Who are the migrant families that reside in south Tel Aviv and face the constant threat of deportation? Who are the refugees struggling to survive? South Tel Aviv stories brings you the lives and faces of the non-Jewish, non-Palestinian “others” who live in the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whose lives are impacted by Israel’s goal of maintaining a Jewish majority. The first part in a series.
For some reason, the woman smiles at me as I interview a pair of Eritrean refugees. Though her skin is fair and she is freckled, I guess her to be Indian. She stands by the slide, keeping an eye on her son and watching us, too. When I finish talking to the Eritrean men–who are less concerned about the recent violence in South Tel Aviv and more concerned with making enough money to keep a roof over their heads–I make my way towards the woman and her child.
I introduce myself and we fall into a conversation. As I guessed, C.–who asked to remain anonymous for reasons I’ll reveal below–is Indian. She hails from a village near Goa and is Catholic. Like many Indians from her area, she has a Portuguese family name, a remnant of Portuguese colonialism. She guesses that her freckles and fair skin are, too. She holds her forearm out to compare it to mine. We press our arms together and laugh at how similar our coloring is.
Her two-and-a-half-year-old son is zooming about the playground and she calls him over in Hebrew. She tells him to say hello and he offers me a quick “Shalom” before zipping back off.
I inquire then about her husband. She admits, shyly, that she doesn’t have one. Her son’s father is from the Ivory Coast. They met here, when C. was just 23.
“My first boyfriend,” she tells me.
C.’s boyfriend went back to the Ivory Coast when she was four months pregnant, abandoning her and the baby. It took her a while to understand that he wasn’t coming back. In the meantime, she says, “My belly grew.”
Frightened by the prospect of caring for a child alone, worried that her parents would disown her because she hadn’t married the baby’s father, she went to the doctor to see if she could have an abortion. The doctor told her it was too late.
Throughout her pregnancy, C. did her best to avoid other Indian workers. India is a big country but the overseas communities function something like a small village. Her parents didn’t know that she was with child. And she didn’t intend them to find out–the consequences could be severe.
But somehow, an Indian worker in Israel found out and called home to tell C.’s parents. C.’s family called her, hysterical. C., now 26, recalls the conversation:
‘You are not married. What will everyone say about us? You cannot bring that baby home. You will ruin our name and your brother and sister will never be able to marry!’ they said.
C. is still so worried about shaming her family that she asks me not to use my digital recorder. She eyes it mistrustfully. “I don’t know if you have a camera in there,” she says, “And then, maybe, my face will be on the television.”
Although C. arrived in Israel on a work visa, she lost her legal status and her job shortly after she gave birth due to an Israeli policy that forbids migrant workers from having (and keeping) children in the country. Although the Israeli Supreme Court struck that policy down in April 2011–calling it a violation of Israel’s own labor laws–C. and her child, as well as hundreds of other migrant families, still face imminent deportation.
C.’s parents demand that she leave her son in Israel so as not to shame the family. If she brings her child back to India she will probably be disowned by her parents. C. has a 10th grade education. Before she came to Israel to work as a caregiver, she worked in a beauty salon. She made 1000 rupees a month (about 250 USD).
If her parents do not allow her and her son to live with them, C. is worried that they won’t survive. She adds that she has heard stories about women in India who have been disowned by their families and have ended up committing suicide.
In the meantime, C. rarely ventures out of the house with her son for fear of attracting the authorities’ attention. She takes him straight to the nursery when she goes to work as a house cleaner. When she picks him up, they head straight home. Because she lost her work visa, she is having trouble supporting herself and her little boy. Rent is the first priority, food is second. When I ask C. if she has enough to eat, she answers that her son gets enough food.
I don’t know what to say to C.. I wish I had some way of helping her. I sit down on the ground and open my phone to find telephone numbers of NGOs for her to call. As I scroll through my contacts, C. squats beside me and asks me about my life–my age, my work, my income, my family status. She seems impressed that I’m a female journalist making her way in the world without the help of a husband or parents. I understand then why she’d watched me interview the Eritrean refugees.
I hand her the paper and we stand. I want to take this young woman in my arms. I want to hug her and tell her that everything will be okay. But that wouldn’t be professional and, besides, I’m not sure it’s true.
We shake hands. Her palm is rough and dry. I wish her luck.