as a discussion ensues about Israeli residents' attitudes toward African men, and what the government can do to calm local tensions - all as shelter residents look on from the sidelines.

The final stop on the tour is a few minutes away, in a small park on Levanda Street, opposite an African church. After three hours of walking around in the sun, the group is tired, but still has questions for Richlen. Alana wants to know more about the Egypt-Israel border; Zeev, originally from London, says the recent anti-migrant violence reminds him "of Fascist marches through Jewish areas" and wants to know more about the motivation of the anti-migrant protesters.

Whether the tour managed to "break through the rhetoric" or not, it did, at the very least, bring the group to a part of Tel Aviv that it might not have spent much time in otherwise, in order to think about the issues. Yusani, for one, says he believes these initiatives are worth the effort. "It's important to talk to these groups. I'm not sure what the outcome is, but it's important to talk about it," he says.