Before escaping to Israel in 2003, Ephraim lived in a camp with 15,000 other Eritreans. Like a growing number of refugees from Eritrea as well as the Congo, Darfur, and Southern Sudan, Ephraim set off to evade the lethal farrago of political unrest, genocide, and deprivation that has come to typify the drought-laden portions of Eastern Africa. He left when he was 19, some seven years ago, a decision he says he made “to preserve life.”
The trek itself was a life-risking gambit. He paid smugglers to take him north through a maze of menace filled with unceasing obstacles. Those who don’t die of fatigue, starvation, or dehydration on the way must make it through the Sinai Desert where an Egyptian policy of shoot-on-sight claims dozens of lives yearly. Women making the journey are frequently raped, sometimes by their handlers, and refugees often face financial extortion by a cast of profiteers.
Once the refugees enter Israel, they begin the daunting task of acculturating to life in a new country, looking for jobs and shelter. Some of the women who arrive widowed or pregnant with the children of their assailants end up sleeping in places like Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv’s seedy Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. This is often where Nic Schlagman finds them.
Schlagman, 30, first became aware of the community of African refugees simply by walking through the neighborhood surrounding Tel Aviv’s decrepit Central Bus Station. Separate from Tel Aviv’s beach scenes and chic Bauhaus buildings, South Tel Aviv is home base for an ingathering of migrant workers from far-flung countries and exiles who come to Israel to work or start a new life. Israel, a Westernized country boasting a strong economy, has become a prime destination for both.
According to government statistics, there are more than 215,000 foreign workers in Israel, just under half of them working without a legal permit. Schlagman estimates the population of African refugees living in Israel numbers around 25,000. But beyond the hope for work and stability, Schlagman believes the appeal of life in Israel has a deeper resonance for refugees like Ephraim.
“It all began with the Seder.” Schlagman says.
Struck by the narrative of the migrant community in Tel Aviv, Schlagman began working with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) to provide food, shelter, and cultural immersion assistance for African refugees in Israel. On a spring day in 2009, some of the volunteers were talking about their plans for the Jewish holiday of Passover. The refugees were familiar with the story of Moses leaving Egypt, but were curious about the Passover ritual of the Seder, a ceremonial recounting of the exodus into the Promised Land.
“As we were explaining the festival, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just our story, this was really their story. They literally, in many cases, walked through Egypt crossing the Sinai to flee oppression, hoping to find freedom. We had this idea that we would try to create this Seder together.”
The Seder was held in Levinsky Park and drew 1,000 people, an even split between refugees, curious Israelis, and a melange of contributing community activists and volunteers. The pastor from a refugee church brought in a choir to sing traditional Passover songs with a choir from a nearby Jewish seminary. The event, which aimed to bring about a broader consciousness regarding the refugees, combined the normal order of the Seder with the opportunity for Africans and Israelis to explore parallels between their stories.
Despite the commonalities in narrative, Israel’s policy regarding the refugees is a confusing one. After their status as asylum-seekers is determined, refugees are granted “temporary protection,” which ensures that they are not arrested or deported for three months. At the end of three months, a rubber stamp re-extends their stay another three months. Throughout these periods, refugees are not issued work permits. While the Israeli government doesn’t prosecute employers for hiring illegal labor, the refugees are frequently resigned to working menial jobs without the inherent protections that a work permit provides.
The debate about the refugees inspires much theater. Right-wing Israeli politicians label the refugees anything from infiltrators and security threats to the xenophobic extreme. As Israel faces a demographic problem vis-a-vis its Jewish character, even the idea of naturalizing a relatively small non-Jewish community remains politically unpopular across the spectrum. Calls from the largely-marginalized Israeli left wing argue that Israel was founded as an asylum for those fleeing oppression and genocide, but go largely unheard. Schlagman adds:
“It begs the question, what was the point of coming here? If this land doesn’t allow us to flower from the experiences of our history as wanderers for 2000 years, then what have we learned?”
In the meantime, activists like Schlagman and volunteer groups like the ARDC go about their work. Grassroots efforts have given some refugees a safety net to acclimate to life in the country. And while in limbo, refugees manage a precarious life. Some find better work and even open small businesses. For four years, Ephraim’s family didn’t know where he was. He now works a sanitation job from the early evening until five in the morning. He then goes to class on two hours’ rest and tries to stay awake. Ephraim, who secured a large scholarship at an Israeli university, has found a poetic topic of study: government. When asked about his long-term plans in Israel or abroad with his family, he explains he doesn’t have any.
“I don’t have time to think about that.”