It was 6:45 a.m. when I arrived at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, across from the central bus station. I was bundled up in a coat, scarf, ski hat, and gloves, opening and closing my black umbrella every few minutes as the rain started and stopped.
The refugees were just getting up. In the playground shielded by a large tarpaulin stretched high above to offer shade in hot weather, the men were rolling up their blankets and sleeping paraphernalia, stacking them in a big pile under some clear plastic sheeting to keep them dry. When I walked onto the playground I saw the play surface was old and soggy with large scattered holes. Later I learned that large rats often emerge from those holes at night, sometimes biting the sleeping refugees.
The good news was that there seemed to be some ad hoc organization: the collective storing of the blankets, a refugee who was going around with a large plastic orange bag, collecting the garbage that overflowed from a trash can. But, mostly, I saw young black men desolately wandering, standing or sitting in small groups, or lined up across the street under the eaves of a building to stay dry. Twice vans came by and stopped. A small crowd quickly gathered, hoping beyond hope they were looking to hire a day laborer. But I didn’t see anyone get into the vans.
I saw a bit of blue sky as the chilly wind blew away the clouds just as a grey haired, handsome-looking man named Gideon walked up with a helper, pushing two industrial sized hot water containers. Within minutes, while the sun peeped out, they had set up the folding table, poured tea and sugar into the hot water vats, and put out large containers of boiled eggs and potatoes. A young woman from a nearby bakery walked over and placed a cardboard box full of leftover rolls on the table. The line immediately formed in front of the table — all men — the black faces surprised that they would get to eat this morning; unexpected manna.
This was part of a two-day pilot project of a free breakfast program for the hundreds of refugees who live on the streets within sight of the nearby office towers. They have no jobs, no money, and no food. The pilot was being run by Lasova, the main soup kitchen in Tel Aviv, and their volunteer Gideon who spends much of his time collecting food for hungry people. If successful, a permanent breakfast program will be started with seed money from the Good People Fund, an American organization that raises money to support the work of good people like Gideon, in Israel and America, who volunteer their time to run small initiatives that feed the hungry, help the poor, and work to relieve suffering.
Within an hour the 300 eggs were gone, but the line in front of the serving table never disappeared. The refugees streamed to the park from all directions as word spread that food was available. They came from a nearby temporary shelter that crams in about 120 refugees each night and from a derelict and nightmarish old chicken market where many others find dry nooks and corners to sleep in. Just last week the Tel Aviv municipality erected two large tents to sleep an additional 100 people on cots packed one next to the other. Even with those, people are still sleeping in the park and on the streets.
It was still cold that morning, but most of the men and boys only had sweatshirts. A few had hats. I couldn’t imagine how they survived through the rain and cold all night and day until the one meal of soup and bread was served at eight in the evening. Indeed, one refugee died in the park from exposure earlier this year, during the rainiest January on record since 1947.
The African refugee situation in Israel is a complex issue. There are no easy answers. Over 1,000 Africans cross the border from Egypt each month, risking the Bedouin smugglers who more and more are kidnapping them for ransom, torturing the men and raping the women in the process. If the refugees reach the Israeli border, many are killed or injured by Egyptian border guards who have orders to shoot them. Over 40,000 of them have entered Israel in the past decade, first a trickle and now a steady stream, fleeing genocide, war, rape and torture in their home countries.
Given Jewish history of fleeing persecution, Israel played an important role in 1951 developing the United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees, the foundational document of international law regarding asylum seekers. The signatories to the convention agree to protect individuals fleeing persecution, to provide them with basic human rights while they are in the country of asylum, and to not forcibly return refugees to a country where they may faced danger or where their freedom might be threatened.
Unfortunately, Israel does not fulfill the stipulations of the convention it helped develop 60 years ago, and it has not developed the legal or practical framework to protect African refugees, most of whom are asylum seekers. Instead it is now pursuing a policy to make life as difficult as possible for them so as to discourage others from coming to the country.
There is no doubt that the influx of refugees has caused a burden on parts of Israeli society, especially some poorer neighborhoods where they tend to settle. Yet the Israeli government has a humanitarian obligation to fulfill according to international agreements. It could implement benevolent policies to protect the refugees and could play a leadership role to develop approaches within an international context to address this situation (which also is impacting many other countries). It has chosen not to do this.
This is the first of several posts where I will delve deeper into this brewing humanitarian crisis that may become headline news in the coming months as thousands of refugees lose their jobs due to new government policies. Levinsky Park soon may have many more homeless residents facing the prospect of hunger and hopelessness on the streets of Tel Aviv.