Tuesday, January 11, 2011

North vs. South

Happy New Year! I seriously cannot believe it is 2011, but that does mean I will be coming home for a visit in only a few short weeks.

If you’re wondering what the deal is with the New Year here, AKA the Christian New Year, considering the Jewish New Year (Rosha HaShanah) already passed back in September, I shall fill you in. The regular New Year isn’t as important in Israel, but is still celebrated in similar ways as everywhere else in the world: champagne, countdowns, party favors, the works. In class last Wednesday when practicing the future tense—“What will you do on New Year’s Eve”—I asked my Sudanese students if they countdown to midnight. They didn’t quite understand what I meant so using one of the maybe three Arabic words I know I said, “Ya know like ‘ashara…’” They started laughing and said yes repeatedly. Ashara means ten by the way (so close to Hebrew’s 10, eser, or if masculine esra). Some friends and I went to Florentin, a pretty hip neighborhood with nice bars for a street party on New Year’s Eve. It was totally packed and really young; I saw some of the kids that go to the high school where I tutor English. We didn’t end up staying that long, but we did pop champagne when the clock struck 12.

Last week I went with my friend Lisa to her English lesson, which she now gives in one of her student’s apartments near the Central Bus Station in south TLV. His name is Mustafa and is such a character. Mustafa is 50 years old and is from Sudan. Back home, he has two wives and at least fifteen children. He explained it is common to have more than one wife in Africa. Here in TLV, he lives with a young couple from Senegal who have a beautiful baby girl, Fatima. As soon as Lisa told me she also teaches the woman of the couple, Maria, I insisted I come for a visit in order to speak French with her. When we arrived, Maria’s husband greeted us and he was surprised I spoke French, but the conversation went normally. After a few minutes Maria finally came into the room and sat down next to me. Nag na def? I asked. “How are you?” No, that isn’t French; it’s Wolof, the second official language of Senegal. Magnifi, she answered naturally. “Good.” Then she did a double take. “Wait, you speak Wolof?!” Sadly I had to answer no, but we did have a nice conversation in French. I stayed for the hour-long lesson and helped to translate any new vocabulary words she wasn’t quite sure of. It was a lot of fun and Lisa said that she keeps asking for me. I can’t wait to go back.

One of my assignments recently at the ARDC is to create country profiles for each African country the refugees in Israel are coming from. Specifically, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Ivory Coast. I was really excited to get this assignment because I always feel like I should know more about each country. I’m definitely becoming a lot more knowledgeable about each one and I feel more confident speaking with my students about their home countries. An interesting phenomenon I’ve come across is the divide between north and south. For most this probably isn’t a new thing, but for some reason when researching about these African countries, the concept really resonated within me. What is the deal with North vs. South though? Think about it, there have been so many wars, battles, and arguments involving such divide: the American Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, and I’m sure other ones I conveniently can’t think of right now. But anyway, I can now add to the list Congo and Sudan. If you’re thinking, “Where is Darfur located?” Well, that would be in the west, so that doesn’t really count. However, there is a huge divide between north and south Sudan—Muslims vs. Christians—so it applies. South Sudan may even become its own country. This past Sunday, the people of Sudan voted on a referendum on whether or not south Sudan should secede from the north. All of my students are crossing their fingers for the permanent divide. The south is safe for them.

To address Mark’s comment about the protest against refugees only a few weeks ago, I ended up missing the event although it took place in Kiryat Shalom, the neighborhood where we live. There is a lot of opposition to African refugees in TLV and in Israel in general. Proud of what I’m doing here, I am not afraid to state where I am volunteering and who I am here to help. In terms of vocal opposition, it really depends on who you’re talking to. I find that I get a lot of slack from older Israelis whose arguments usually consist of the same questions/statements: “Why aren’t you helping the Jews?” “Old people need help too.” “They shouldn’t even be here.” I’ve gotten very upset while out talking to Israelis (young ones too) and trying to justify wanting to help people who are coming from genocide. It’s almost mind-boggling that I have to defend wanting to work with refugees coming from a war-torn country (almost all of my students’ fathers, or other family members, have been killed by the governmental army). What is wrong with Israelis?! Don’t we, as Jews, come from a freakishly similar past? Yes, of course they can’t argue with that, but I honestly don’t even like pulling the Holocaust card on the issue. You don’t have to have lost people in a genocide to understand why you should do something about a different one.

In all fairness though, I don’t have an answer or solution to the ridiculously complex issue of African asylum seekers currently in Israel. This country was not made for this many people or for this many diverse problems; not to mention it is still so new. It’s true, if all of these Africans were to be granted citizenship they would throw off the Jewish majority, not entirely, but to some extent, I guess. But what’s interesting is that they didn’t come here to find work or to take over the Jewish holy land, even if Jerusalem is super holy for them too as Muslims. As one of my students, Mohammed, plainly stated: “Over there is death, Israel equals life.” That’s it.

Whenever I meet an understanding person here actually interested in what I’m doing (often times people just don’t even know what is going on) I usually get asked why I decided to come to Israel and how come to work with these specific people. My answer is usually simple: If you met them, you would want to help too.

If you've been searching for a way to help, sign this Petition! And you can make a difference.


  1. Hi Marissa:

    You have a great deal of information and a unique perspective about a problem that is little known and less understood over here. I am sure that someone else must have suggested this to you, but you should consider speaking to Jewish social welfare organizations and synagogues about the issue when you return to the States. You can continue to do a world of good for the refugees and for the Jewish community in the process. I am sure that there are any number of organizations and synagogues that would love to hear you.

    Thanks for the information and thanks for circulating the Petition.

    Glad to see that you returned safely from Masada.

    Uncle Mark

  2. Everyone who reads Marissa's blog, sign the petition. I'm still haunted by the images of the rally, especially the yellow Star of David.
    On a lighter note, I'm glad you found someone to speak French with, and learn more about Senegal. Hugs and kisses to you and Zoe, M