Sunday, December 26, 2010

We Are All Refugees

What a weekend. Christmas weekend in Israel is just like any other weekend with almost no signs of the Christian holiday. It’s a pretty interesting feeling having grown up in the US, but I don’t mind it in the least. Although I didn’t open gifts or sing carols, I did have an action-packed weekend that actually may have been one of the best weekends yet.

This past Friday, 12/24, marked my 1st ever protest. I had only heard about it the Sunday before at work at the ARDC (refugee center) when my boss mentioned that he was going. The demonstration would be in protest against the labor camp the Israeli government is planning to build in the heart of the Negev Desert as a sort of holding place for African asylum seekers. Since the gov’t still doesn’t know what to do with the more than 25,000 Africans living in its country, someone thought it would be a great idea to just dump them in the desert with some barbed wire. Cool. More generally, it was a fight for refugee rights. What’s interesting about the Africans’ situation is that Israel really, really doesn’t want to give them refugee rights—they are still considered to be asylum seekers—because if they were to grant them the refugee rights, then they would have to deal with *gasp* the Palestinians who don’t have rights either. Considering I had sadly missed the Human Rights Day March on 12/10, I was so excited to check this protest out.

Israeli kids at the protest

Friday rolled around and a few friends and I met the small group of Israelis and other foreigners on the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin (downtown TLV) at 10 am. We were all getting pumped for the event, handing out stickers and signs, when I heard a bunch of kids screaming. I turned to my left and here came a group of at least 30 Israeli children under the age of 10 chanting slogans in protest of their own governmental policies. It was amazing to see them in support of the refugees holding signs saying “Culanu plitim” “We are all refugees,” and “Hem gam b’nai adam” “They are also humans.” Then came the wave of Africans and other Israeli organizations including the Israeli chapter of Amnesty International. I had no idea what to expect in terms of the number of people, and was pleasantly surprised that at least 1,000 people showed up for the march.
Julie and me before the march

We were off. We began walking towards King George Street guarded by police officers and stared at by passersby. There was a drum group in the march that got everyone excited for the cause and multiple people on loudspeakers yelling phrases we were then to repeat. Most of the sayings were in English because the majority of Africans do not speak Hebrew, and even then, their English may not be too great. But we managed. It was funny each time an Israeli yelled something in Hebrew to have everyone else yell back, most people went silent, kindof just faking some sort of sounds that resembled the actual words.

Examples of things shouted in English:
-We are not criminals!
-We are refugees!
- Deportation no more!
-Deportation, No! Protection, Yes!
And my personal favorite: -We need protection!

Needless to say, I was totally into the shouting because the energy was just through the roof. One of my friends and I got swallowed up into a group of Eritrean men who were clapping intensely and shouting loudly. It was so much fun. At one point we were repeating the phrase “We need protection!” which I obviously shouted loudly along with everyone else, when one Eritrean guy looks at me and asks skeptically, “YOU need protection?” Taken completely off-guard, I stuttered something like “Well, no, I, uh, I’m just helping you!” He laughed and we shared a brief moment. The media coverage was amazing, too. I really hope it had some effect.

When we finally arrived to the park on King George Street after about an hour of marching, everyone gathered around in a huge circle to hear the various speakers. The chants continued though before the 1st speaker took the mic. At one point, the chant was “ Deportation no more!” and although most people knew what to say, I heard another Eritrean man next to me yelling something like, “ Protection no more!” I told my friends and one said to me, “English teacher, take care of it.” So, I turned to him and his friends and mentioned that he should be yelling “deportation” because “protection” is actually something you want. I don’t think he got it. I also righted a sticker in Hebrew one of them had stuck upside-down to his shirt. It was pretty comical. It was really awesome to see how warm and open the guys became as soon as you start a conversation or small relationship with them. I can’t imagine they have much interaction with Israelis AKA white people in TLV, and at 1st when I started talking to them you could see the hesitation. But as soon as they realized I was there to help, huge smiles appeared on their faces. What an amazing feeling.

Every single speaker was so great; I can’t stress it enough. Israeli politicians, Africans from Eritrea and Sudan, and Israeli artists took the stage. The speeches were in both Hebrew and English and sometimes Tigrinya (the language spoken in Eritrea) meaning I could understand most of what was going on. But even if you didn’t get the words, the energy was moving enough. I ran into some coworkers from the refugee center and other people that work at different refugee organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). One friend Julie, who I work with at the day care center, also volunteers at PHR. She noticed one of the patients at the protest who is a young man in a wheelchair. Julie told me that he is from Sudan and is now paralyzed from the waist down having be shot 7 times by Egyptian border police when crossing the border into Israel. She said he faked death until Israeli soldiers came around to check the bodies. He was smiling and happy to be alive. These are the kinds of stories we hear.
The crowd in the park

An Eritrean woman gave one of the most incredible speeches that may have not even been rehearsed previously, but made no difference either way. Although I work with some people from Eritrea (if you’re wondering, it borders Sudan on the eastern border), I don’t know much about their country nor their current situation; most of my students are from Darfur so I hear many more stories about life in Sudan. The woman speaker explained how living in Eritrea means living under a dictatorship that takes most of its practices and laws from communist countries such as Russia and China. She expressed her frustration with Israel wondering aloud, “Why does Israel want to put us in prison? We’re coming from a prison. We are not criminals.”

Another awesome speaker was a current politician in the government, whose name I of course forget. He compared the genocide and horrible conditions of the Africans to those of the Jews in the not so distant past. “How easily we forget,” he stated. Writing this now is bringing back of the emotions I felt during his speech: anger, confusion, empathy, frustration, helplessness, and pride. Why pride? Because we were some of those people who didn’t forget.

"Forget" in a star that Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust
Saturday was Christmas day, which I usually spend lounging around the house or handing out hot food at the soup kitchen back at home with my family. This year was different. I went to church. That’s right. Funny I haven’t been to a synagogue since I’ve been in Israel, but I did go to a Christian service. Riddle me that.

One of the women at the new day care has been inviting Julie and me to go to her church for mass on Saturday mornings. We kept putting it off until finally I decided I would go for Christmas. Because hey, if you’re going to go, might as well go big or go home. She gave us a flyer with the times and address of the church and I promised I would be there. Julie didn’t end up coming along, but I did convince one of my friends, Morgan, to come instead.

Saturday morning I started walking to the church, located on Har Tsyion Street near the Central Bus Station and Levinsky Park. On my way there, I walked from the bottom of Har Tsyion street and on my way, a car started to slow down next to me until it actually started crawling along with me. I’m honestly a little sick of people asking for dirctions—which happens on an average of 4 times a week—because my answer is usually “Ani lo yoda’at” “I don’t know,” but this time it seemed a little weird. I got a little freaked out because no one was yelling anything to me so I decided to stop, and then the car drove off. Very bizarre. A few minutes later a car on the other side of the 4-lane road slowed down and began honking continuously. I looked over and I’m pretty sure the honking was for me. What was going on? It was 9:30 in the morning on Shabbat and yes I was wearing a dress, but I was going to church for god’s sake, it wasn’t anything is the slightest bit revealing. The car seemed to drive away until it magically appeared next to me and did the same crawling maneuver the previous one had done. Seriously WTF?! The car eventually left and I made it to the park. I took out the flyer when I noticed that #12 appeared to be a closed storefront. I called Morgan who said she would be there within the next 10 minutes so after explaining to her my predicament, I decided to take a seat on the edge of the park. I really didn’t mind waiting at all because there must have been hundreds of Eritreans arriving in the park dressed in their Christmas best. Oh yeah, I’ve also heard that a lot of Christians are fleeing religious persecution in Eritrea. The men wore snazzy suits while the women were dressed in long white dresses and lace white veils. I wanted to take a lot of the family portraits they were all posed for, but decided it would be too creepy. Here are a few I snapped:

These men definitely caught me
Looking sharp
Morgan arrived shortly after my stalking session and we started wandering the streets in search of the Deeper Life Bible Church. I stopped random men on the street in hopes of a positive answer, but no one seemed to know of the church’s existence. Everyone was really friendly though. When I approached them I wasn’t sure whether to speak in Hebrew or English so I usually just started in English, but here is one of the conversations (loosely) that took place between one of the men and me:

Me: Hi, do you know where this is? (Showing him the flyer)
Man: Hmmm (silence while reading the flyer)
Me: I’m looking for this church.
Man: Church? Christian?
Me: Yes, Christian.
Man: At m’daberet ivrit? (Do you speak Hebrew?)
Me: Ken, aifo ze? (Yes, where is this?)
Man: Church, shachor o lavan? (Church, black or white?)
Me: (giggling nervously) Shachor, lama lo?! (Black, why not?!)
Man: (laughing) Ze shama v’yamina. (It’s that way and then right)

Well, it wasn’t, but thanks anyway. I asked another group of men who told me to follow this random guy on a bike. He had no idea where it was either. Defeated, Morgan and I settled on people watching in the park until we felt like going home. I took out the flyer again and realized there were 3 phone numbers on it. I was hesitant to call considering it was now 10:45 and the service was supposed to have started at 10. I called the 1st number to no avail. A man answered the 2nd number and informed me he was going outside for me. Then, click. But where are you?! I called back after a few minutes and he again stated he was on the street waiting for me. He was in fact on the street corner in front of Har Tsyion #12. He took Morgan and me around the building up the stairs to an apartment building. We entered a door of the 2nd floor and found a room filled with people and an energetic man behind an orange microphone. On our feet, we joined in clapping and even a little dancing with the rest of the churchgoers. If synagogue was as fun as this maybe I would go more. Maybe. I noticed the older Nigerian woman I work with and when we went over to sit with her she gave us the biggest hugs so thrilled we had made it. We stayed for about 2 hours at which point we had had enough. At least the service was in English. When I told the woman I had to leave she wasn’t very happy. But we left anyway. On our way out, an usher handed us 2 plastic bags with a juice can and a small water bottle. The man, Francis, who had originally answered the phone and waited for us outside, was in the hallway chatting with some friends. He asked if we would come back and wondered if we had liked what we had seen. I tried to hint we only came to check out this special day, but I don’t think he got it. Or rather, he chose not too. He asked us both back inside to fill out “First Timers to the Church” cards and I mean, we couldn’t say no! I’d bet money we’ll both get calls next week reminding us to come to church on Saturday.

On our way back, Morgan and I took the same route I had taken there, back on Har Tsyion street. We noticed a woman in very tights clothes and very high heels on the street when a car pulled up to her. The 2 men must have asked her something—directions I had presumed—and then drove off. Morgan said something like, “I guess they weren’t interested.” “What are you talking about?” I asked. “This is where the prostitutes get picked up,” she said. Ahhh, it all makes sense now. Walking to church on a Saturday morning at 9:30, 2 separate cars thought I was waiting to get picked up. I feel totally violated.

In the evening, a few friends and I continued the American Jewish tradition on Christmas going to a Chinese restaurant and watching a movie. It was a great end to an awesome weekend. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Obama in Israel?

Today marked the 1st day at the new day care center. This one, owned and run by a woman from Ghana, is located in the Southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva. I’m familiar with the area because there is also an open-air market there I frequent to buy cheap fruits and veggies. This center is way smaller and with less children. I’d say there are somewhere between 10-20 kids in the day care center at a time. I feel like the change may be a good thing after all seeing as we’ll be able to get to know the kids on a more personal and intimate level.

I love meeting all of them and figuring out their unique personalities. There is always the tough guy who is too cool to come over and see what you’re all about. There’s the quiet, shy one who likes to watch from afar until he feels comfortable enough to play with everyone else. The content one who never cries even if someone steals his toy from him. And then of course the attention hog. Sometimes there may be more than one toddler that wants to put on a show, but in this center, there is no mistaking who that 1 child is, even after the 1st two hours of being there. Originally from a francophone African country (yes, I was extremely excited to find this out after he repeated “Bravo!” each time he threw the “ballon” and yelled “Dora”—referring to the 1 and only Explorer—with a guttural “r”), this little boy couldn’t be older than 3 years old. I usually have no idea the ages of the kids, but something gives it away: His name is Obama. Straight up, first name. I asked the woman what everyone’s names are and when she got to him, we couldn’t help but laugh. But don’t worry, Obama loved it and was jumping up and down. The whole time Julie and I were there playing with the kids, he was constantly climbing all over us and loving the attention. I can’t tell you how many times we yelled his name. Talk about pressure though growing up with a name like that. I’ll really try to get some pictures before my time is up at this place; seriously some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen.

One of my English students at the ARDC, David (his real name is Abdallah, but there are 2 in the class so he said to call him “David” although I’m not sure where the nickname comes from because it probably took him about 2 weeks to respond to it) from Darfur, walks home with me after class every Wednesday because we live very close to each other. Last week he asked if there was any way we could organize some sort of informal English discussions because he is really interested in improving his English. I definitely have experience in running French Tables, but I realized it would be a bit more difficult to start an English Circle when the students and other people interested in attending aren’t always in the same place. Nevertheless, I decided to put something small together for this past weekend. Another student, Ezu also from Darfur and only 25 years old, opened his own restaurant in Southern Tel Aviv last week! He has such an amazing and inspiring story saying that he had to work 2 jobs for over a year having come from a broken family due to the war in his home country. I sent out an email to everyone in my program inviting them to come and try Sudanese food and to meet some great men from Darfur in hopes of practicing English with them.

9 of my friends showed up, including participants from both the Tel Aviv and the Yafo tracks. Love you guys! Only 4 of my students ended up coming, but still, even then I was impressed with the turn out. Ezu led the way from the ARDC office, where we met, to his newly opened restaurant on the street Neve Sha’anan, directly across from the New Central Bus Station. A mixed race, nationality, religious group of 14 sat down in the Sudanese restaurant. I was blown away by the plasma screens hanging in the large dining room, the friendly kitchen staff I went over to exchange some words in Hebrew too—all Africans by the way—and the food. The food was SO DELICIOUS. I don’t think I can really tell you what Sudanese food is, but I do know that we ate a lot of beef, including beef liver, rice, beans, vegetables, and really, really scrumptious dessert. In a bowl we mixed cooked barley, halva, raisins, bananas, and drizzled some rose petal syrup on top. Perfection. The whole time, Ezu was handing out bottled and canned drinks, fresh squeezed orange juice, and pita for everyone. We kept trying to refuse, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The 3 other students from Darfur were mixed among the Americans (and 1 Australian) and were constantly getting up to help Ezu bring out some more food and clear the table. I got my hands dirty too because I wanted the students to enjoy themselves as much as they could.
The group at Ezu's Restaurant

Ezu and Me
After more than 2 hours, we decided it was time to go and since I knew we weren’t going to be handed a check, we pulled together a total of 400 shekels to pay for the exquisite meal. Ezu literally refused to take the money. I tried many tactics: left it on the table, put it in his front pocket, hid it under a napkin. Well, he wasn’t having any of it. He took me aside when we were still in the restaurant and very sternly informed me we were not to pay. I’ve never seen him be more serious than that in the 2 months that I’ve been his teacher. I couldn’t believe it. This man literally opened his own restaurant 1 week earlier, which still didn’t have a name nor menus nor a full variation of foods, and he was not allowing a group of 14 people to pay for their meal. We were even chasing him around the street by the way, just to let you know how hard we tried. The evening ended up to be a great success and I’m really excited to continue to have these cultural events and definitely to go back to Ezu’s restaurant soon *Guests be warned: anyone who comes to visit me will be going for dinner there J

This past Sunday was the last day of English classes at the ARDC for this 2-month semester. Can’t believe my 1st class has graduated already! Unfortunately the office that the org. is renting is too big and we can’t afford the price anymore so we have to move buildings. We’re not sure where yet, but I think it will happen in January. Well this is bad news for the education dept. because the potential new office doesn’t have classrooms so we’re currently looking for places to hold the classes. Anyway, the next 2-month semester (Dec. & Jan.) had to be cancelled because of the move, but I am hoping to continue teaching my students with my co-teacher only once a week. I’m really happy with the relationship we’ve all created during the time we’ve spent in the classroom and it’s awesome to see their progression. I feel like a real teacher!
My students on the last day of class in the ARDC office
Left to Right: Yaacob, David, Me, Mohammed, Ezu
Front and Center: Abdallah

Chanukah, or The Festival of Lights, started this week and it’s the Holiday Season over here in the Middle East. Well, sortof. Chanukah isn’t that big of a deal considering it’s more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. Rather a miracle, if you will. A huge menorah appeared in front of the bank in our neighborhood at the beginning of the week and there are regular-sized menorahs everywhere around the city. The high school students have off this coming week for the holiday. It’s so cool that it’s the Chanukah break. A bunch of us got together on Wednesday night to light the candles together the 1st night of the holiday. We ate so many latkes and sufganiyot (donuts without holes that are traditionally eaten during Chanukah—I guess you’re supposed to eat a lot of foods cooked in oil—check!) and had a really good time singing songs. Yes, we sang the traditional American Chanukah songs; don’t be hatin’. One girl who lives in the other TLV apartment decided to be the one to light the candles because it was her 1st Chanukah experience ever. She comes from a Russian family who relocated to Philly (shout out to my peeps in Fishtown) right before she was born and has never known what it means to be Jewish until coming here on the program. It’s really interesting. Anyway, she took the middle candle and went to light the other one and while we were all singing the prayer together she started to blow out the middle candle. The crowd’s reaction was priceless. Seriously we all screamed “NOOOOO!!!!!!!” like it was the WORST thing she could have done. I mean what would have happened? We probably would have just lit it again. It was really funny though. Maybe you had to be there…

In terms of the weather, it’s still pretty hot. Apparently this is the hottest winter Israel has had in a really long time. Sara and I went to the beach today. I didn’t go in the water, but the sun felt great. At night it’s getting pretty cool, but let’s be real, it doesn’t get lower than 55 degrees. Although it feels freezing to us because we’re so used to the heat considering I’ve now had summer since the end of last May. It’s going to be brutal coming home in February.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it yet, but there are horrible fires going on in the north of Israel right now. They’re not sure how they started yet, but they are trying everything they can to get them under control. They are mostly in the Carmel region near Haifa. This is exactly where we went on our first overnight trip—we hiked on the Carmel Mountain—and then again when we visited the Druze village. Over 15,000 people have been evacuated from the region and I sincerely hope everyone will be OK.

Shalom V’Ahava
Peace & Love