I moved to Tel Aviv from New York three years ago when awarded a social justice fellowship to work with marginalized, underserved, and trauma-stricken communities in a conflict zone. Looking for a change of pace (and weather) and as the daughter of an Israeli parent, my fluency in Hebrew and familiarity with the country made the move that much more appealing.
As time goes by, though, I sadly cannot wait to get out of this place. You think I’m crazy, right? How can I not appreciate my ‘grade A’ life in the bubble of Tel Aviv with its fine dining, cultural events, some of the best beaches in the world, a plethora of cute dogs, and an endless supply of trendy bars and cafes. While my weekends contain a smattering of involvement in the above activities, my weekdays look dramatically different. They involve walking through Tel Aviv’s decrepit central bus station on the way to my social worker job in a south Tel Aviv after–school therapeutic program for children of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees. The stench of urine, feces, and huge piles of uncollected trash in the streets by the bus station is strong enough to get anyone’s gag reflex going. Homeless addicts sleep on public benches and ask for money between puffs from their homemade crack pipes. At work a 4-year-old child whose limited vocabulary includes the Hebrew word for “junkie” tells me about being sexually abused by a relative, and a 32-year-old mother tells me how she suffers from chronic nightmares about her 9-year- old daughter, kidnapped by her ex-husband, who has been lost somewhere in Sudan for the past three years.
If I had a dollar for every time a parent asked me to help them move to America, I could afford much more than I can from my embarrassingly low salary. This is no exaggeration. I made more money babysitting in 12th grade in the United State than I do now as a clinical social worker in Tel Aviv with a professional graduate degree.
After three years of working with Israel’s African asylum seeking community, I can say that I am burnt out. It is not just the work itself, but also the frustration of having zero power to change the racist and intentionally bullying governmental policies that keep these people in a continuous state of purgatory. My burnout also comes from being utterly tired of telling a family facing eviction, with children who have pre-existing medical conditions and no health insurance, that I can do nothing to help them.
Recently, on May 2017, a new Knesset (Israeli parliament) law went into effect. It decrees that 20 percent of the meager monthly paychecks of African asylum seekers and refugees will be withheld and returned to them only upon their permanent departure from Israel. Without legal status and passports, how exactly can these people voluntarily leave Israel? This law, along with the entire political establishment, encourages Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, who fled brutal and dangerous dictatorships, forced conscription, civil wars, and threats for being human rights activists to return to their home countries. But, if they return to their countries of origin, they will immediately be thrown into jail or murdered. Who in their right mind can choose either option, stay and face destitution and homelessness or go back to one’s home country for a summary execution.
Let’s also not forget that these asylum seekers and their Israeli-born children have no legal status. As a result, they are not eligible for basic social benefits Israeli citizens enjoy, such as health insurance, social security, higher education, and freedom of movement. It’s unbelievably ridiculous that a child born in Israel and educated in Jewish Israeli schools cannot go to a university at age 18. Furthermore, this young adult can potentially be taken by force to the isolated Holot Detention Center in the Negev Desert solely because he is a single male African refugee over age 18.
But Israel is the leading democracy in the Middle East, right?
These are just a few of struggles that asylum seekers face on a regular basis. But what about their past? Many of them were kidnapped and tortured in the Sinai. When they crossed the border into Israel they were severely traumatized and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Persistent untreated PTSD has resulted in many poorly functioning refugee parents whose often neglected and abused children suffer the harsh consequences of their parents’ PTSD. The resulting alcoholism and intimate partner violence among the parents, and severe developmental and behavioral problems among the children go untreated due to poverty and lack of access to health care. There is an option to purchase private health insurance for children, which, similar to the United States, is quite expensive. Currently, there is one walk-in family health clinic that operates with an ever-changing staff primarily comprised of volunteer doctors and nurses with a limited number of specialists. Patients wait in this overcrowded clinic for hours to be seen, and often cannot get their medical needs addressed. More often than not, an individual needing surgery has to face the prospect of an enormous long-term future debt of a minimum of 20,000 shekels (about $5,600 in U.S. dollars).
After giving a brief picture of what my days look like, we can move on to my nights. Shortly after I moved to Israel, I met a dynamic and charismatic film student who looked like any Tel Aviv hipster, covered with tattoos and wearing skinny jeans. An Arab citizen of Israel, who left his village in the north of Israel at age 18, he self-identified as the black sheep his parents never quite understood. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love and learn about the complexity and pain of growing up as an Arab in Israel proper–being too Arab in one crowd and too Israeli in another. The constant feeling of needing to prove yourself and never being accepted for who you are, a decent human being. You quickly learn to accept the fact that you were not entitled to scholarships for university tuition, in contrast to your Jewish student cohort who without the hardship of loans were able to focus more on their studies and work part-time. You, however, had to work full-time to cover the costs of education and take two more years to graduate. How about the feeling when you are sitting on the bus and your mom calls to check in with you? While you are talking to her in Arabic, an armed soldier in the seat next to you casually points his loaded AK-47 right at you.
While life for those us who live in the Tel Aviv bubble has its daily struggles of not being able to afford the exorbitant cost of living, for the most part, we have lived like any other couple trying to build a life together. However, things became more complicated when we started thinking how to make plans for the future. We quickly learned that there is no civil marriage in Israel and that the rabbinical courts do not perform interfaith weddings. This means that we cannot legally marry in Israel unless one of us chooses to convert (nope) and that our best option is to get married in Cyprus. After many discussions of how to build a life together and raise a family, the next step became overwhelmingly clear. My social work salary in Israel would never allow me to save enough money to raise a family and buy a house. I also could not imagine our future offspring suffering from discrimination as half-Arab and half-Jewish and the overwhelming stigma that goes along with that. Alternatively, while there has been a rise of U.S. hate crimes since Trump became President in January 2017, the possibility of raising an interfaith and mixed ethnic family in a normal way is still viable in most metropolitan cities in the United States.
So where does this leave me? Am I coward for saying “khalas” (Arabic for “enough”), I want out of here? Or, are there just too many avenues that have dead-ended here in Israel? I want the same thing that all Israeli Jews, Arabs, and asylum seekers want, to live in peace with my family and for my future children to have equal opportunities. I don’t see this happening here in Israel unless the apartheid structure finally ends and all people have equal rights, regardless of their nationality, race, or religion. Yes, I used the “A” word, apartheid, because that is what it is. So, until then, you will find me making plans to move back to the U.S. and trying my hardest to help all my refugee families relocate to Canada or Europe. And, if I can afford it, I will gladly come back to visit amazing Israeli and Arab friends and family, the beach, and my favorite Eritrean restaurant in south Tel Aviv.