Migrant Lives

Immigration In Israel, A Different Story

In southern Tel Aviv, some 50,000 refugees amass on the margins of society. Too many in Israel, once the refuge for European Jews, have turned their back on these migrants.

A 2014 protest in Tel Aviv, as immigrants demand asylum .
A 2014 protest in Tel Aviv, as immigrants demand asylum .
Piotr Smolar

TEL AVIV — Tel Aviv doesn't sleep. Whatever the season, tourists converge here to make the most of its beaches and night life. But do they pay attention to who serves them? To these dark hands that sort the dirty cutlery, wash the salad and clean the tables? No, they don't.

But don't be mad at them for it. Israelis themselves treat these workers with the same indifference. They don't know what's going on, just a few minutes' drive away, south of the city. A different world emerges there, a tougher, more dangerous one where you can read life's tragedies if you look the people in the eyes. It is a world where, over the last 10 years, Israeli authorities have allowed some 50,000 African asylum seekers to amass.

The southern neighborhoods are spread around the largely dilapidated central bus station, which until the 1990s was an important entryway into the city. Ambitious projects for the site are currently being reviewed, but they would require huge investments. The urban landscape around it is comprised of garages, storage facilities, old buildings with facades blackened by time, hair salons run by Filipino women and modest canteens from which the smell of spices emanates.

Most of the white people here are Israeli soldiers, traveling either to their base or home. To live here is to be poor and without a choice. And yet, for these immigrants, to live here will always be better than to live in their homelands.

"If we had distributed these tens of thousands of refugees through the whole Israeli territory, you would need a microscope to see them," says 46-year-old, Congo-born Oscar Olivier. "Instead, we parked them in Tel Aviv, adding them to a Jewish population that was already economically weak."

A former spokesman for his university's student union, Olivier entered Israel legally in 1994 and decided to remain after his visa expired. "At the time, there was nothing for foreigners, no NGOs were taking care of the issue," he says.

For 18 years, Oliver has been living in southern Tel Aviv, where his daughter was born. Today he volunteers for the African Refugee Development Center, an association that favors exchanges between the Jewish population and Africans. Drugs, violence and poverty are at the heart of this laborious dialogue. But Oliver has faith. He even converted to Judaism with a liberal orientation. "There was a magnetism," he says.

Migrant influx

Starting in 2007, he saw the mass arrival of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, countries that represent 95% of Israel's asylum seekers. The Sudanese, coming mostly from Darfur, can't be deported because of the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries. As for Eritreans, they come from a country where basic rights are flouted. All crossed the border between Egypt and Israel by foot, before Israel erected a barrier in late 2012.

Since then, the influx has stopped. But what about the people who entered the country before then? The authorities persist in presenting them as economic migrants and keep quiet about the persecutions they endure. Since 2009, a staggeringly small 0.15% of asylum applications have been accepted, a rigor without equal in Western countries.

The group protection these populations have been granted means that they can't be deported. But nothing more. Technically, as asylum seekers, "They're not allowed to work, but the government has accepted not going after their employers," explains Ayala Panievsky of the Assaf association, which helps refugees in Tel Aviv.

A general hypocrisy prevails. A semantic abuse has taken root: They are characterized as "infiltrators," the same word used to describe Palestinians who entered Israel to execute attacks.

After the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, the socialist ideal prevailed. The Jewish labor force was praised. Then, in 1967, war and the beginning of the West Bank occupation provided a cheap Palestinian work force that arrived early in the morning and left late in the evening.

The 1990s saw new waves of migrants coming from Ethiopia and, most importantly, from the former Soviet Union. Then came thousands of Asian workers, from Thailand or the Philippines, who had five-year visas but ended up staying on illegally. Despite these influxes, successive governments never defined a clear migration policy. Israel, the shelter for European Jews after the Holocaust, doesn't want to become a land of asylum for others.

In January, NGOs launched an online information campaign to raise awareness about the tragic fates of asylum seekers. But with the election campaign raging, Israeli society had other things on its mind.

The elephant in the room

For years, lawyer Jean-Marc Liling has been throwing himself into the issue of African migrants. "Israel has an Aliyah, or right-to-return policy, for Jews but no immigration policy, though this issue affects all Jewish identity-related questions: democracy, human rights, our responsibilities towards ourselves and others," he says.

"Showing concern towards a foreigner under threat is not at all contrary to what the writings on Jewish identity say," Liling adds. "Is a Jewish state only for demographic reasons, or also in the name of certain principles? Are we capable of creating a united society sharing the same values or will we be tribes scattered across the land who hate one another?"

Such humanist thoughts aren't shared by Israel's political class. The Right has even linked rising criminality, like in Tel Aviv, to the presence of illegal immigrants. In May 2012, an Israeli woman was raped by an Eritrean at the central train station. Danny Danon, one of the leading figures of the hard-right fringe in the Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then demanded the deportation of "80% of illegal workers," whom he described as "calamities." At the time, Netanyahu said these illegal immigrants were a "threat to national security and identity."

In January 2014, thousands of immigrants came out of their neighborhoods to demand dignified treatment. There were 30,000 in Tel Aviv and 8,000 in Jerusalem. "It was incredible," recalls Miri Barbero-Elkayam, who leads the association Mesila, created by Tel Aviv city hall to help refugees. "But some lost their jobs. And there was a boomerang effect. Many Israelis got scared when they discovered their numbers."

A few weeks before, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, passed an amendment to the so-called Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, which originally targeted Palestinians. The text said that illegal immigrants could be detained in a center called Holot, located in the Negev desert and created specifically for that purpose. It's not a prison, and yet the center's supervision was handed to the penitentiary authorities.

This looked very much like a firm invitation to leave the country and, indeed, in 2014, many Africans did just that. But after their "voluntary departure" from Israel, many of them endured bullying or violence, either in the homelands or in other countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda. After the text was again censored by Israel's Supreme Court, the government introduced a 20-month limit for detaining people without a trial. There was no limit before then. But the fight between the Supreme Court and the government continues.

In the meantime, migrants meet, fall in love and have children, almost 1,000 every year in Tel Aviv. That's how a little miracle appeared in these neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv. Walls covered with drawings, children running, shouting in the playground, joyful singing coming from the classrooms. The Bialik-Rogozin school is by no means ordinary. You just need to enter any classroom and look at the pupils. Faces of all colors are sitting together. Slanting eyes, dark skins, braided hair. A hymn to diversity.

"We are Tel Aviv's golden egg," says a smiling Eli Nachama, the school's principal. "Everybody comes to see us to discover the radiant face of Israel."

Close to 1,000 children from 51 countries attend this globally acclaimed school, which relies on a vast network of volunteers, including dozens of soldiers. Children there test far better than the national average. And yet, only two in five have an Israeli ID card.

"Here, we're never sure the child will come back the next day," Nechama says.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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