For African immigrants living in South Tel Aviv, there is only one fate they dread almost as much returning to their troubled homelands: being sent to Holot, a spartan detention center deep in the Negev desert.
Israel’s high court handed the community a huge reprieve when it ruled on September 22 that the government must close the much reviled Holot within 90 days, and then struck down a provision allowing foreign asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally to be held for a year without trial. The ruling states that detaining immigrants as prisoners “violates human rights in an essential, deep and fundamental way.”
The closure of Holot — assuming it happens — will not only set free the 2,200 Sudanese and Eritrean people detained there; it will also have a profound impact on an estimated 47,000 asylum seekers in Israel, many of whom live in South Tel Aviv.
According to local activists, African asylum seekers who had lived in the country for five years or longer were ordered to report to Holot when they went to the Ministry of the Interior to renew their visas. Since the high court ruling, community members no longer feel as though they are simply biding their time before being sent to the detention facility.
“I was under the threat of Holot,” said Dawit Weldegebriel, a 30-year-old from Eritrea who came to Israel four years ago. “There is psychological warfare and stress going on among asylum seekers. At least we no longer have the stress of going to Holot.”
African immigrants and Israeli activists celebrated the court ruling with posts on Facebook and with phone calls. Weldegebriel broke the good news to a friend who was just a few days away from renewing his visa at the Ministry of the Interior, an appointment that would likely have resulted in him being ordered to report to Holot, since he has now been in the country for five years.
“People were very, very happy,” Weldegebriel said. But, he said, there is no real cause for celebration yet, since the migrant community remains in legal limbo. “We don’t know yet if the government will deal with our situation or assess our asylum claims, he said.
Idris Korni, a 26-year-old from Darfur, echoed Weldegebriel’s concerns. He said that he was grateful to the high court but was still hoping to receive asylum status to avoid ever having to return to the province in the Sudan that just a decade ago was the scene of a genocidal civil war.
“We are not making it up,” Korni said. “Darfur is a place where genocide happens. The entire world knows this.”
Kidane Isaac, a 28-year-old from Eritrea, said he came to Israel after a failed attempt to escape to Italy through Libya. He read about Israel’s democratic government and thought he might be able to find refuge there. But he feels that he has been given mixed messages by the state.
On the one hand, Israeli authorities dropped him and his fellow migrants off at the South Tel Aviv neighborhood Neve Sha’anan, which they have come to see as their own. But on the other hand, he never knows if he’ll be forced to leave soon — or be detained indefinitely.
The neighborhood’s Levinsky Park, a small green space with a colorful playground just across the street from the bus station, is a social hub for the asylum seekers and was the site of many of their protests. The park has an outdoor library with books in Tigrigna, a national language of Eritrea. Its distinctive lettering can be seen on the awnings of barbershops and restaurants throughout South Tel Aviv.
For Weldegebriel, like thousands of other immigrants, the court ruling is another milestone in a long struggle to find freedom and a better life in the Jewish state.
Originally from a small town in Eritrea, he attended a military-run college and then was sent to teach at an underfunded school in the authoritarian nation in the Horn of Africa, which human rights groups call one of the world’s most repressive states.
Weldegebriel agitated for better resources at the school, and was soon branded an anti-government activist and sent to prison. After a month behind bars — during which he said he was threatened with torture — he escaped with a friend and crossed the border to Sudan. There he and his friend were picked up by Bedouin smugglers who said they would bring the two to Khartoum.
Instead they were brought to Egypt’s Sinai desert and asked to pay $13,000 each for their release. After the pair secured the money by calling friends and family, they crossed the Israeli border, where they were apprehend by Israeli soldiers who gave them bread and water.
“The Israeli soldiers welcomed us,” he said. “For us, that day was a very different day.”
Weldegebriel soon soured on his treatment by the Israeli authorities. He and his friend were quickly sent to Saharonim , an Israeli detention center for African migrants in the Negev. After a month there, they were given temporary visas specifying that they were ineligible to work, and a bus ticket to Tel Aviv.
Once they arrived at Tel Aviv’s sprawling central bus station, Weldegebriel and his friend wandered around — “We had not a single shekel,” he said — until they found another Eritrean man. He connected them with an Israeli who ran a small employment agency for migrants.
Despite their visa restrictions, the Israeli took them to Haifa to work in a hotel, where they could also live. Eventually, Weldegebriel moved to Tel Aviv in order to take AN English course so that he could apply to go to graduate school in the United States. He now works at a restaurant at the Carlton Tel Aviv Hotel.
Weldegebriel said that he applied to the Ministry of the Interior for asylum status but the department never followed up on his claim or even asked him for an interview. Late last year, the situation worsened for migrants in South Tel Aviv when the Israeli Knesset tightened rules for asylum seekers and authorized the opening of Holot.
The high court ruling made that Monday was a coup for Weldegebriel and his fellow activists. But it hasn’t changed the bleak long-term reality. Weldegebriel said that though he was accepted to graduate school in Ohio, the American Embassy in Israel rejected his application for a visa because of his questionable status in Israel.
Advocates for immigrants cheered the court ruling, but said much more needs to be done. Right Now, a group that works on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel, said the Torah commands Jews to open their hearts to refugees.
“Without social rights like the right to work, and without a fair refugee status determination process, asylum seekers in Israel are unable to properly care for themselves and their families,” the group said in a statement.
African immigrants face some hostility from Jewish Israelis in their neighborhood. Right-wing politicians have also slammed them as a potential threat to the Jewish character of Israel.
Asylum seekers say they don’t have answers to bigger questions about the future of the country or the role immigrants will play. But they do insist on being treated fairly, and they want an opportunity to work and thrive. “The government has to have a plan where this can be solved in a humane way,” Isaac said. “At the end of the day, this country is part of the world, part of the rest of human society.”
Isaac, Weldegebriel and Korni all said that they would jump at the opportunity to return to their home countries, if only they were safe to go back to. They say there is little hope of change anytime soon.
“If any change comes in my home country, I would be the first person to be there,” Weldegebriel said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s Middle East correspondent. Reach her at Zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.