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. 


  1. quite an interesting Xmas weekend. The irony, trying to help Muslims/Christians get asylum in the Jewish state, while my American Jewish daughter is invited to convert to Christianity in Tel Aviv. And to be thought of as a working girl.
    Bravo, Marissa

  2. Kol HaKavod, Kid!

    Its great to see your heart, head and hands at work for good causes! Let us know how we can help!

    Uncle Mark

  3. Hi Marissa:

    Last week's Jerusalem Post reported that there were at least two demonstrations against the refugees in Hatikva (ironic, no?) by residents of Hatikva, Kiryat Shalom, and South Tel Aviv in general, and another demonstration in a neighboring area. Its great to see you on the right side. You are right: "We are all refugees". Its more than a pity that Israelis could think differently. Are you getting hassled for your work? Is there anything we can do here to drum up support for you?

    Uncle Mark