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November 6, 2018 10:21 am

In Israel, African Migrant Families Battle Hunger, Trauma

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A class in progress at the Abugida Eritrean Community School in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 25, 2018. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva.

In the concrete bowels of a vast bus station in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, a group of children gathers in the evening to play and dance to songs blaring from a CD player.

Their parents are African migrants who work until late, struggling to earn enough to put food on the table.

While their children have access to state education in Israel, they face hardships, support workers said.

“Everyone in their proximity is in dire stress, and there’s no money for basic necessities,” said Yonit Naftali, vice-president of Elifelet, an Israeli charity that supports children born to African migrants.

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Over a decade from the mid-2000s, about 64,000 Africans — mainly from conflict-torn Sudan and Eritrea — arrived in Israel across the then-porous border with Egypt’s Sinai, which was fenced off several years ago.

Many experienced torture, were enslaved or imprisoned for ransom at the hands of Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai desert.

Today some 36,000 remain in Israel, with 6,000 more children, according to government data.

For many, life has got tougher since a 2017 law directed employers to deduct 20 percent from the wages of workers with temporary visas who entered Israel illegally from Egypt.

As an incentive for them to go elsewhere, the money is deposited in a fund, together with an employer-paid tax of 16 percent, which workers can only access when they leave Israel.

The new system is crippling for migrant families, said Naftali. “The children were the first to get hurt,” she said.

Parents must now work more — some clocking up 15 hours a day — while earning less, leaving them unable to take care of their children properly, she added.

In birthday cards to friends, children of migrants recently wrote messages such as, “May you have food in your refrigerator,” and  “May you never go hungry,” Naftali said.

“Then we understood there is something really bad going on,” she said. Her charity had to close down one of its after-school centers in order to finance emergency food donations.

“There are actually hungry children, which I never believed I would see in Israel to such an extent,” Naftali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Population and Immigration Authority did not respond to requests for comment.

Community school

Many children of African migrants were born in Israel, speak Hebrew, attend Israeli schools and know Jewish culture and traditions. But they do not have Israeli identity cards and often encounter racist slurs, said Naftali.

Eritrean migrants in Israel, backed by rights groups, say they are asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution and conscription under a repressive regime back home.

But the Israeli government views them as economic migrants, and has tried to deport them — although a failure to find a country willing to take them forced it to abandon a plan to expel thousands of mostly Eritrean and Sudanese men in April.

Between 2009 and 2017, Israel granted refugee recognition to less than 0.5 percent of the almost 11,000 asylum applications it decided on, according to the Israeli non-profit Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Elifelet was established following a 2012 hate crime attack, when Molotov cocktails were thrown into a Tel Aviv center for refugees where 21 children were sleeping, Naftali said.

For the children of migrant families, developing pride in their heritage is important to equip them to deal with the discrimination they face in everyday life, she added.

An after-hours school set up by the city’s Eritrean migrant community has similar aims, teaching children their own language and culture, and offering them a safe space in the evenings.

“If our kids go on the streets, they get a lot of discrimination. Here, it’s like a home,” said Kifle Bizen, director of the Abugida Eritrean Community School.

On the top floor of a rundown building in southern Tel Aviv, it is staffed by volunteers who, after finishing day jobs as cleaners or cooks, teach classes for about 120 Eritrean children, aged six to 14, four times a week.

Set up in 2013, it assists children with school work and fosters their Eritrean identity, Bizen explained.

“Our dream is to support our children not only with knowledge but also with their sense of self to help them develop,” he said.

Besides studying math and science, the children sing, perform plays and recite poems in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s main languages.

Learning Tigrinya is key, said Bizen, not least because children and parents often cannot understand one another, sparking arguments.

“Here, 100 percent of the children talk in our language,” he said. The Eritrean community is like “an extended family,” working together to overcome shared challenges, he added.

The official monthly fee at Abugida is about 400 shekels ($108), but most Eritreans pay half that or less, said Bizen, while 40 children from single-parent households attend free.

Since the migrant job tax was imposed, about 20 children have dropped out because their parents could no longer afford to pay anything, Bizen added.

Mental scars

Some students are affected by psychological troubles, making them withdrawn and unwilling to make friends, said Bizen.

Berhe Teame, a volunteer at Abugida and an Eritrean community leader, said a psychologist was brought in last year, but the project collapsed due to a lack of funds.

“The trauma lives in us,” he said. His own daughter was held in a Libyan prison with her mother before arriving in Israel.

“My kid saw everything,” he said. “When the police beat her mother, she was with her.”

Many parents are also scarred by their ordeal, said Bizen, describing one father who talked of a severed head he saw in the Sinai desert.

Ultimately, many Eritreans in Israel dream of returning home once the situation there improves, said Teame.

“We hope to have peace in our country, to be able to give our kids our land,” he said. “There will be a time when things will change. Until then, we need to give them education.”

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