A friday morning in Neve Sha'anan South tel aviv's unofficial refugee hub

Tel Aviv is of course known as the giant bubble inside Israel. Home to liberal, cosmopolitan people who have in general not much in common with the rest of the country. But there's a flip side to that coin as I've experienced when I joined a Hebrew learning group on a tour through Neve Sha'anan in south Tel Aviv.

Neve Sha'anan is a neighborhood (shkhuna in Hebrew) built in between Tel Aviv's city center and Yafo, the old Arab village. The name roughly translates to 'peaceful abode'. It was supposed to be an oasis of serenity with mixed culture and orchards. Things worked out totally different however. Over the years Neve Sha'anan became mostly neglected, becoming the 'underbelly' of Tel Aviv. The construction of an enormous central bus station also didn't raise the appeal of the neighborhood. It took 25 years, and by the time it was finished most of the territory was not used and abandoned.

Top down view from Neve Sha'anan. With a bit of imagination you can even see it's shaped like a Menorah with Levinsky street as its middle pole

Eventually the prices dropped in Neve She'anan and so the people it attracted where often migrants or drug addicts and homeless people, giving the neighborhood a bad reputation.

Considering my Hebrew is at an absolute beginners level I rely today on local Ira Rozina. She worked for quite a few NGO's and specializes in human rights law.

Don't let them stay too long, and don't let them have kids

She explains to me that there are two words in Hebrew for migrants in search of a new life: 'mehager avoda' which translates to immigrant worker and oved zar', foreign worker. The latter having a more negative connotation. It depends a bit on the current policy trends which is used most. "Sometimes there's a need for foreign labour and sometimes they want them out of the country. But however: don't let them stay too long, and don't let them have kids."

Between 2003 and 2012 Israel didn't really have a refugee policy. Most asylum seekers who did make it through the Sinai desert bordering Egypt were simply given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. Nowadays most of them are sent to Holot, a detention center in the Negev. Granting them a permanent status however is not in the government's interest. By detaining them indefinitely the goal is 'voluntary deportation'.

But here the policy also contradicts itself. By not deporting Eritreans and Sudanese the government acknowledges that there's a real chance that if they go back they can be subject to torture or death. And still, at the same time, it claims that these people are not refugees.

It becomes clear that Neve She'anan has always been a poor neighborhood. But lately the migrants became the main scapegoat to blame for the general deterioration of the area. The xenophobia this fuels revealed itself later on when near a playground a women is clearly harassing supposed migrant, while filming it with her smartphone. The children don't seem that impressed by this kind of behavior but also used to it, which somehow makes it all the more appalling.

"I understand the fear of the Israeli government", 28 year old Teklit Michael explains. He's a refugee from Eritrea and lived in Israel for 10 years now. " I understand the fear of this country, they're surrounded by enemies, they want to know who we are as well. But I fled from a dictatorship myself, we are no threat for their country."

Teklit Michael, sharing his experiences living in south Tel Aviv as a refugee

"The people here are afraid to sit next to me in the bus. A lot of them think we are terrorists, but as a Christian I've experienced a lot of problems with jihadists myself." When asked about his plans to stay in Tel Aviv he's very clear: "I have no dream to live in Israel. There are good people and it's a good system, but the system is not for us. For the (jewish)Ethiopians it's even worse because unlike us they have citizenship but are treated as second rate citizens. It's a racist system. We know we'll eventually leave when our country is safe."

Toda raba to Teklit Michael, Elliot Glassenberg from This is Not an Ulpan and Ira Rozina for translating. More info on the refugee situation in Tel Aviv can be found here.

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