A Library Welcomes Israel’s Outsiders

An Opportunity: For Haileyesus Befekadu, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, the library offers a chance to educate himself.
An Opportunity: For Haileyesus Befekadu, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, the library offers a chance to educate himself.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 26, 2010, issue of June 04, 2010.
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On a sunny Sunday afternoon early in May, 5-year-old Danielle Fabicanas looked on with excitement as an amazing transformation took place in Lewinsky Park, an expanse of concrete and grass known in this city as a hangout for drug pushers and addicts.

An Oasis: One of the library’s founders, artist Hadas Ophrat, sets up the multilingual collection at Lewinsky Park.
An Oasis: One of the library’s founders, artist Hadas Ophrat, sets up the multilingual collection at Lewinsky Park.

At 5 p.m., as she waited expectantly with her mother, Jerusalem-based artist Hadas Ophrat opened a nondescript cupboardlike storage structure on the grounds, to reveal tall rows of shelves laden with children’s books in dozens of languages and a drop-down play area, to boot.

Within minutes, Danielle — a girl conceived in the Philippines, born in Israel and living here illegally ever since — was happily playing with her cousin Bradley, also 5, and a half dozen other children who are living here illegally from such countries as Ukraine, Eritrea and Sudan. Most of their conversation was in Hebrew.

Even as the State of Israel pursues an intensified crackdown on illegal immigrants, Tel Aviv, under its maverick mayor, Ron Huldai, is following a different course. A reflection of his policy, the Lewinsky Park children’s library, and one right across from it for adults, is designed expressly to accommodate the needs of illegal immigrants.

They constitute a population that theoretically does not exist in Israel, yet they are a growing community now estimated at 125,000 nationwide. Many initially came as legal temporary workers from such countries as Thailand, Nepal and the Philippines to work mostly in health care, agriculture and construction, and then stayed on when their work visas expired. Others came from countries in Africa, via Egypt, by sneaking past Israel’s southern border.

Last March, in the latest step taken nationally, the cabinet approved a plan to construct a barrier along much of the 160-mile border to stop further incursions. “We cannot allow the current situation to continue,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the time.

The vast majority of illegal immigrants live in Tel Aviv, which is starting to recognize them as as part of the city’s cultural mix.

“Since Huldai became mayor, Tel Aviv has adopted a multicultural policy toward migrant workers,” said Tel Aviv University geographer Itzhak Schnell, an expert on foreign nationals in Tel Aviv.

In 1999, one year after Huldai took office, the municipality established an agency, Mesila, within its welfare department to help foreign nationals with problems in their basic day-to-day lives. The agency is starting to extend its activities to address the cultural and intellectual needs of foreign nationals, as well.

Last October, the municipality backed the opening, in Lewinsky Park, of a multilingual library to cater to the illegal immigrants’ literary needs. “The municipality takes seriously the fact that workers and refugees are human beings — they don’t just come here to work. It takes the approach that they don’t just need ‘help,’ but also enrichment,” Mesila director Tamar Schwartz said.

Most Tel Aviv residents would never set foot in Lewinsky Park. Located in the heart of the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood where most of the illegal immigrants and migrant workers live, it has long attracted drug pushers and addicts. For lack of any other nearby space where they can gather undisturbed, it has become the illegals’ hangout, as well.

The library was the initiative of five members of an artists’ collective called ArtTeam, which wanted to bring some culture to the park. Mesila offered them its offices for organizing meetings, and the municipality gave them permission to install a foldaway outdoor library next to a bomb shelter on the park grounds. There is a sun cover, and a series of large metal bookcases containing books in many languages, including Thai, Nepalese, Mandarin, Amharic and Arabic.

The project raised $25,000 in private funds, 60% of it in donations and 40% from the artists behind the project. The municipality gave an additional $6,500 for the project’s opening event, at which Huldai spoke. Books were donated by companies, embassies and individuals, and in many cases flown to Israel for free by El Al. There are about 4,000 volumes on the shelves, with another 1,000 still in boxes.

Many served by this library are cautious about being traced, because they are avoiding the authorities. So, patrons don’t need to give a real name or contact details to borrow books. All that is needed is a $10 deposit, refundable at any time. About 150 people have made the deposit, but thousands more come to sit and read during the open-air library’s operating hours.

The only other expectation is that readers tick boxes upon returning a book, to describe which emotions it made them feel. The plan is to eventually catalog the books according to emotions, not authors. “We think that this could be a good and interesting experiment,” said Ophrat, one of the library’s founders.

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