‘If I could, I’d go home to Eritrea tomorrow’

Two Eritrean boys stand outside a church in south Tel Aviv (source: PRI)
Two Eritrean boys stand outside a church in south Tel Aviv (source: PRI)

In the past fifteen years, tens of thousands of Africans, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have crossed into Israel. The majority of these people now live in south Tel Aviv.

Shapira, a traditionally blue-collar area, is one of the neighbourhoods they have ended up in. Hipsters have also begun to move into the area, complete with fixie bikes and yoga lessons. These newcomers have come into conflict with Shapira’s original inhabitants, most of whom are religious Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Greece.

During the past twelve months, I interviewed people in Shapira to see how they wound up there and what they think of the things happening in the neighbourhood. Here’s what one man had to say.

Pizza dude, 29

How did I arrive in Shapira? I’m from Eritrea, you understand? Is your mic working ok? You can hear me?

Good. So, how did I arrive to to Shapira from Eritrea? Great question. I was in the army. From the age of thirteen, I was in the army. Yes, thirteen years-old. I was in a special part of the military, learning to be a fighter, a commando. I studied that for five years. 

In the army in Eritrea, there is no end. You are there and there is no end. All your life is in the army. So, I studied to be a soldier for five years in the army. I did everything that I was able to do, learnt everything that I was able to learn. I learnt how to be a commando, a fighter, all those sorts of things. 

I looked at my life, how I’d grown and how I was progressing. All my life was in the army, I hadn’t seen my parents, I hadn’t seen my family. I wanted to progress in my life. So I ran away from the army, escaped Eritrea and came to Israel.

The way that I escaped….I escaped in a way that wasn’t legal. Why? I escaped with my gun, with everything to Sudan. I went through Sudan to Egypt and from Egypt I came to Israel. So now I live here. I escaped when I was eighteen from Eritrea. I arrived in Israel a long time, in 2007. I can’t go back now to Eritrea. It wasn’t legal, you understand? I had my gun and all my stuff with me when I escaped. Here too, you don’t get what you need. Eritreans suffer in life.

How did I get here to Shapira in particular? Great question. When I arrived in Israel, first of all, I was in a prison in the desert, near to Beersheva. Then they brought us to a bus and gave us a ticket to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. So you look around in this neighbourhood, you find a place to live and things like that. I lived here in this neighbourhood for 10 years already. 

I still don’t have anything [after 10 years]. In my life, I don’t have anything, you understand? This restaurant? No, it’s not mine. It’s someone else’s – it’s my cousin’s. The guy that owns the building, he’s a Sudanese man that got citizenship here. I don’t have citizenship or a residency permit. 

Listen, I’m not complaining about this neighbourhood. Everything is good here. Good people, everything’s ok. There are some racists that ask you questions. But what to do? We are suffering. 

You are wrong about there being conflicts between us and the Sudanese. You’re mistaken. There are problems between Eritreans and Eritreans. There are those against the [Eritrean] government. There are those that support the government. I hate the government. What good is there? It’s a dictatorship. 

Of course I miss Eritrea. If I could, I would go there right now. Today. No, I don’t prefer to live here. What is it to live here? It’s not better to live here. I don’t speak the language of the Jews, you understand? I speak the language but I don’t understand them, you understand? Everyone should be in the country that’s good for him. If the government in Eritrea changes, tomorrow morning I’ll go back there. 

What’s good in Israel? What’s better than Eritrea? Here there are democrats, there is democracy. You can say what you want. That’s what’s good in Israel. But it’s not my democracy, it’s for the Jewish people. Democracy here is for for the Jews, it’s not for us. We came to Israel, we applied for asylum but Israel doesn’t want to agree to that. Why? Because everyone here makes money. I’m here every day and it costs me money. Why? Because Israel takes a percentage of our money.

I have no problem with anyone. I have friends that are Arabs, that are Jews. There are some racists that hate blacks. There’s also racism from Arabs that don’t like blacks. But there are people here from every background. Ashkenazi, Yemenites, Mizrahim, Eritreans, Sudanese, Filipino – they all live here in Shapira. Why? Because life here is simple. I can’t live in a flat in Allenby [a street in central Tel Aviv], you understand? I can’t live in north Tel Aviv. I don’t have the money to pay 8,000 shekels a month in rent. Here, I can rent a room for 3,000 shekels. One room, it’s not good. But that’s why I live in this area.

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