TEL AVIV — The African migrants of this Israeli city have recently been in the news, but they are not that visible to most tourists. The migrants live in the poorer, out-of-the-way precincts of Tel Aviv, near the Central Bus Station, far from the luxury hotels that line the Mediterranean beaches.
But since we have come not as tourists but as journalists, the migrants and their churches were our first stop after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Professor Yarden told us that we were deliberately entering the country “through the back door.”
And so, we found ourselves at the Grace Covenant Gospel Church with a preacher from Ghana, Pastor Solomon, who ministers to the migrants. His is one of more than a dozen churches in the area around the bus station. Pastor Solomon has a kind face, bright eyes and hair that’s just beginning to grey.
Many of these migrants — from such places as Ivory Coast, Cameroon, South Africa, Congo and Ghana — have endured extreme hardships along the way and are at high risk for homelessness and drug addiction. “Sometimes you walk around and you see people just going crazy,” Solomon said, as he extended his hand towards the window behind us. “For them, this is the end of their rope.”
So Solomon offers three months of temporary shelter at the church, which occupies the fifth floor of a run down tenement building in one of Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods. “Our purpose is to give them hope,” he told us. “They are very injured when they get here.” His church also provides free food on Saturdays. Many of the African migrants living in the Middle East are men who’ve left their families in their home countries. So the church becomes their family.
“This is the only country in the Middle East where we can freely express our religion,” he said.
But not all are in the country legally and sometimes parishioners get arrested and deported. Whenever Solomon hears of an arrest, the congregation bands together to raise funds to hire a lawyer. But sometimes it is too late and the parishioner has already been deported.
African migrants have been coming to Israel in large number since the 1990s. After the government recently moved to expel many of them, there have been protests by both the migrants and their Israeli supporters against such deportations. One of us asked Solomon if his group ever participated in these. “We try to stay away from politics,” he said. “We are only here to serve the Lord.”
Solomon’s church was our third stop after the bus picked us up from Ben Gurion Airport this morning. After meeting Professor Goldman and Yarden, we went to Levinsky Park, which is a central meeting area for many of the African asylum seekers now in Israel. There we met Lisa Richlen, a Ph.D. student who briefed us on the history and statistics of migrants and asylum seekers in the country. She pointed out there is a high rate of drug use and prostitution in South Tel Aviv, where many of the most marginalized communities reside. “Natali Kingdom of Pork” declared the sign on a restaurant opposite the park. In a country made up of mostly Jews and Muslims, the sign proclaimed the unique nature of this district.
But pork wasn’t on the menu for us today. And rather than falafel or pita for lunch, we enjoyed the traditional African food of that district. We were greeted warmly inside by several African men who brought out platters of injera bread, beef, fried whole fish, beans, rice and okra. The proprietors were Jacob, a Muslim man from Darfour, and Sbhat, a younger Christian man from Eritrea. When we inquired about their interfaith business venture, both men laughed joyfully. “Jacob, he is like my father!” Sbhat said.
The delicious food on top of the jet lag made weary travelers of us all. We boarded the bus to what Goldman called “the front door of Israel,” the beachfront area of luxury hotels, embassies and art galleries. When we got back to the hotel, many of us strolled down to the beach to watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean. Then we had a relaxed dinner and were joined by Covering Religion alumna Yardena Schwartz, CJS ’11.
On our first day in Israel, we barely met any Israelis or Jews or Arabs or Muslims. We followed one of the biggest news stories coming out of Israel by spending the day with African migrants. We’ve got the rest of the week to explore the others.