Levanda Street

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Levanda Street is a hectic, hidden corner of a city I know like the back of myhand. It is a part of that city that few people visit unless they live there, or have to. I have walked many strange paths through this twisted, hungry metropolis, but I have spent time on Levanda out of a sense of social responsibility as well as cultural curiosity, since there are shops and restaurants there (or near) unlike any other in the city.

The following article gives a glimpse of the refugee question faced by many many countries, and the plight of people who leave certain death and starvation for an uncertain, bureaucratic future. There are no easy solutions and not many heroes or villains, mainly just people struggling to do the best they can…but perhaps by telling their stories, and publicizing them, this important, tragic question may find an answer eventually.

The following article is reposted from Intelligent Life.

AT LEAST YOU DON’T GET SHOT HERE

by Gideon Lichfield

Mostly, the Africans are invisible. You catch a glimpse of dark faces like a hallucination when the kitchen door swings open in just about any of Tel Aviv’s glitzy restaurants and bars, but for all the diners know they are teleported to work, or flown in specially from Sudan each evening. That’s because most of the diners, like me until last night, have never heard of Levanda street. I stood on Levanda for at least half an hour, and almost everyone who passed by was either African or lost.

The street begins next to Tel Aviv’s central bus station, which pumps passengers in and out 24 hours a day, and runs between workshops and low-rise housing to where the shiny office towers of the business district rear up. Those Africans who have found paying work rent rooms. Those who haven’t are in the basement of the last house on Levanda.

I went with a handful of young Israeli soldiers. Some of them had been in the south the day before, near the Ketsiot prison where Africans who sneak across the porous border with Egypt are held while the UNHCR processes them. They had bumped into a gaggle of Ivorians who, through a bureaucratic snafu, had been released into the empty desert. The Ivorians had heard of this place in Tel Aviv that an NGO had rented as a shelter for migrants. The soldiers arranged for them to be picked up, and then decided to bring them some food.

About 2,000 Africans entered Israel last year, a growing tide encouraged by the news that Israeli soldiers, unlike their counterparts in most of north Africa, don’t shoot migrants (and even help them). Some are refugees from wars and genocide, and some just want a better life.

The ones from Cote d’Ivoire have one of the more uncertain futures. Most of them – so they say, at least – fled the fighting that broke out after a rebellion against Laurent Gbagbo, the president, in 2002. On the recommendation of UNHCR, people from war zones like Darfur get automatic “temporary protection” from the Israeli government, which means the right to stay and work until the UN deems it safe to go back. Until recently, that included Ivorians. But the 11 who arrived at Levanda street this week were among the last batch who might be eligible. The civil war was officially declared over in March, and refugees will now have to prove their case for protection, though they may have left Cote d’Ivoire two or three years ago and have no idea what is going on there.

The 11 new arrivals were mostly young men who said they had been rebels in the war. They were friendly, though still a little annoyed at having been dumped in the desert. An argument broke out between a couple of them about whether talking to journalists was likely to improve their chances of asylum. Then they took us inside.

It’s a small warren of rooms, which judging by the scraps of posters used to be a nightclub. At their estimate, which looked about right, around 100 people are packed in to it. They’ve run out of sleeping space, so some are sleeping outside, in temperatures that have fallen close to freezing. Bags, clothes, mattresses and cooking pots take up almost all the dry floor space. What was once shelving improvises as bunk-beds. They could sleep in the bathrooms if they weren’t inch-deep in diluted urine. A couple of broken, shit-filled toilets are the alternative to relieving themselves outside. Well-wishers have brought some bits and pieces of kitchen equipment, utensils and food. A few, though, clearly have some money, whether sent by relatives, borrowed, earned or stolen; there are a few mobile phones and even the odd MP3 player. Their plight illustrates how slow the refugee rumour mill is to catch up with reality. When just a few dozens or hundreds were trickling across each year, it was easy for Israel to give them a much better life than they could have elsewhere. “Would you have come if you knew what the conditions were like?” I asked one of them who had been designated as the spokesman. “Not at all,” he said.

The space is divided by nationality: Ivorians in one section, Eritreans in the next. The Eritreans are usually classified by the UNHCR as economic migrants, and have little chance of staying permanently.

Scanning a list of names of people awaiting their UN documents I came across a young Eritrean geography graduate called Aaron. He had excellent English, an easy, ironic smile, and cynical sense of humour. When I asked why he had come to Israel, he gave me such a look that I apologised for asking a stupid question. “No, it’s not stupid,” he said, and looked around us at the pile of blankets and mattresses. “I was just, you know [ironic smile] looking for a better life.” After graduating, he had few job prospects and faced getting drafted into the army. “But I like my freedom. I was born free and I intend to stay free the rest of my life.”

I told him if that George Bush heard him, he would probably get an American passport on the spot. He laughed loud and ironically, declined to be photographed, and then walked out of the shelter to the bus station. A relative from Eritrea had contacted him, asking him to meet yet another new arrival and bring him back to the shelter. Aaron was one of the ones with a phone.

I took his number. He felt like someone I could have met nursing a lazy afternoon drink in any of Tel Aviv’s cafes. I’d like to think he soon will be. I doubt it, though.

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