Depending on who you ask, Israel has either an African refugee problem or an African refugee situation. Neither description is exceedingly positive. You won’t find too many people who say we’ve got an African refugee blessing, or even an African refugee opportunity, and definitely not an African refugee extravaganza or African refugee disco supreme dance party. In Tel Aviv especially, it’s increasingly obvious that, yes, we’ve got a flood of refugees and asylum seekers and migrants on our hands. And they’re not going anywhere soon. Because I like anything that seems foreign or weird to my Western sensibilities, I love exploring the hub of the African refugee explosion in Tel Aviv: Ne’ve Sha’anan, a neighborhood in South Tel Aviv that has, over the past few years, been almost completely saturated with refugees and asylum seekers. But let’s back up just a moment, because there are certainly some important questions to address. If you’re in America, it’s likely that the closest notion you have to a refugee first hand is either: 1) The proper, Christian name of popular 1990′s rap trio The Fugees, 2) A badass song by Tom Petty, or 3) a Mexican. The first two are apt, but the gardener who your mom flirts with isn’t a refugee. Come on, dude. None of these really cover the situation here in Israel. This country has always been made of refugees. The first floods of Jews to come here, when Israel wasn’t Israel but was a British territory generally known as Palestine, arrived from Eastern Europe and Russia, having run scared after waves of pogroms and lynchings threatened their lives. I’d say good decision; any sensible person would pick fleeing over imminent death, and the weather’s better here than Romania. Over the next 100+ years, you’ve got wave after wave of refugees: pre- and post-Holocaust European Jews, Jews who escaped persecution in Communist Russia; Jews who were evacuated from desperate situations in Ethiopia. All these waves have made for an Israeli population that’s very varied in culture and color, and mostly quite thankful to be here. Life might be expensive and hectic and sometimes filled with rocket attacks, but at least you’re not dead. That’s called optimism. I’m going to willfully skim over the Palestinian Refugee situation for the sake of brevity, and stick with refugee groups who seek asylum and safety here. Feel free to call me up and argue. So. Beginning in the mid-2000′s, Israel became the new, hip spot for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing African countries like Eritrea and Sudan — as well as migrant workers less in immediate danger, and more simply looking for a new place to scrape together a living. Both, by all accounts, are not safe or friendly places to live, both constantly in and out of civil war. The general trek of these folks is nothing short of horrific: spending all or most of their money for a coyote/smuggler who will get them through Egypt and across the border into Israel. Why a smuggler? Because unprotected, these refugees are raped, killed, kidnapped and the like during their trek through Sudan and Egypt. Or just shot at Egypt’s border. Not fun. So why Israel? Well, look at the map. Go south, you’ve got Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda… not exactly paradise for a refugee with no money or job prospects. Stay in Egypt and you’ll end up dead. And Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, or Lebanon… or Syria? Good luck. So they come to Israel.
Certainly not the bright beacon of hope and democracy that American Jews would have you believe, but better than getting raped until you die. At least by a little, am I right? The vast majority of these Africans end up in exactly one place upon arrival: Park Levinsky in Tel Aviv. This one-square-block stretch of grass is Ground Zero for refugees and asylum-seekers. On an average night, a hundred or so African men will be sleeping in a park that’s smaller than the backyards of some of my wealthier friends in America. Generally, they stay there until they connect with friends or family and are absorbed into an overcrowded, busted up apartment and find work as a street cleaner. Or they die in an alleyway. Seriously. Israel’s government isn’t quite sure what to do. You can’t legally ship them back home if they can prove they’re in danger; but Israel also can’t grant them citizenship like it’s no big thing. Today there are about 60,000 of them here. Can you imagine America saying, “OK, Mexican day laborers. You’re all American now!” It’s just not that simple, in my opinion, though many would argue otherwise. Regardless, it’s quite a pickle. The pickle gets even slimier when you look at what the refugee flood is doing to the city: Ne’ve Sha’anan and several other neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv are now nearly exclusively illegal African immigrants, with a solid percentage of inhabitants speaking not Hebrew or English or Russian or Arabic — all the sort of official languages of Israel. As these folks have no money, and largely no professional skills, they end up poor and living in slums. If you can picture a shanty town somewhere deep in Africa, you can more or less picture Ne’ve Sha’anan today.
And it’s a 15 minute walk from my apartment. Which leads me to my story. Last Friday, I invited my friend Dan to go exploring in Little Africa. I knew he’d be down — he’s as much into blind exploration as me. We hopped on a sheirut/shared taxi and got off at New Barcelona, which is a giant grafitti-tagged wall that marks the entrance to a long pedestrian walkway that serves as the center of refugee-town. It should be noted that this area surrounds the Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv, meaning at any given time during the day the gargantuan mall/bus station is filled by a majority of illegal immigrants. This is where I catch my bus to work each morning; I pass Park Levinsky, the sad hellhole that it is, every morning before most of these dudes wake up. Yes, one of the absolute busiest spots in Tel Aviv, with traffic coming from all corners of the country, is quite literally the center of the city’s refugee hub. Dan and I were on the hunt for food. Any kind of food, but preferably something weird looking and African. The walkway, hereby referred to as New Barcelona Terrace, is a jarring place. You come from Central Tel Aviv — a bunch of hip-looking Israelis buying shit and wearing sunglasses — and you’re suddenly in a different country. A different world entirely. There are Israelis walking around New Barcelona Terrace and the surrounding neighborhood, but most of them are bums or drug addicts or crazy old dudes or all three. The vast majority of sound-minded Israelis moved out years ago.
The area is packed with people selling things — a walk down New Barcelona Terrace will feature dozens of bums selling used shoes, worn clothing and an endless supply of broken electronics on blankets on the ground. It’s like somebody broke into Radioshack, broke everything with a baseball bat then gave all the merchandise to a bunch of Eritreans to resell for cheap: you’ll find TV’s, DVD players, cassette tapes, bootleg video games and remote controls to devices that haven’t been on the market in 10 years. The actual stores on either side of New Barcelona Terrace are almost uniformly one of the following: a barber shop, a fake Nike shop, an internet cafe or an empty room with tables.
Those empty rooms with tables are confusing; we thought they might be restaurants, but we spotted not a soul eating anything. After a block, we came across a place I knew — an Iraqi restaurant hidden at the end of a long hallway. We entered the hallway and peered down at a guy on the ground. Two kids were gently kicking him, but he wasn’t responding. We immediately decided to abide by Rule #78 in the Foreign Foods Manual: if there’s a dead guy in the doorway, keep looking for grub elsewhere.
Our slow traversing down New Barcelona Terrace caught the attention of more than a few ornery African gentleman, who either subtly raised their eyebrows at us to catch our attention, or less subtly whistled or even catcalled us. If they wanted to sell us drugs, or to rob us, or to compare March Madness brackets, I’ll never know. We kept on walking.
We slipped into an Asian grocery store — foreign workers from Thailand, the Phillipines and other assorted South East Asian countries also make up a huge block of Israel’s menial labor workforce — and found some true delicacies, for cheaper than my Asian import guy in the shuk sells them. We soon decided on a jar of “bananas in syrup.” How good does that sound? Sugary bananas. Yes. A few blocks later, we came across the most restaurant-looking of all the empty rooms with tables. A few guys inside — gasp! — were eating! This joint had six tables, a drinks case and a few sparkly, Chinese New Year-type streamers hung from the ceiling. We went in and sat down, to the not so hidden surprise of all inside. It wasn’t the most lively crowd: two single dudes sitting alone at tables, gazing up at a satellite-feed on a TV mounted on the wall. I grabbed a one-page, laminated menu… no Hebrew to be found. Just what looked like Amharic. No luck.
A tall, skinny man emerged from the back and looked at us inquisitively. He walked slowly to our table, but didn’t say a word. In Hebrew, I said, “Hello. We’d like to order something to eat. Do you have injera (traditional Ethiopian sponge bread) with meat? Or injera with tibs (traditional Ethiopian meat dish)?” To that, he responded with a nod and said “Basar,” or Hebrew for meat. “We also want two beers.” Another nod, another “Basar.” Then he walked back into what looked like the kitchen. Neither of us was sure if I’d actually ordered any food. The answer, we found out after about 15 minutes, was no. The tall, skinny man walked around the restaurant avoiding eye contact with us, probably just hoping we would leave. Then a woman emerged from the kitchen. We tried to whole act of ordering in Hebrew with her. Then in English. Neither got us more than a nod. Then another tall, stockier man joined her. These people kept responding to everything I said with a nod and “Basar,” but didn’t go anywhere. They just kept nodding and saying “Meat.” I was beginning to feel like I slipped into another universe. “Ivrit? (Hebrew?)” “Basar, ken (yes).” “No Englit, nachon (correct)?” “Basar, ken.” We quickly gathered that nor English or Hebrew would get us anywhere in this place. I picked up a menu and pointed to a picture of injera. That seemed to work. A few minutes later, tall, skinny guy brought us some beers. Finally, we were moving in the right direction.
Then Dan said, “Hey, Justin, there are ants all over you.” And, what do you know, he was right. There were ants all over the wall, and our table, and by extension, the right half of my body. Good eye, Dan! Still, we refused to leave. We were going to eat at this place, no matter what. Minutes later, tall, skinny guy brought us out a platter of injera with a thick, garlic sauce, and a small salad. Not at all what we ordered, but close? Just then, we gazed at our beers. Asmara Beer — product of Eritrea. Then up at the TV — it was a satellite feed with Eritrea TV Logo in the corner.
Suddenly it made sense why “injera” or “tibs” didn’t register in any language. I’d ordered Ethiopian food in an Eritrean restaurant — two countries that were at war just a few years ago. That’s called cultural sensitivity. We ate our food, but were far from satisfied. As we ate, tall, skinny guy brought out food to the other neighbors — this big, heaping pile of stuff with a giant dollop of yogurt on top. We didn’t know what it was, but we wanted one. I pointed and said, ever so slowly in Hebrew, “We want that.” The point probably helped more than the Hebrew, but he nodded. A few minutes later, he delivered one to our table. We wanted to look up the dish on our super-handy smartphones, but acted subtly: there’s nothing stupider than flexing your wealth in the biggest slum in the city. Still, Dan was smooth and we quickly found out that this waskitcha fit-fit: thin strips of bread marinated in spicy, oily sauce and served with fresh yogurt. You mix the whole damn thing up and you’ve got a hearty, delicious meal. I can’t say your average burger-and-fries American would like it, but we thought it was just the bee’s knees.
But before finishing half, we were stuffed. Like, can’t go on, may explode stuffed. And yet, how are you going to come to a restaurant of Israel’s poorest population and not finish your food? Have you no manners? I realized I needed to do some more insulin for this endeavor. Just like flexing technology and wealth, giving yourself an injection in a neighborhood plagued with drugs isn’t a great idea. I subtly, gently popped out the syringe and slipped it into my stomach under the table. Whew. Onward, ho! Like a pushy mom dealing with her bratty, picky-eater kid (story of my childhood), Dan coaxed me on. “You can do this. Three more solid bites and I’ll let you leave the table.” After those bites, we were both stuck in an Eritrean food coma, gazing up at the TV with the rest of the clientele. And what a weird world of TV it was. First we saw an extended stadium performance of a sharply dressed marching band. It was a trip to see shots of this full stadium, everyone wearing traditional, colorful wraps, and singing along. The staff and customers in the restaurant knew the words too — national songs, probably, or just pop hits as interpreted by a fully orchestrated marching band. Next came Eritrean MTV, with a cute, modestly dressed hostess introducing Eritrea’s top pop videos. It struck me as odd: here you’ve got a country torn apart by war, extreme poverty and disaster, and their music videos are actually quite lovely, modest and coy, all guy and girl singing longingly back to each other. It was a lot like Bollywood, but the choreography wasn’t as impressive and there weren’t any elephants. When we slipped out of the food coma and back into real life, we realized that yes, we were still the only white people there. We signaled for the check, and the tall, skinny guy brought it out with unexpected speed — less than 10 minutes later! For two beers and two meals, the bill was 70 shekels, or less than $20. I’ll take my financial victories where I can get them in this expensive city, and this was a win. We told the tall, skinny guy that the food was delicious by smiling a lot and saying “tov” repeatedly. I think he got the message. And our Eritrean foodie adventure was over. A block later, I realized I’d left the jar of syrupy bananas on the table. I hope the tall, skinny guy kept them as a tip, and is enjoying them now. We wound our way towards the entrance of New Barcelona Terrace, but turned left to check out a different street. Just off that main walkway, things are even more dire. A good portion of the stoops had people sleeping on them. We passed a corner marked “Sex Bar,” with some of the least healthy-looking hookers I’ve seen in my day. And then, Ne’ve Sha’anan ended. We reached Menachem Begin Boulevard, which marks the end of the slum. Across the Boulevard, some of the great skyscrapers of Tel Aviv shot into the sky. In the right light, then, these physical representations of wealth and prosperity actually cast a shadow over the worst slum in all of Tel Aviv. The symbolism, it goes without saying, is laid on thick here. Dan and I crossed the Boulevard and we were back in Tel Aviv. Like the whole place never even existed. AFTERWARD
A week later, Dan and I returned to Ne’ve Sha’anan, feeling older, wiser and more capable of finding a more functional, delicious restaurant. This time, our mission was more focused. We stopped in that same Asian grocery store and bought another jar of syrup bananas. Then we were off to a strip of restaurant-looking storefronts on the border of the neighborhood. We paced back and forth, deliberating, discussing so as to pick the best Eritrean restaurant. The one that really spoke to us. Dan was pushing for a small spot with an open backyard, sporting a few full tables and some TV’s. I was pushing for a crowded, more bustling spot whose decor could be described as ‘prison dining hall.’ Dan said it felt positively soup kitchen-y. I backed down, and we walked into the backyard tent. The place immediately felt more welcoming than our first venture; a waiter said hello, and several tables of dudes winked at us — but in the ‘weird to see you here, but let’s go with it’ way, not the ‘I’m almost certainly going to rape and/or rob you’ way. Dodged a bullet there. A few things struck us immediately about the joint: 1) There were three TVs set up, all on, all mounted on refrigerators. Which made sense to me — why buy a TV stand when there are constantly broken refrigerators and large furniture just kinda hangin around the city; 2) Only 33% of the TV shows being played remotely made any sense, seeing as one was showing WWF American professional wrestling with Arabic subtitles, one was showing a Disney Channel movie that couldn’t have been produced after 1998, and one was showing an Eritrean woman introducing music videos; 3) The WWF fascination went further, as there were not one, but two giant cardboard cutouts of professional wrestling superhunk (and, it should be noted, successful rapper and actor) John Cena. Aside from that, the place was decorated with a mix of Chinese new year ribbons and banners, Bob Marley posters and astroturf. We ordered some food and beers pretty painlessly, and we made small talk with a guy at the next table. The waiter – and our new friends – told us to mix all the condiments on the table on top of our food, which included lemon juice, oil and a spicy chilli powder. That all made sense once the food came out — injera with, sadly, pretty bland pieces of meat in an inoffensive sauce. Mixing some bolder flavors made the dish entirely, and it became a spicy, sloshy masterpiece.
We walked home satisfied. We got what we came for, and the whole lunch cost 54 shekels. That’s the cost of a bottoms shelf cocktail at some bars in Tel Aviv. Back at my apartment, we finally opened the syrup bananas. They smelled all sorts of wrong, like chemicals and feet. Turns out, they’d expired over a year ago. That’s the last time I trust a grocer in Ne’ve Sha’anan.