Sunday, 22 June 2008

Immigration Blues (Part Two)

Somewhere in North Tel Aviv...

I wandered into a restaurant alone, famished. The waiter wanders over.

'You've come about a job?'

I frowned. He smiled. 'You are looking for work? Kitchen?'

Our eyes met. The penny dropped. For both of us, at the same time.

'I've come to eat...'

'I'm sorry, it's just that someone like you came...'

I scowled. 'Can I sit down and have a menu, please?'

'Of course.'

For a short while, I was really pissed off. What on earth did he mean, 'someone like me?' Can't he conceptualise a world where black people are customers?

Then I thought about it a little more carefully.

The refugee community in Tel Aviv has grown steadily over the last couple of years, from more or less nothing to about 4,000 odd. Most of the refugees are black Africans, from the Sudan, Cote d'Ivorie, Congo, Eritrea and so on. Pretty much all of them are in a desperate condition.

I did some writing work about the issue late last year and at the beginning of this year, and spent time hanging around their haunts in South Tel Aviv. For many of them, the situation is truly desperate.

Public opinion about their presence is mixed, as is usually the case with matters like this. For every person who opines that there is a humanitarian responsibility to help the refugees, many of them fleeing persecution and worse, there are others who consider them a blight to be eradicated as quickly and quietly as possible.

Tricky Udi falls into the second category, sadly. His opinions on the matter can be summed up in the memorable quote he gave a journalist a while ago: 'What do we have in common with them, anyway?'

He has a point there. Refugees don't have rich American patrons to (allegedly) give them envelopes stuffed with cash, and undeclared loans to subsidise family holidays. Come to think of it, they don't get holidays at all.

In a general sense, it's an interesting - and difficult - equation. Israel is a small country, and one that (for reasons good or bad - I have no particular views on the matter one way or the other) aspires to an ethnic Jewish homogeneity. The absorption of large numbers of refugees will certainly have a significant impact upon this aspiration, now and in the future. On the other hand, most Israelis with functional memories and any desire to engage with the country's history beyond the sloganeering and rhetoric are aware, painfully aware, of the country's roots, and how the question of safe refuge fits into this. There's no point belabouring the point - if you are reading this blog, you probably understand what I mean - but it's worth noting the the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Refugees grew out of the experiences of the Jews in Europe both before and after the second world war.

The Israeli government, in effect, does not have a refugee policy - not because the government is as callous as Tricky Udi, but because (I suspect) to have one without dealing with the knotty issue of the Palestinian Right of Return would be, well, a little difficult.

So, consequently, many of the refugees in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel are in a legal black hole, unable to claim asylum or process said claims in a timely and equitable fashion (for all I know, they may be lying, each and every one of them - BUT they deserve to have their cases heard, and adjudicated upon. In fact, International Law protects this right), and dependant upon the goodwill and handouts of the citizenry of this city. A few have benefited from loopholes in the system and erratic outbursts of government largesse - granting, or promising to grant (the two are not necessarily the same thing) asylum status to refugees from Darfur, for example, but not to those from South Sudan - but most live a peripheral life on the margins, eking out a miserable existence.

Which leads me back to my starting point. Over the last few months, I've noticed more and more black faces behind counters, waiting on tables, washing dishes and so on in Tel Aviv. You notice these things - black faces are a rare sight outside south T.A. - and it made me wonder.

It could be that they are being exploited pitilessly by employers hunting for cheap labour.

Or it could be an attempt, no matter how small and otherwise insignificant, to try and give these unfortunates a little bit of their dignity back, a chance to attempt to put their lives back in order by working and earning, no matter the fact that the amounts would probably be comparatively small.

I would like to think the latter.

Israel is not alone in this - there was an excellent article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago about the situation in the United Kingdom, here , where the treatment of refugees generally is a disgrace and an affront to civilised behaviour - but the story has more emotive undertones in this part of the world, taking into account the experiences of the 1930s.

No one can propose that Israel take full responsibility for every claimed refugee that crosses it's borders. But the government can't turn a blind eye, hide its collective head in the sand and hope 'ye hiyeh b'seder' (It will be okay). Problems like this don't go away.

My friend, the waiter was remarkably solicitous after our first exchange, really chatty and friendly. He was probably as embarrassed by his error as I was annoyed. But I'd like to think he meant well. In fact, I believe he did.


yudit said...

I stumbled somehow in your blog and your story very much touched me.

So, thanks again.

Goy said...

Thank you.