Power to the Community
Activists talking with an asylum seeker from Cameroon
South Tel Aviv has a bad reputation. A marginalized low-income neighborhood, it has been making news for being a place of tension and intolerance. In the past few years, the neighborhood has also become the first port of call for African asylum seekers. The rapid increase in their numbers has led to conflict with the veteran residents, with unscrupulous politicians fanning the flames. The situation reached its low point in May 2012, when a group of right-wing politicians led a rally against asylum seekers in the area. Likud MK Miri Regev spoke at the rally and called the migrants “a cancer”. Since then, there has been intermittent violence targeting the asylum-seeker community, including physical attacks and arson.
Last September, after Molotov cocktails were thrown at the homes of asylum seekers, a group of activists living in south Tel Aviv, both Israeli and African, came together to confront the problem. Instead of succumbing to the divide and rule tactics employed by some politicians, they decided to work together to try to bring change to the neighborhood. Already involved with NIF grantees working in the area to help asylum seekers and veteran Israelis, such as the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC) and Achoti, they successfully applied for an NIF grant to develop a unique initiative, Power to the Community.
Activists talking with an Eritrean shopkeeper
Twice a week, activists from the group hit the streets of south Tel Aviv to reach out to the local community.
NIF recently accompanied them on one of their patrols. “We understood that everyone was a victim of the government’s policies,” explained Assaf Calderon, one of the group’s founders and a student of African and Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. “We wanted to bring everyone together and talk without hurting one another. We are all victims.”
He was joined by Oscar Olivier, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who has been living in Israel for the last seventeen years without official status. He filed a request to be recognized as a refugee over 13 years ago, but has yet to receive an answer. “I am not allowed to work [legally] and cannot get medical services,” he explained.
Despite his difficulties, Oscar is eager to do whatever he can to improve the situation in south Tel Aviv. He was joined on the patrol by three Israelis: Ofer Chama, who studies urban planning at Tel Aviv University, and two other students, Noga Marmor and Meytal Shefer. A few seconds after setting out from the Achoti offices, they turned into a local store. An Eritrean man working there was amazed at their offer of help, but Oscar quickly convinced him that the group is genuine.
“We can’t solve all the problems, but some we can,” Oscar explained afterwards, recording the man’s details and promising to get back to him.
Oscar Olivier talking with an asylum seeker
Afterwards, they met an Israeli from Tel Aviv’s trendy Florentine district who works in the neighborhood. The man was keen to read the leaflet outlining the group’s work. Power to the Community doesn’t just run joint patrols. They organize a weekly demonstration drawing attention to the lack of security for women in south Tel Aviv. They also run a hotline that residents can call if they have trouble with bureaucratic issues.
Next, they turned into another store, where the surprised owner turned down the television so he could hear their explanation. Outside, a man from Cameroon complained about the immigration police, while a woman looked through the trash for bottles. No matter who they came across, the group tried to explain the initiative and recruit more supporters to the cause.
“In north Tel Aviv there are roads that get repaved three times; here they don’t even clear the garbage regularly,” explained Noga. Her friend Meytal added, “Near here is (trendy) Rothschild Boulevard, which is another world. It’s dangerous to walk the streets at night here. Look – people are sleeping in the playground.”
The group walked past Levinsky Park at the center of the neighborhood, overshadowed by the gargantuan Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, a notorious magnet for drugs, crime, and prostitution.
“There are Israelis here who won’t talk with refugees, and the refugees are afraid,” Ofer explains. “We have to work together to make this place better.” He answered a phone call from Assaf, who was elsewhere, helping a blind asylum seeker whose landlord was exploiting her. At the park, the rest of the group was talking with an asylum seeker from Darfur.
Activists talking with a Darfuri asylum seeker in Levinsky Park
“He was cautiously optimistic because of the new government, and praised Yair Lapid. Off to the side, two Israelis from Modi’in smoked nargilas (water pipes) and politely listened to the group’s pitch.
Power to the Community is still in the early stages of development. At this phase, the activists want to focus on getting as many people involved as possible and in doing something to solve the problems that they are capable of solving. For example, the group recently raised money to renovate a shelter for asylum seekers. But this is only the beginning. Still smiling, Oscar noticed water streaming down the sidewalk. “Everything starts from somewhere,” he says, before crouching down to check whether it was leaked sewage. “Once this building wasn’t there – it started with the first stone.”