Last week, a family of refugees from Darfur left Israel after receiving asylum in a Western country, where they are assured of a better future. With their departure ended one of the most troubling stories in the history of relations between refugees and anti-refugee activists in south Tel Aviv.
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It began two years ago, when a video of an African woman brandishing a cane in all directions, as if she were trying to hit a group of Israeli women, some of them elderly, standing near her, was disseminated on social media. The clip, which was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, received plentiful coverage in the mainstream media and was commented on by right-wing politicians.
Judging by the responses on social media, it’s clear that many people felt the footage provided a rare glimpse of the distress experienced by the residents of south Tel Aviv. The question of what circumstances led this elderly woman to lose control was virtually ignored by the commenters, as if the sight of an African woman behaving in a threatening manner toward a group of women, in front of her family, requires no explanation – perhaps because it fits into the widespread view here that Africans are violent by nature.
Nobody asked about the viewpoint of the Darfuri grandmother shown in the video, what happened before the filming started or the dangers the family faced due to the clip's publication, along with their address, so here is her story:
The family lived on Wolfson Street in south Tel Aviv. One afternoon, the women of the family said, a group of people they didn’t know – mainly women, some of them elderly – entered the courtyard of their apartment building. The visitors began collecting junk from the neglected courtyard and putting it in a pile.
The woman's 5-year-old grandson came over to play on the junk heap. They yelled at him, and one member of the group cursed him. His mother came over and asked them to leave him alone – he is just a little boy.
According to the family, members of the group then began mocking her and her son in offensive, racist language. She felt threatened. And at some point found herself cast to the ground in the center of the group.
Her mother – the boy's grandmother – heard the uproar and went out into the courtyard. There she found her daughter on ground, surrounded by a group of people. The grandmother raised her cane, brandishing it in an effort to drive away these unknown people who had threatened her family.
To complete the picture, and with the family’s permission, I’ll add a few relevant details that can’t be seen in the video. The boy's mother – who, as she tells it, was thrown to the ground – was pregnant. She also has cancer. In other words, the “Sudanese woman with the cane” was a mother who went out to protect her pregnant, cancer-stricken daughter from a group of strangers who, for reasons she didn’t understand, were acting in a threatening, aggressive manner toward her family.
The women of the family say that people in the group began filming the incident even before tempers flared, but the clip they published only shows the grandmother waving her cane. They’re convinced the whole purpose was to create a provocation and then film it.
They repeatedly stressed that they generally had good relations with their Israeli neighbors, and that during the years they lived in that apartment, there were never any fights or unpleasantness. Their neighbors in the building confirmed this.
The day after the incident, the video and the family's address was posted on social media. That morning, the family discovered that someone had left feces outside their door. They complained to the police.
On the days that followed, various people came to the apartment, cursed the women and threatened them. Every morning, the family found trash outside the door of their second-floor apartment.
Then the situation got worse. One day, when the grandmother and her daughters were visiting a friend in the Hatikva neighborhood, someone behind the wheel of a car recognized them. He cursed them and accelerated his car toward them, as if he planned to run them over, stopping just before he was about to hit them. It was apparently a kind of cruel joke.
A few days later, the family heard noises from their living room at 6:30 A.M. The oldest brother went into the living room, where he found an Israeli man with a big knife. He had climbed in through the open window. The brother managed to drive the man back out the window. The family complained to the police.
For the last two years, the family has been living in this hell. They’ve been chased through the streets by angry people. The little boy doesn’t sleep at night; the grandmother has stopped speaking. The family, which had seen atrocities in Darfur, thought this was the end. They had nowhere left to run.
Then, unexpectedly, their luck changed. Last week, the family embarked on a new life in a Western country, where they will receive protection, recognition, education, health care and eventually, a legal status that will ensure their future. Paradoxically, it was their persecution in Israel that led to this change, which will enable them to enjoy security, peace and an assured future.
I want to wish this family the best of luck in their new life. At the same time, I want to address all those Israelis who are fighting the refugees as if they were our enemies, and all those who unhesitatingly accept anything that can be interpreted as evidence that the refugees' souls, just like their skin color, are not like ours. For all of us, I’d like to hope that we’ll choose a different path this year – if not for the refugees’ sake, then for the sake of our children.
Dr. Rami Godovich is a philosophy professor and director of the Come True project, which allows refugee children who have been deported from Israel to go back to school.