Tel Aviv, Israel – When Yonas Kidane* was born in a hospital just south of Tel Aviv eight years ago, his parents were given a light-blue piece of paper. On it was his name, the name of his mother, and his date and place of birth. But it was more notable for what was not there – an ID number that is given to all Israeli residents and citizens.
His parents could go to the Ministry of Interior to obtain an official birth certificate but, without an ID number, it wouldn’t do much for him.
The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education would later give Yonas separate ID numbers to use when obtaining health insurance or starting school, but Yonas has never had a cohesive legal identity and he won’t until he is at least 16.
The reason for this is that the Israeli government considers Yonas’s family “infiltrators”.
Thirty-six-year-old Tesfay* and 29-year-old Winta Kidane*, Yonas’s parents, live in a cosy two-bedroom apartment in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighbourhood. On its walls are family photos, posters commemorating their two children’s baptisms, and images of Jesus.
From their narrow kitchen, Winta produces beers, snacks and a generous dish of Eritrean adas (lentils) served over injera (flatbread), along with a staccato laugh for every joke her husband shares with their Israeli neighbour who has come along to translate for us.
But the mood shifts from light-hearted to something more solemn as Tesfay and Winta share their stories. They are not dissimilar to those of other Eritreans, who today make up 71 percent of Israel’s approximately 31,000 asylum seekers, according to October 2020 figures from the Population and Immigration Authority.
In August 2008, Tesfay was a conscripted soldier in the Eritrean army when Winta, pregnant with their first child, fell sick. She sent an urgent letter asking him to visit her. His base was a day’s travel away. He asked for permission to leave, but was refused.
Tesfay was 24 at the time and had already been in the army for more than five years. Army service in Eritrea is mandatory, indefinite, harsh and low-paying. “In Eritrea, you can’t think for yourself, work for yourself, or do whatever you want,” Tesfay explained.
Concerned about his wife’s health, he snuck out of the base to visit her. But he was caught and taken to a police station where he says he was beaten. He tried to escape from the station but was caught again. From there, he was transferred from one military prison to another. He was beaten, tortured and prevented from showering, he says. He soon became infested with lice.
When Tesfay was transported to a prison near the border with Ethiopia, he saw an opportunity to escape. He managed to make his way across the border to a refugee camp. A few months later, back in Eritrea, Winta gave birth to their son, Sheshy*.
“It was really tough,” said Winta of that time. When Tesfay fled, the army arrested her. But she was released after a month because she was just 17.
“I wanted to cross the border, too,” she explained. “But in the village, they didn’t want me to go because other people were supposed to go first.” More than 12 percent of Eritrea’s population has fled the country, with villages organising measures to determine who can discreetly leave, and when.
So, during her pregnancy and after her son was born, she worked on her family’s farm to provide for herself, her baby and her widowed mother.
From Ethiopia to Israel
After nearly a year in the refugee camp, Tesfay managed to get enough money from a cousin who was already in Israel to pay smugglers $3,400 to transport him from Ethiopia across Sudan and Egypt to Israel.
With 19 others, he squeezed into the back of a pick-up truck driving at 140km/h (87 mph). If anyone fell out, “that’s it. They’re done,” said Tesfay. They travelled like that for five days. He recalls how the smugglers put petrol in their water so that they wouldn’t drink it too quickly.
Others have endured the journey by camel or foot – sometimes against their will. Eritreans have been frequently kidnapped for ransom in and around refugee camps in Egypt and Sudan, as well as on the journey to Israel and subsequently held by smugglers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. They were sometimes tortured and abused as they waited for their families – who often avoided undertaking the journey together for this reason – to pay tens of thousands of dollars in ransoms.
According to the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF), there are some 4,000 African asylum seekers in the country – more than one in eight – who were victims of torture in the Sinai Peninsula. Approximately 500 of them have been recognised as such by the state and offered psychological rehabilitation and care. The 3,500 others have not.
Before Tesfay’s caravan could cross the Israeli border on foot, they were intercepted by Egyptian soldiers. “The Egyptians fired at us, and my friend was hit three times in the leg and thigh,” said Tesfay. “We expected it.”
Throughout the period of extended African migration into Israel from 2006 to 2012, until a fence was erected along Israel’s southern border, asylum seekers were frequently shot at by Egyptian soldiers crossing the border, as a part of its “shoot-to-stop” policy.
But, after a five-day journey, Tesfay and his friend made it across the Israeli border on January 20, 2010. Wary and dehydrated in the desert, they spotted Israeli soldiers.
“We shouted to the Israeli soldiers anything we could in Arabic, Hebrew, or English – ‘Shalom! We are here!’” recalled Tesfay.
The soldiers took them to a nearby military base where they were given food and water before they were taken to a detention facility. There, the immigration officials asked him why he came to Israel. Tesfay told them he came to seek asylum.
“They said, ‘No, give us another reason. You don’t want to say that here.’”
“At that moment, I already realised that it might be a problem here,” he said. “This might not be the best place.”
Israel was an original signee to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which was created initially to protect mostly Jewish refugees after World War II, and its 1967 Protocol, which mandates that no person claiming asylum should be returned to a country where they likely face danger or persecution.
This principle of nonrefoulement, fundamental to international law, mostly prevented Israel from deporting asylum seekers. But while about 70 percent of Eritrean asylum applications are accepted in Europe, the Israeli government refused to even begin processing the claims of Eritrean asylum seekers until 2013.
After 40 days in the detention facility, Tesfay was released with a temporary one-month permit to stay, which later evolved after 2015’s Anti-Infiltration Law amendment to be the 2A5 visa. Israel maintains a “temporary delay of deportation” policy for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. Under this “conditional release” visa, there is a pending deportation order for each asylum seeker, which has merely been delayed. When the asylum seekers first arrived, they would have to renew it every one to four months. Today, it is typically every six to nine months.
Tesfay went to stay with a cousin living in the port city of Ashdod and found work as a gardener. His visa noted specifically that it was “not a working permit”, a declaration that remained printed on the visa even after a January 2011 Israeli High Court ruling nullified its enforcement of a work ban (PDF). Though they are permitted to work in the private sector, at times this confusion disrupts an asylum seeker’s ability to find official work.
After a year, he had saved enough money to send for Winta and Sheshy, who was two years old and yet to meet his father. In 2012, mother and son fled Eritrea, joining a caravan of 48 people on three pick-up trucks heading for Israel. The journey took a month and a half as the route Tesfay had taken was now blocked by the Egyptian authorities.
When they finally arrived in Israel, they spent three weeks in a detention facility before being released. “It was so exciting to reunite with [Tesfay],” said Winta.
The husband and wife found factory work in the city of Sderot, leaving two-year-old Sheshy with an Israeli babysitter. After a year, and shortly before the birth of their second child, Yonas, they moved to Tel Aviv, seeking community and more affordable childcare options.
In Tel Aviv, Tesfay began working in a restaurant kitchen and Winta managed to stay at home with the children for seven months – much longer than most mothers in Israel’s Eritrean community are able to.
Asylum seekers are not eligible to receive maternity leave benefits. Under their temporary permit, they are not entitled to practically any form of social welfare benefits from the Israeli government, including paid sick leave and unemployment benefits.
Despite rarely earning more than the minimum wage of 5,300 shekels ($1,629) per month – and for those working off the books, often less – asylum seekers are not offered the tax relief afforded to low-income Israelis.
One of the few benefits the children of asylum seekers are entitled to is health insurance, which costs their parents 120 shekels (about $35) a month. About 70 percent of the children of asylum seekers are insured, according to Tel Aviv’s municipality.
Another benefit is access to municipal kindergartens and schools from the age of three. When Winta needed to return to work, Sheshy was old enough to go to a municipal kindergarten until 1pm, after which he would join his baby brother at a babysitter’s home.
‘It’s up to us babysitters’
Until last year, Vivian Kublan, who is in her forties, was one of a network of unlicensed babysitters in south Tel Aviv.
In 2002, she and her family fled civil war in what would later become South Sudan.
Winta and Tesfay decided to send their children to Vivian on weekdays to be cared for.
“They were good people,” said Tesfay. “Even if you couldn’t pay money, they would still help you. They were doing it from their heart.”
Quiet moments were rare in Vivian’s apartment. From early in the morning, there would be 15 babies and toddlers in the dimly lit playroom lined with cribs and children’s chairs. Later in the afternoon, Vivian’s oldest son, Sonny, would bring older children from the local municipal schools, who would stay until late in the evening.
“Some of the women have two or three kids without a husband,” Vivian explained as she held a crying baby. “She needs to work the long hours for her kids. So it is up to us babysitters to take care of the children.”
Gina is from Madagascar and runs a babysitting service from her small one-storey home in the Shapira neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. With a back yard that is partially sheltered by a tarp and a donated chalkboard and games for the children to play with, it is considered one of the nicest in the community.
“You can’t leave a baby at 5:30am and come back at 8pm,” she explained, holding a sleeping baby in her arms. “It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. But they have no choice. They have to put food on the table.”
Unable to access most well-paying jobs, asylum seekers often have to work long hours just to survive.
In 2017, the Knesset passed the Deposit Law, the Israeli government’s latest effort to encourage “voluntary deportation”. In addition to paying normal taxes, the Deposit Law forced asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their earnings into a private bank account they can only access when they leave the country. It also required employers to deposit an additional 16 percent into the account, which resulted in about 15 to 20 percent of asylum seekers losing their jobs.
This led to what some aid workers called a “starving period”, with spikes in chronic food insecurity among asylum seekers. Parents who didn’t lose their jobs would have to work all day and into the night to get by, sometimes without days off.
“Because the parents are working so much, the kids get no attention,” said Gina. “They’ll cry and cry and no parent will be there for them.”
Before the pandemic temporarily cut the number of babysitters in half, as many parents lost their jobs, there were approximately 85 unlicensed childcare providers in Tel Aviv looking after approximately 1,500 children, according to estimates from Mesila, the municipality’s aid, treatment and information centre for migrant workers and refugees.
The number of children and the conditions in which they are cared for vary, but some childcare providers can have as many as 60 babies to just one or two, often untrained, caregivers.
Winta and Tesfay liked and trusted Vivian, but Yonas and Sheshy did not enjoy it there. It was a sensory overload: “Too many children, too crowded, too loud, too dirty,” and nothing to do, quipped eight-year-old Yonas.
At the babysitter’s, “they don’t have enough stimulation, enough communication with other children or teachers,” explained Orly Levinson-Sela, the Public Awareness Coordinator at ASSAF.
“By the time they get to the municipal kindergartens at the age of three, they have very severe developmental deficiencies and delays. I know children who do not speak any language at age three, four, five or six. They simply don’t speak.”
In extreme cases, the dangers can be immediate and severe. Approximately 20 babies have died in unlicensed childcare facilities in Tel Aviv in the last 10 years, with instances of fires, drownings, asphyxiation, and babies not receiving needed medication, leading media outlets to decry these so-called “baby warehouses”.
As the babysitter crisis spiralled, and with no support from the Israeli government, Mesila and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) stepped in. “I say it’s a governmental challenge that was forced to have a municipal answer,” explained Miri Barbero-Elkayam, the executive director of Mesila.
Mesila works intensely with 20 to 25 babysitters to offer training and volunteers in the afternoons, as well as conducting regular checks on others.
The municipality also now operates daycare centres to serve this community. Nearly 600 children of asylum seekers attend them and there are plans to expand, but this still leaves a significant number in unlicensed childcare facilities.
“If you close them down, so what, what will happen?” asked Barbero-Elkayam of these babysitters. “Parents stay at home to care for their children and starve? You see babysitters go even more underground so we don’t have any idea what’s happening? The parents have to find a solution to go to work. I will be the first to say no, as long as we don’t have alternatives, we can’t close them.”
Three different environments
At the Bialik Rogozin school in south Tel Aviv, nearly all the pupils are the children of asylum seekers or migrant workers. The flags of the dozens of countries their parents come from line the walls of the school’s outdoor courtyard: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, Eritrea and others.
As the residents of south Tel Aviv have changed, so has the school’s student body. In the past, many of the pupils were Turkish, Libyan or from the former Soviet republics. Ten years ago, the school had a large Latinx population. Now, Eritreans like Sheshy are predominant in the younger grades.
“I consider the majority of the children … to be at-risk children,” explained Mesila’s Barbero-Elkayam. “It could be they don’t have a hot meal every day … or they are wandering the streets alone all day because their parents are working all day to provide for them. Or it could be they’re staying with babysitters where they face neglect and dangerous conditions. Or it could be they face physical or sexual abuse. It’s a spectrum and, unfortunately, most of the children are there.”
Many Eritrean students start their day at a babysitter’s, as their parents begin work before school opens at 7:30am. They will be driven in a van from the babysitter’s home to school, where they will learn in Hebrew until 1pm. After that, many will return to the babysitter’s, where they may only hear broken English spoken until late in the evening, when they are collected by their Tigrinya-speaking parents.
“These children go through three different environments a day, each so different and in many ways contradicting the other,” explained Sharon Tal, the executive director of Elifelet, an NGO that runs programmes for refugee children.
Elifelet volunteers would sometimes go to Vivian’s apartment in the afternoon to do enrichment activities with the children. That was where they met Sheshy.
He was hyperactive and had occasional violent outbursts, but the volunteers were drawn to his charisma and sensitivity. He has always been one to include others in activities and once asked his parents if they could adopt a friend of his, a Jewish Israeli child who was facing violence at home. “Sheshy said: ‘It doesn’t matter. A person is a person,’” Winta recalled. “It comes from our culture and we are really proud of him.”
Elifelet reached out to Winta and Tesfay to ask if they would be interested in bringing Sheshy to a new modonit, or after-school club, they were starting. They agreed and asked if they could bring his little brother, Yonas, along, too. They told the manager he was three as the club required, though it quickly became apparent that Yonas, still in diapers, was not. But the staff at Elifelet fell in love with Yonas, an “adorable little potato” with a propensity to trip over himself and enthusiastically express whatever the moment called for – excitement, disappointment, joy, laughter. The manager said they could work it out.
Elifelet offered far cleaner and better-organised facilities. There was a manageable ratio of trained adults to children, and the kids could go to the park or the zoo and play sports.
Across the Ayalon Highway from Hatikvah is the South Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Shapira. Here, newly renovated apartments, which for years were in a state of disrepair, are attracting younger, secular Israelis. With them comes friendlier neighbours but rising rents, forcing some asylum seekers to move across the highway to Hatikvah, as the Kidane family did four years ago.
However, there remains in Shapira a small but vocal group who are aggressively opposed to the presence of asylum seekers. The leading figure in this faction is 69-year-old Sheffi Paz, a one-time Israeli left-wing activist turned anti-migrant provocateur.
All the pupils at Bialik Rogozin know Sheffi Paz, who leads the Front for the Liberation of Southern Tel Aviv, a local group known for targeting asylum seekers in the area. Children will sometimes scare their friends by telling them that she is nearby.
In the past, Paz would go up to Black children in parks and on the street and videotape them, trying to provoke a reaction. Elifelet staff recall how others would walk up to Black children in neighbourhood parks and hand them condoms – a message for their parents.
A couple of years ago, the words “yalla baita” were spray-painted on the side of Elifelet’s after-school club: Go home. Naama Dahari, a former manager of the after-school club, recalls how one second-grader initially failed to register what the message meant. “He was like: ‘Why are you telling me to go home? Obviously, the modonit is not my home. I will go home.’ Then he understood it because they wrote it on his house, as well,” she said.
Yonas is still too young to really grasp what is going on, but Sheshy has begun to understand his family’s precarious situation. When he plays with friends on the street in Hatikvah, his first-generation Russian immigrant neighbours yell at them: “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here! Go back to Africa!”
Raised in Tel Aviv and only able to speak basic Tigrinya, Sheshy thinks his parents’ Eritrean music is boring. He raps with his friends in Hebrew and tells his mum he would rather eat Israeli schnitzel than her Eritrean sega (spicy meat stew). But when asked if he feels Eritrean or Israeli, Sheshy says both – though more Eritrean. “I feel like I am more connected to my parents when I speak Tigrinya with them,” he explained in Hebrew, before giving his glowing mother a hug.
At the same time, the community developed their own after-school solution: abugida, or “church schools”.
Like most children in the community, Yonas and Sheshy switched into one before the pandemic; Tesfay says it is a vital cultural resource for the children.
Some Israeli teachers are critical of the church schools’ use of corporal punishment, but Tesfay and Winta like how their children’s abugida is run. “In the Israeli schools, the kids get to do whatever they want – they’re disorganised, the kids will talk back and be disrespectful, and they don’t respect the older generation at all,” said Tesfay. “In the abugida, it’s more organised – you can get up, but you have to wait until the end of class.”
Parents know the teachers hit the children, but they don’t mind, Tesfay explained. “In Eritrea, it’s culturally acceptable.”
‘They just won’t accept us here’
It is hard for Tesfay and Winta to know what kind of future they should prepare their children for when they do not know where that future will be. They applied for asylum in Israel a few years ago, but their application is among the 15,000 that have not been processed – in contravention of Israel’s duties under international law. Israel has recognised only 32 Eritreans as refugees.
After 10 years of vitriol from Israel’s ruling political right, few asylum seekers remain optimistic. “I don’t think it will get better. They just won’t accept us here,” said Winta, refilling our coffee.
Through past deportations and some managing to find asylum elsewhere, the Israeli government has watched the asylum seeker community fall from a peak of about 60,000 people nearly a decade ago to approximately 30,000 today. Figures from the Israeli government suggest an exodus of about 2,000 asylum seekers a year before the pandemic disrupted the asylum process. “At this rate, in a few years, Israel will no longer have asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, even without a deportation plan,” suggested Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the head of Israel’s immigration authority, in late 2019.
What many Israel-born children of asylum seeker parents now dream of is Canada, where families have had the most success gaining asylum. But the process is slow, as Israel’s failure to act has created a bottleneck for sponsorship programmes. Winta and Tesfay completed the paperwork to receive a Canadian visa, but they are on a waiting list and don’t expect anything to happen soon.
That, however, doesn’t stop Yonas from asking about it often. “A lot of their friends have left, so Yonas asks: ‘Oh, in two weeks, are we moving to Canada?’” said Tesfay.
“Now, if we had the choice, we would prefer to move to another country, Canada, in particular,” he added. “It doesn’t really matter where it is – just somewhere better than here would be good.”
When I first met Eden Tesfamariam she was 34, and beginning to feel desperate. Her oldest child, Naeb, was 16, and they were racing to find a solution before he graduated from high school.
Everything she had done had been for her children: escaping from Eritrea to the refugee camps in Sudan, going from there to the prisons in the Negev, then starting anew alongside the homeless living in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. She spent every hour she could working for them – so that they could have an education and a chance to succeed.
But soon, Naeb’s facsimile of an Israeli upbringing would vanish, his options greatly limited as he would be rendered the same as his mother: an “infiltrator”.
Eden came to Israel in 2009. Before that, her husband had had a dispute with his military superior in Eritrea and, after spending a week in prison, had fled to Sudan.
The army responded by arresting Eden and her two children; they were imprisoned for two months. Fearing for their lives upon their release, Eden fled with her children to Sudan, where she reunited with her husband in a refugee camp.
When the family decided to go to Israel, he initially stayed behind in case they were kidnapped on their journey and had to pay a ransom. Eden and her two children, aged six and two at the time, began their two-month journey. When they finally reached Israel, they were sent to a detention facility. After three months, Eden, Naeb, and Susanne were released and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv.
They emerged from the labyrinthine Tel Aviv Central Bus Station at 9:30pm unable to read the Hebrew signs and with no idea where they were. Eden took her children and crossed the street to Levinsky Park. It was cold and raining.
“I spent the whole night in the park with my kids,” she said quietly. “I didn’t sleep. I cried.”
In 2009, dozens of recently arrived asylum seekers were sleeping in Levinsky Park on benches, beside the slides, and on the grass. They had been given bus tickets to Tel Aviv, and nothing else.
Gradually, communities began to grow in Shapira, Neve Sha’anan, and Hatikvah – the three working-class neighbourhoods that surround the bus station.
‘I cannot take a day off’
By the time Naeb started school in Israel, aged six-and-a-half, he had already spent two months in an Eritrean prison, four-and-a-half months in a Sudanese refugee camp, two months travelling from Sudan to Israel – fleeing gunfire at one point – three months in an Israeli detention facility and four months in a shelter in Haifa.
He was initially placed in the second grade, but struggled. Timid and unsure of himself, he barely spoke.
Eden did everything she could to make it work in Israel, working around the clock and leaving Susanne, who was then two years old, with an unlicensed babysitter. “It was not like a babysitter. It was like a store,” she said of the facility that cared for about 40 children at a time.
Ten months after they arrived in Israel, Eden’s husband joined them. But he was an alcoholic who spent their money drinking. Not long after their third child, Efrat, now aged seven, was born, Eden kicked him out.
Under the crippling pressures of low wages for long hours of work, no benefits, and the Deposit Law, a lot of families split up, with some fathers abandoning theirs. According to teachers, babysitters and volunteers, about 30 to 40 percent of the children of asylum seekers are being raised by single mothers.
Eden persevered. She became a leader in her community, speaking at demonstrations against deportations of asylum seekers and against the Deposit Law. For nearly three years, she ran the Eritrean Women’s Community Center, a support service and space for Eritrean asylum seekers. And, making use of her English and Hebrew language skills, she worked as a translator and cultural mediator for ASSAF.
To support three children in Tel Aviv on meagre wages, she worked from early in the morning until 9 or 10pm, occasionally taking Efrat with her.
“I cannot take a day off because otherwise, the salary is not enough,” she explained.
With help from an Israeli friend, Eden fought the municipality to get her children into better schools outside of south Tel Aviv. She eventually managed to get Naeb into a smaller school with fewer students. “When he started that school… wow! He became great,” she said.
In 2018, another Israeli friend helped her find an apartment in Ramat Gan, a suburb in the Tel Aviv area, covering the 10,000-shekel ($3,100) cost upfront, as well as the first month’s rent, which Eden repaid over time.
Without the Israeli friends she met along the way – who were able to use the rights and access to institutions they enjoyed to help her – it would have been almost impossible for Eden to support her children and for them to remain here as they have.
In their cosy Ramat Gan apartment, Susanne, Naeb and Efrat share a small room, a curtain separating it from the living area, with its couch, bean bag and computer.
The four-year age gap between Naeb, a good Tigrinya speaker, and Susanne makes a big difference. Susanne can speak some Tigrinya, but not as well as he can. “She feels more Israeli,” said Eden.
Susanne occasionally gives her mum sass. In their apartment, she scrolled through Israeli TikTok videos on her phone, eyes glued and feet on the living room table. She feigned apathy, but her ears perked up when she heard her name.
She is now old enough to understand her family’s fragile position in Israel, unlike her younger sister Efrat. It has affected the sense of rootedness Susanne feels in the only place she remembers.
“I’m not Eritrean, I’m not African – I’m Israeli!” Efrat once exclaimed. “I’m born here.”
“You aren’t Israeli. You are Black,” Susanne bluntly retorted.
“No, I’m a Black Israeli! There are Israelis who are also Black!” replied Efrat.
Yet one day, Efrat asked her mother why she was the only Black child in her kindergarten. “I’m from Sudan, mama?” asked Efrat.
The other children must have said something to her. Although Eritreans comprise the majority of the asylum seekers in Israel today, because the Sudanese were the first to come, “Sudani” is sometimes still used to refer to anyone who is Black.
“No, baby, we are from Eritrea,” replied Eden.
“But we are not Black?” asked Efrat.
“You are Black,” answered Eden. “Your family is Eritrean and you were born in Israel.”
‘I won’t be here in the future’
At Bialik Rogozin, most of the teenagers are the children of migrant workers and those under 12, the children of asylum seekers. But the fears of Bialik’s disadvantaged communities are tied together. When Filipino students were dealing with deportation threats in 2019, African students worried deportations might recommence for them, or that they would reopen Holot, the open-air detention facility Israel for years used to coerce “voluntary” deportations of asylum seekers before the Israeli Supreme Court ordered it shut down in 2018.
Some of the older children at Bialik Rogozin have legal status after the government gave it to some Filipino and West African families in 2010. The difference in status and fate has dramatically affected how the communities raise their teenagers.
“Filipino parents are raising their children to be fully Israeli. They are not teaching them their native tongue and from day one, they want them to be fully Israeli,” said Rotem Genossar, a civics teacher at Bialik Rogozin. “It is kind of the opposite with the Eritreans. The Eritreans don’t know what will be tomorrow.”
Genossar noted that, considering their precarious situation, some Eritrean parents tell their children that learning Hebrew is “useless”.
As some classmates prepare to enter the Israeli military, teenage asylum seekers see it as a ticket into Israeli society. After many of their parents fled Eritrea due to indefinite, brutal military conscription, they yearn to be drafted, too.
“It’s like you have a path, and you keep going until there is a wall that just stops you,” explained Johnny Goitom, an Eritrean community activist. “There are a lot of young people here who can’t go anywhere and have nothing to do.”
Asylum seekers must pay the international rates for public colleges in Israel, making such options unaffordable for most. Genossar has worked with some students to help arrange reduced tuition or scholarships in Israel or abroad, but it is unlikely that there will be enough private scholarship programmes for the next generation of children when they reach college age.
Tzlil Lotem previously ran ASSAF’s teenage after-school club, which offers a safe place for teenagers from the community to do homework and engage in recreational activities. Teenagers would tell Lotem they see no future here, questioning why they even bother to get an education. “I’ve heard kids say before: ‘What am I doing this for? Why am I in school? It makes no sense,’ And they want to be in school, they want to be in that system, they want to get an education,” said Lotem. “But combined with what their parents are going through and what they’re also going through – and their future status here – it puts things into a very limited perspective. There aren’t many options, and the way those options are perceived are mostly vocational.”
“Kids need to dream,” said Bialik Rogozin principal Jalal Touchi, who began running the school in 2019. “Our mission here is to make them dream. It’s not good to say that dreams have limits. It’s like being in jail.”
By contrast, Genossar, a resident of the community and a teacher at Bialik Rogozin for more than 10 years, can be blunt with his students. “For high schoolers, I don’t like dreams,” he said. “When you’re six or seven, ‘I want to be Ronaldo, I want to be a doctor’ – great. Imagine anything. But when you are entering 10th, 11th grade, you need to prepare for your very near future. So, if you are stuck saying: ‘I want to be a doctor,’ – no, you will not be a doctor. It’s not a possibility for you personally, and it’s not a possibility for you as a refugee in Israel. I know a lot of teachers disagree with me, but my approach is you need to be tough, and you need to be realistic.”
After a childhood of exile, refugee camps and abrupt cultural and linguistic transitions, and with national exams that emphasise Hebrew and English, most teenage asylum seekers are not at the academic level to reach university.
Genossar tries to prepare his students practically for their futures in Tel Aviv, but many prefer to think that won’t happen. “I won’t be here in the future,” they tell Genossar.
He manages the Alley Runners club, an elite running club in south Tel Aviv comprised of teenage athletes primarily from challenging backgrounds. Asylum-seeking children are generally blocked from Israeli sporting leagues without an ID. But about one-quarter of the runners on Genossar’s 100-person roster are asylum seekers, competing in international competitions in places like Doha and Baku – a logistical nightmare for his young runners who lack legal papers. One of Genossar’s former runners, an asylum seeker originally from Eritrea, attended Florida International University on a full athletic scholarship.
He pushes those who will not make it to college – the vast majority – to develop a skilled profession. One teenager Genossar mentors has been training for two years to become a certified technician. “With that certificate, he can work in Israel, and he can work wherever he wants and be a professional,” said Genossar.
‘How one can not belong’
But after a childhood of exile and violence, many teenage asylum seekers are not in a position to build a future for themselves, even with a helping hand.
An Israeli aid worker who asked not to be named so as not to reveal the identity of the children they work with, described the trauma one teenager endured. When he was very young, his mother had run away from the Eritrean army, fleeing to Sudan. She left him with his grandmother, returning when he was eight and she had saved enough money to smuggle him to Sudan. But, by this time, she was a stranger to her son.
In Sudan, the boy lived with his mother and her new Eritrean partner, with whom she had another child, a daughter. He spent three years there, going to school and learning Arabic. Then, one day, when his mother took him and his sister to renew their visas, they were kidnapped by human traffickers. The three were taken to a camp in the Sinai Peninsula, where they were held for three weeks. The Bedouins at the camp didn’t hurt the boy because he could speak some Arabic, but he witnessed them torturing others – and heard them raping his mother.
When their ransom money arrived, the three were taken to the Israeli border, despite having never intended to go there. The boy ran across the border with a man who was shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers.
After spending time in an Israeli detention facility, they were given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv and ended up in a women’s shelter. From there, his mother found the only apartment she could afford – in a brothel. Traumatised, she found it difficult to hold a job and sometimes couldn’t bring herself to leave her bed.
“She says: ‘My head, my mind is not good,’” the aid worker explained. “It’s everything she’s had to deal with – in Eritrea, in Sudan, in Sinai, but here as well. It’s safer [here], there’s a higher standard, but it’s harder.”
Her children have not been properly taken care of, and the boy has struggled. “We give him all the support he needs, but we cannot go to school instead of him,” said the aid worker, with whom the boy has lived for extended periods of time. He was eventually expelled for poor behaviour and attendance.
It is often harder for teenage asylum seekers than for their younger siblings. They have lived through the refugee experience and all have collected the sort of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can have a crippling effect on health, educational attainment and social outcomes.
“You need some drive, some self-confidence, some belief that life will get better,” the aid worker explained. But without this, some “stay in bed, they drink, they smoke”.
The boy doesn’t know what to make of his life and who he really is, said the aid worker. “He wants to be Israeli, but he doesn’t have Israeli friends because at Bialik he wasn’t integrated. He doesn’t belong. He really doesn’t belong. And it’s a terrible state of mind, how one can not belong.”
‘There is no future here’
When Naeb turned 16, he became eligible to obtain a 2A5 visa at the immigration authority for the first time. “This is how you have been getting your visa the last 10 years?” Naeb asked his mother, incredulously.
“I would not have stayed until now. I would have left,” he said. “I am African. I can’t live in this kind of situation – staying every two months in long, hot lines, no water, no bathroom. I can’t do this. I don’t know how you did this.”
“I did it for you, my kids,” said Eden. “That is why I was suffering.”
Her son was shaken. “If I turn 18, I can’t stay here. I have to leave,” he told her.
Canada felt like their only hope, but time was running out. “Children tell me: ‘You know, next week I’m going to Canada!’ Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not true,” said Orly-Levinson, of ASSAF. “But the bigger ones really dream of getting resettled because they think they have no future here and have no idea what their status will be. Nobody knows.”
Eden was racing against time. “I can’t take my kids to Africa,” she said, hesitating with each word. “I know what danger is there and what happens in Sinai.”
Eden had been trying to get her family to Canada since 2015, but it was difficult without relatives there. She had an appointment with the UNHCR in November 2017, and by January 2019, she still hadn’t heard anything regarding her UN refugee status.
Eden had done everything she could to put her children in the best possible position. But ultimately, their fate was in the hands of bureaucracy and luck, not hers. She had no idea if she could get the sponsorship from Canada before Naeb turned 18. So she started drawing up alternative plans.
Pausing in her morning preparations at the women’s centre, Eden let out a deep sigh and stood silent for several seconds. “I will go to Uganda,” she said nervously. “It is hard to decide. But if I don’t decide, there is no future here.”
At that time in 2019, they had already been on the UN waiting list in Israel for a year and a half. It would apparently take them only three months in Uganda. If they didn’t start the sponsorship before Naeb turned 18, he would need his own sponsor. “It is so difficult, I don’t know,” said Eden, staring at the ground. “I don’t know what to do.”
‘So Israeli, 100 percent’
Sonny Kublan, 19 at the time, had just picked some children up from school and brought them to the home of his mother, Vivian – Yonas and Sheshy’s former babysitter. Easy-going and quick to laugh by nature, he sat in his sister’s bedroom and talked casually about his difficult past. “It wasn’t a surprise when they sent my dad back to Africa,” he explained. The present, however, was more difficult for him to explain.
Sonny was living with friends at the time. In the mornings, he would play basketball. In the afternoon, he would help his mother. The possibility of college had been discussed, but he had no means of paying for it, he said.
He didn’t know what to do.
Sonny had graduated from Bialik Rogozin, where his former teachers praised his positive attitude and warmth. “Some people don’t know Hebrew or Arabic or English, but we come from a lot of different places and feel this connection at Bialik,” said Sonny. “It was special, for real. It was cool.”
Sonny worked hard to pass the Israeli national exam. Unable to join the Israeli military after graduating, he decided to do Israeli civil service through the Israeli Scouts. But he needed a visa first.
After standing in line for hours, he was initially told he would have to wait 10 months before getting the visa. He managed to obtain it sooner, but not without some delay.
When he did get his visa, he spent the year living in Ashdod with new Israeli friends and working with children in local schools.
“I wanted to do it. It helped make me feel so Israeli, 100 percent,” said Sonny.
Sonny arrived in Israel in 2007, when he was eight. He and his parents had fled from Malakal in Sudan – now South Sudan – when he was two years old, amid civil war. He was in Egypt for five years, attending a school with other Sudanese children.
During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Sudanese nationals faced discrimination and violent racism in Egypt, culminating in the massacre of at least 25 unarmed Sudanese asylum seekers by Egyptian police in December 2005. Sudanese asylum seekers began to flee Egypt. Sonny’s father took him on a “trip” to Israel, initially leaving Vivian behind. After paying Bedouin smugglers, they walked across the desert until they reached the border. Egyptian soldiers fired at Sonny and his father until they made it across.
They ended up at Levinsky Park, sleeping there at first alongside dozens of other recent arrivals. “It was terrible, man,” said Sonny. “It was tough to see the people there. Levinsky was once a pretty place. But now, it’s a very ugly place.”
Vivian made the trip a few months later, but she was imprisoned in an Israeli detention centre for a year before she could reunite with her son and husband in Tel Aviv.
Sonny grew up in a different south Tel Aviv to his sister, Selena, born in 2009, and his brother Quincy, born in 2010. Sudanese started arriving in late 2005 with older children or young adults who had already survived years of civil war and refugee camps. Eritreans, by comparison, started coming a couple of years later and were mostly young conscripts fleeing the military. “There were no Eritreans back then,” said Genossar, the teacher at Bialik Rogozin. “No Eritreans. Only Sudanese boys.”
Tall and athletic, Sonny went with a friend to play basketball in Ramat HaSharon just north of Tel Aviv, “where the rich people are”, when he was 11.
“It was amazing to meet new people not from Bialik,” Sonny recalled. “When you’re at Bialik, you can feel closed away from everyone else. In the beginning, I was shocked – rich white people would see us.”
Sonny played basketball with the Israeli boys for the rest of his childhood, sharing harrowing stories with them. The boys sympathised with his plight. But Israel is larger than a basketball court, and Sonny recalled the harassment he would receive on the way to school.
“Go back to your country!”
“You’re not from here!”
“When you grow up,” said Sonny, tapping on his sister’s notebook before staring off into the distance, “You understand these are stupid people.”
In 2011, South Sudan declared independence, and the Israeli government quickly capitalised on the news to claim this provided the requisite conditions for the South Sudanese to safely return to their home country. Until Israel’s recent normalisation agreement, Sudan was considered an “enemy state” of Israel, with no diplomatic relations to allow any repatriations.
In theory, because Sudanese law made it a criminal offence for citizens to enter Israel, Sudanese nationals became refugees by that action alone. But that changed for the South Sudanese when their country seceded.
In 2011, Sonny’s father was denied another visa, a fate most South Sudanese eventually met. In 2012, an Israeli court finally cleared the way for the Ministry of Interior to remove the “collective protection” status offered to the now-South Sudanese. From that point on, deportations could begin.
A 12-year-old Sonny and his family were among the lucky few to avoid deportation. But most of his friends weren’t. He said goodbye to them as they flew off to newly independent South Sudan, never to see them again.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan shortly after. Several of Sonny’s friends were killed weeks after their deportation. “Those were some of the hardest weeks of my life,” said Sonny, tapping on his sister’s notebook twice.
Sonny’s father spent the next four years in Israel without a visa, until 2016 when he was deported to Uganda. The family has had erratic contact with him ever since. Unable to obtain the residency and work opportunities he had been promised, Sonny’s father continued on to Kenya and then Ethiopia. Sonny eventually learned his father was in Australia, although he was unsure how he got there.
And so Vivian became a single mother like so many others in the community. Sonny graduated without his father. Months after leaving his Israeli friends in the civil service, he could not continue on the path they were on.
“It helped make me feel so Israeli, 100 percent,” said Sonny of his civil service, “but after, it was like no, I’m not Israeli. You’ve got nothing to keep going. Kids who are 18 want a good job, car, or go to the next country to visit and come back – I can’t do that. I can’t do nothing. I can work and that’s it. It’s so difficult for me to think of the future. I have no hope to do anything here.”
His sister Selena entered the room to drop off her backpack. “Ma nishma!” Sonny greeted her, switching to his typically warm disposition. He cradled her in his long arms, asking how her day at school was before she scurried off. His eyes remained fixed on the half-open door, chuckling before he sighed.
“My brother and sister, I feel like they are Israelis for real, man,” he said. The two attend a specialised school for the arts in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv, where they are the only Black pupils. “But when you grow up, you understand that you’re not one of them.”
Elation and worry
“I prayed and, thank God, I got the sponsorship!” exclaimed Eden.
In March 2019, she finally received refugee status from the UN. With that, she was able to obtain asylum sponsorship later that year through a private organisation, Jewish Immigration Aid Services in Toronto, and with the help of an Israeli Canadian doctor who had seen her speak at a demonstration against the Deposit Law.
“The happiness lasted two days, because then the worry was how to move, how to communicate with the people, I have no community, no job,” said Eden, her soft voice difficult to hear in Levinsky Park over the noise of passing cars. “In Israel, I know everything by now. But there, I don’t know what life is like.”
Because her sponsorship is through a private organisation rather than a family reunification programme, Eden needed 34,000 Canadian dollars ($27,000) to bring her family. She had managed to save 24,000 Canadian dollars ($19,000), and the sponsoring organisation provided the rest.
Before the pandemic hit, Eden was working seven days a week – as a translator, cleaning houses and as a waitress at a café and bar – to save money before leaving for Canada. “I don’t know how many hours I work,” she said at the time. “It’s too much – I don’t want to know.”
When Naeb found out they were going to Canada, he was elated. “Now, I can continue my education, I can learn to drive like others my age,” he told his mother. “I have the chance to be treated like a human.”
It has been much more difficult for Susanne, however. “She feels like someone is just throwing her away,” Eden explained.
“Israel is the only place I know,” Susanne argued with her mother. “Why are they doing this to us? Why don’t they give us the status?’”
A second immigration can be difficult culturally and linguistically for teenagers – “the first generation with an Israeli mind,” as Genossar put it. Susanne’s English is rudimentary, and she is afraid of the growing pains ahead. “I want to save my Hebrew,” she tells her mother. “I don’t want to lose it.”
But Naeb, now 18, reminds Susanne of what is waiting for her once she gets older. “You don’t know what you go through at the Ministry of Interior,” he warns her. A 2A5 visa in hand, Naeb recently graduated from high school. He now works in a supermarket to help his family.
Back in their Ramat Gan apartment, Eden could now let herself be starry-eyed about her children’s future. “Susanne, you want to become a doctor?”
“I don’t want to be a doctor,” Susanne retorted, eyes glued to her phone.
“Maybe a lawyer?” Eden suggested.
“Oh no, lawyers are the worst!” Susanne groaned, slamming her phone on the couch. “If a person kills someone, I don’t want to be a lawyer for this guy!”
Making a very bad situation worse
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Eden’s preparations for Canada into disarray. During the height of Israel’s two-month national lockdown beginning in March 2020, approximately 70 percent of asylum seekers lost their jobs – with no governmental safety net to speak of. The only job Eden had left was translating part-time at ASSAF, and it was not enough to pay the rent, let alone save money for Toronto.
During the shutdown, the financial situation within the community quickly became dire. The Israeli government resisted calls to release the Deposit Law money, as it would negate the law’s purpose: encouraging the asylum seekers’ departure. As in previous times of crisis, the Tel Aviv municipality and NGOs were the ones who stepped in, collecting donations to provide emergency relief to hundreds of families through food and other material aid. Eden received critical help from the municipality and Israeli friends to get by.
“These people are living in divided apartments, one bedroom, without an economic safety net. So corona[virus] took a very bad situation and turned it into a horrible situation,” said Barbero-Elkayam of Mesila. “I assume that without Mesila and the other organisations, there would be a real humanitarian crisis.” Mesila provided food aid to up to 60 families a day during the pandemic, though many more were in dire straits.
A temporary saving grace for the community came when the Israeli Supreme Court in April 2020 struck down the Deposit Law, ruling that it violated the property rights of asylum seekers. The court ordered the money to be returned to asylum seekers within 30 days. There were approximately 11,000 requests to get the money back, of which 8,400 were accepted about a month after the court’s ruling.
This additional money, plus aid from activists and the municipality, helped Eden get through the worst of the early lockdown.
Now waiting two years since receiving sponsorship, Eden doesn’t know when exactly they will manage to go to Canada. Already, the wait has prevented Naeb from starting college. Yet far from all has been lost this past year: Eden recently married an Eritrean man, Daniel, and they had a baby together last October. They gave him an Israeli name – Noam. When Eden compares their immediate uncertainty with those without sponsorship, she counts her blessings.
“I know kids who turn 18, and they begin to work the hardest, most physical jobs to help their family,” she said. “And some kids are doing nothing, going with the homeless people. These kids know the language, they know the culture, but they can’t advance themselves. In Canada, my kids can at least go to school and start paying it afterwards.”
Though unsure when it will be exactly, Eden hopes their family’s departure will be in the coming months. “For anyone in our community, it’s been a minimum of nine years living here not having any fun, no vacation, not able to see your family with nowhere to go,” said Eden. “Life begins to feel meaningless. Finally, we have a chance.”
‘I know I am not one of them’
At a café in Shapira, Sonny slouched at a table that looked too small for his gangly frame, the only Black man among the crowd of young, gentrifying Israelis. It was 1pm, but Sonny was tired, extremely tired. Living back home with his family again, he works in the kitchen of a popular bar until 3am five nights a week. He is barely in touch with his father.
“So do you still have no hope?” I asked him.
He replied casually, “Nope, but we need to survive. Tel Aviv is very expensive. We have to pay for the apartment, for food. It is very hard, so it doesn’t matter. I need to do what I need to do for us.”
Just as Sonny arrives home from work, Vivian leaves at 4am to clean houses. She quit babysitting in the summer of 2019. “After a decade of babies screaming every day, you realise it is enough,” she laughed in their new, quieter apartment. “You start going crazy!”
While Vivian is out working, Sonny cooks breakfast for Selena and Quincy and prepares them for school. He then sleeps a little, eats and prepares for another night of work.
But now he has a new dream: acting.
In 2019, Haaretz journalist Lee Yaron created Kishta, a play based on Knesset Internal Affairs Committee notes from a 2018 meeting to discuss the “deportation of infiltrators”. In the play, prominent right-wing politicians calling for the removal of African “infiltrators” are played by actors from the African asylum seeker community. Yaron offered Sonny the role of Oren Hazan, a bombastic Likud politician who previously said African refugees in Tel Aviv “don’t even have a culture,” warning that “if you don’t kick them out right now, then they will kick you out in the future.”
Having never seriously acted before, Sonny had 22 days to prepare for the first show in Jerusalem. “It took all the anger I had before and put it into something productive,” he reflected. “When they told us refugees: ‘You aren’t Jewish, f*** off,’ well, now I got to say that to them,” he added, chuckling.
The experience was cathartic for Sonny, helping him get over the deportation of his father. The play details the empty gestures of compassion for refugees that Israeli politicians began these committee meetings with – only to promptly turn around and attack the “infiltrators” in south Tel Aviv. “At the beginning, it was hard to read the words these politicians said about me and my family,” said Sonny. “But it helped me understand how people forget we are humans. The politicians are all liars, and they’re putting on a show.”
Sonny is working on a screenplay about his own life called Son of a Black Eagle, which is a coming to terms with his hazy identity. “I’m Israeli in some ways, yeah – I’ve lived here for 14 years,” said Sonny, surer of himself than a year before. “But I know where I come from. I know I am not one of them.”
Kishta was a success among audiences in Jerusalem – and Sonny is dreaming big again. “I want to be rich – I dream of winning an Oscar,” he smiled.
Though taking care of family responsibilities, acting keeps his will to dream alive. “My sister says she wants to be a singer. It’s her dream,” said Sonny. “So I tell her okay, keep your dream up. It doesn’t matter if four years ago they were wondering where we would stay. Because if they have a dream to follow, they can keep on going.”
It is hard to dream when the state you grew up in has denied you a future. Most of Sonny’s South Sudanese friends are gone – to North America, Europe, Africa, or dead. Still, he dreams.
The daily grind was hard enough before COVID-19 hit. During the two-month lockdown last year, neither Sonny nor Vivian were able to work. The Deposit Law money helped somewhat, but only after more than a month without income. Sonny volunteered to deliver food aid to affected families, including his own. By late May, the lockdown had eased and they went back to work, though with fewer hours. Subsequent reclosures made making ends meet nearly impossible. “It’s been tough,” said Sonny. “Very tough.”
The pandemic put monthly performances of Kishta on pause, but Sonny still hopes to go to acting school in Tel Aviv. No different from any adult “infiltrator” now, Sonny handles the harsh reality of working late nights in the kitchen of a Tel Aviv bar during a months-long pandemic not in spite of his newfound dream, but with its help. It is something to strive for amid indefinite limbo.
Sonny’s family is trying to gain asylum in Canada through the UN, but all they can do now is wait and hope. If Israel did give him status, Sonny envisions spending another four or five years in the country, hoping the situation in South Sudan would be safe by then to return. But he doesn’t like to entertain those thoughts much.
“If you ask anyone of this generation: ‘I have two propositions for you – Israeli citizenship, or citizenship abroad’, they will choose Israeli citizenship,” said Genossar. “But they don’t think they will get it. After 10, 12 years, of course they don’t.”
Akin to those labelled “infiltrators” – Palestinians – before them, Israeli legislators often frame African asylum seekers as a demographic threat to the Jewish state. The approximately 30,000 African asylum seekers comprise about 0.3 percent of Israel’s population of more than nine million; most asylum-seeking children in Israel can be found in four schools in south Tel Aviv.
In April 2018, after failing to deport all of them to Africa, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to an agreement with the UNHCR -16,000 asylum seekers in Israel would be safely resettled to other countries while the rest would receive legal status in Israel. It was an unusual arrangement for the UN to make with a wealthy country like Israel, and within 24 hours, Netanyahu reneged on the agreement, bowing to right-wing pressure to not accept any asylum seekers. At times during the pandemic, the government has backtracked on providing funding to non-profits aiding the disadvantaged on the off-chance some of the funds may help asylum seekers.
With the world now gripped by a pandemic, there is no immediate resolution in sight. As borders around the world remain closed or restricted during the coronavirus pandemic, any exodus from Israel is greatly slowed. Over time, more families will manage to find asylum elsewhere, and a few may return to Africa, but the outward flow will be slow – and childhood is finite.
“The minute they graduate high school they will be just like the other asylum seekers with almost no rights where you can renew your visa, you can work, and that’s it,” said Barbero-Elkayam of Mesila. “We need to acknowledge that we are raising a different kind of generation: one that speaks Hebrew, that will want to go to university and even give back, which is amazing. But they won’t be able to.
“The way these kids are growing up, with no future and no status, some solution needs to be found.”
*Names changed to protect family members who are still in Eritrea.