Half Are in Shelters, Half in Apartments - but Nearly All Are Unemployed

Fifty refugees from Eritrea arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday of last week, on a bus that brought them from Ketziot Prison, in the south of the country. They had spent two months in detention, after crossing the Egyptian border into Israel. Now, they are scattered to the winds. About half are staying with friends and relatives. The remainder sleep in dank shelters at night and spend the days wandering the streets, trying to survive until their temporary permits allowing them to stay in Tel Aviv expire.

Vanos and Ibrahim were both on the bus. In their 20's, they attended the same school back home and traveled together to Israel. In Sudan, young people are conscripted into the army, where they have no rights, no salary and no demobilization date. Vanos explains that he and Ibrahim fled from the draft and when it became too dangerous to remain in Sudan they escaped to Egypt. "But human rights are violated there and our lives were in danger so we fled to Israel," he says. They have taken pains to stick together throughout the journey. "We've come a long way together," Ibrahim says, "we're like more than family."

No one was waiting for them in Tel Aviv. They waited in the pouring rain, frightened and shivering, from about 8 P.M. until around 10:30, while volunteers scrambled to find a place for them to stay. In the end, Ibrahim and Vanos spent their first night in Tel Aviv on the floor of a crowded shelter on Matalon Street, in the south of the city.

On Sunday night the two were still idly wandering around the area of the old central bus station, not far from the shelter. "We've been looking for work since the morning, going from store to store, but no one needs workers. Even if one of us finds work it would be good, our money is running out," Vanos says.

On Monday afternoon, they wandered about the park at Levinsky Street, near the bus station. Job contractors occasionally arrived, looking for cheap labor and creating a slave-market atmosphere. Dozens of refugees surround the contractors, asking about the work. The contractors offer sub-minimum wages and sometimes complain when the refugees refuse to work for next to nothing.

"Some have worked in Egypt and got used to high wages," one contractor says. "Besides, the nonprofit groups brainwash them about minimum wage." Vanos and Ibrahim try to elbow their way to talk to one contractor but he dismisses them: "You're just kids, I'm looking for strong men."

The situation of Ahmed and Ali, who were on the bus from Ketziot with Vanos and Ibrahim, could be considered good in contrast to theirs. Ahmed and Ali moved in with friends as soon as they got to Tel Aviv. They seem to be in good spirits and have no complaints about hunger, sleeping problems or existential angst. "I share an apartment with five friends," Ahmed reports. Ali says he lives with four other refugees in Neveh Sha'anan, near the old bus station. But they still face difficulties: "We're looking for work, we have to get money," Ahmed and Ali say.

Daniel, 27, and Yohannes, 19, also wander about Levinsky Park, where they have been sleeping since coming to Tel Aviv. "Tel Aviv is terrible," Daniel blurts out. "I don't miss prison but the conditions were better than in Tel Aviv. I tell people who call me to stay in Sudan, not to come to Israel. It's bad here," Daniel declares. Refugees nearby nod in agreement, and two young men approach and, their voices weak, ask for food. "We haven't eaten for a few days, could you please buy us some food?" they ask.

As of yesterday Vanos and Ibrahim were still in the Matalon Street shelter. "For the first few days we slept on the filthy floor without blankets," Vanos says. "We couldn't get to sleep because we woke up every time someone wanted to get by." They moved into a tiny room inside the shelter, with three mattresses. "We sleep five to a mattress. It's an improvement," Vanos declares.

In contrast to the others Digos, 20, appears happy. He smells good, he is proud of his new haircut and is wearing a fashionable, new denim jacket. The week before, he met his brother, whom he had not seen for four years, and he is still smiling and optimistic. "I run from job to job," he relates with obvious pleasure. "Mornings I work at a restaurant and in the afternoon I do cleaning."

Digos lives with his brother in a rented apartment in Neveh Sha'anan. "Tel Aviv is an excellent city," Digos declares happily. "The best thing that happened to me was that I met up with my brother. Yesterday I applied for permanent residency in Israel, I believe that everything will work out," Digos says as he dashes off to work, passing by the dozens of refugees who remain behind in the park.

To offer work or housing to refugees, contact masikim@gmail.com or (050) 697-9162.