Africans in Israel Unite in Christ
HOST INTRO: Over the last decade 60,000 African migrants have arrived in Israel. They cross the border looking for a better life, often illegally. But Israel has recently imposed a crackdown. Poppie Mphuthing reports on the community support they find in a Christian church in Tel Aviv, where they find help to start a new life.
Ambi – reporter footsteps on concrete steps, feint sound of singing
Walking up these stone steps, it’s hard to believe there’s a Church here in this derelict looking factory building in south Tel Aviv.
But I’m definitely in the right place …
I can hear it …
Fade up music ambi; Fade down under narration people singing hymns…
Fade up music ambi; Fade down under narration
On the third floor, I go through a door to find the Lift Up Your Head Ministry, an African Pentecostal Church. I’m surprised there aren’t any pews in here. About 150 people are seated in rows of ornate beige two-seater sofas.
Fade down music ambi; cross fade under narr to sermon ambi
I learn most of them are from Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria. Pastor Jeremiah Dairo is pacing up and down on a make-shift stage, preaching at full volume into a microphone.
DAIRO: That visa is out there, those companies are out there, Father I release it to them in the mighty name of Jesus…
Visas and jobs are what his congregants most want. Many of them don’t have either and need them if they’re going to build a life in Israel. And they come to Pastor Jeremiah, who tells them that he is their servant, sent to them by God to help them.
DAIRO: Do you believe I’m a servant of God?
Fade down ambi under narration
The service lasts for three hours, but nobody in the room looks bored.
Cross fade natsoud with office ambi
After the service I go with Pastor Jermiah to his office. He tells me that Africans who arrive in Tel Aviv soon learn about his Church.
DAIRO: Even if you can go to the Central Bus Station now and say you have no place to sleep, before you meet two or three people, they will direct you to come to Levanda 32.
Number 32, Levanda Street, South Tel Aviv. 9,000 Africans have come here to the Lift Up Your Head Church since it opened in 2006.
Here, they know they’ll get the practical information and encouragement they need to start making sense of their new environment, as Africans Christian in Jewish Israel.
DAIRO: Israel is a challenging place to be… but at the same time it’s a place where people can be connected through Christ.
And many congregants have already lived through a lot.
DAIRO: Some of them they’re coming from the warzone, some of them are coming from where their mothers, their parents have been killed.
Chidi Azeflukwe arrived from Nigeria six months ago after his friend was murdered because his community thought he was gay. Azeflukwe says that was not true, but he no longer felt safe. The police in his country, he says, don’t serve and protect.
AZEFLUKWE: They stand by and watch people get killed on the streets. People, you know, get torched, set ablaze.
Azeflukwe, who worked as an NGO worker back home, scraped together 5,000 dollars to pay a fixer to get him to Israel. He arrived on a visitors visa that expired three months ago. He’s living in Israel illegally and manages to get ad-hoc construction work. He says he feels safer here in Israel.
He sleeps at the Church at night, together with 50 or so other African migrants. In a few short months, he says they’ve become like family.
AZEFLUKWE: I see friendship develop here… And then you get to have maybe some kind of companionship with people of like situation and then at least you get to forget some of your problems.
Another parishioner, Favor Awuah also came to Israel from Nigeria. He says the seven months he’s lived in the Holy Land has been a blessing.
AWUAH: Any place I set my feet in this land, it’s favor of God that
Awuah got a job as a fire fighter here, and he says it gives his life meaning.
AWUAH: My work is a moving work. It makes me to see the glory of Israel.
Being in the Holy Land has a special significance for the congregants at Lift Up Your Head Church
Galia Sabar, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has studied African Churches in Israel. She says many parts of Jewish Israeli society are intolerant to outsiders based on race or culture, but religious tolerance of Christianity is paramount.
SABAR: Both the Christians and the Jews are very hospitable to each other… I can count on one hand the number the number of times the deportation police or any other police have entered any religious space.
The migrants attending Lift Up Your Head are among 60,000 or so Africans who have headed to Israel since 2006, looking for the economic opportunities and political stability they didn’t experience in their own countries.
This migration began in the 1990s, but was fairly small and Israelis welcomed them says Sabar. That’s until there was an exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land after a deadly police attack at a Cairo refugee camp in December 2005.
Sabar: “dozens were killed, many others were injured…everybody knew that there wasn’t a clear border between Israel and Egypt… and they just decided to escape Egypt.”
Africans streamed across the Sinai desert, seeking salvation in Israel. And in recent years, Israel has been less welcoming.
In 2011 Israel started to crack down, to stem the flow of African migration, putting up a fence at the border. More recently, the government began to refer to the Africans as “infiltrators”—an ominous epithet.
Orit Marom is an Israeli and an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. She says the government has stepped up deportations in the past two years.
MAROM: “The Israeli government policy see them as a burden, see them as something that Israel needs to get rid of.”
More than two thousand Africans left Israel last year as part of a controversial “voluntary departure” program. They were paid 3,500 dollars to go or face being detained.
In December last year, the government opened the Holot detention center, which now houses about 1,800 people.
Opposition politicians and activists call Holot an open-air prison.
The UN has said that the indefinite detention of immigrants there goes against the norms of international Human Rights.
Poppie Mphuthing. Columbia Radio News.