Archive | July, 2012

Out of Africa

20 Jul

The London Summer Olympics are about to start next week.  In Track & Field it’s unlikely a new competition will be added: The super-super-super marathon. Yet in recent years thousands of South Sudanese had trekked more than 2000 miles and crossed into Israel.  That’s the equivalent of walking from Chicago to Los Angeles.  In the Sudanese and Egyptian desert there are no malls, restaurants, or motels.  The Africans are not after the Gold Medal.  They’re escaping civil-war atrocities in their homeland; they’re seeking safety, jobs, and a new way of life — in Israel.

In 2006 the Israeli government issued the Africans a permit to stay as a humanitarian gesture.  That opened the floodgates.  Word got out.  Today there are more than 60,000 Africans in Israel.  How to define them is a political hot potato.  Depending on whom you ask, they’ve been labeled as infiltrators, immigrants, laborers, trespassers, asylum-seekers, freeloaders, bandits, illegals, refugees.  To the left-leaning Tel-Avivians in their high-rise buildings the Africans are refugees who deserve a break and should be allowed to stay.  To the inner-city poor who rub elbows with the Africans daily, they take their anger on the rich as much as the Africans, calling them a bunch of criminals who engage in rape and theft.

Sudanese Protestors

Talk about refugees is a sensitive subject.  Jews on board boats seeking refuge during World-War II were turned away at every port.  They subsequently died in the camps.   Many ask here: Did we not learn anything from our history?  Equally large numbers ask: Must we be the solution to everyone’s problems?

On several occasions in Galilee I see Africans walk by the side of the road: men, women, children.  They swing their belongings at their sides.  Others balance suitcases or bundles on their heads.  Minutes later, returning the same way I drove, I can no longer find them.  They’re gone.

The Africans take any job that’s offered.  On a recent outing to the beach in Tel Aviv I rented lounge chairs and umbrella from an attendant, a young black man.  He spoke perfect Hebrew.  “How long have you been in Israel?” I ask.  “Two years,” he responds proudly.  “Do you want to stay here or go home?”  He anchors the umbrella in the sand, tilts it towards the sun.  “I want to stay.”

The ones that stay are sending money to their families back home.  According to one estimate, each year the Africans send 500,000,000 shekels ($125,000,000).  Many in Israel don’t like this.  The Sudanese compete with the Israeli unskilled labor in a “race to the bottom,” depressing wages.

Sudanese Kids at Bus Station before Deportation

It’s unclear if the crime rate is higher among the Africans or whether they’re taking “wanted” jobs from the Israelis.  But the tide is turning against them.  The government is pressured to act.  Africans not classified at political refugees and whose lives are not in danger risk deportation.  To block the flow of infiltrators, the government is building a very large detention center in the Negev desert bordering Egypt.  A fence is going up.   The camp capacity: 20,000, half of which will live in tents.  It’s a logistical nightmare.  Sewage treatment is in the works as well as hauling water, offering medical attention, transporting food, clothes.  It’s a joint project of the Ministry of Interior and Prison Services.

Israel is paying the Africans to leave.  The going rate is $1300 for every adult and $500 for every child who return home voluntarily.  Recently 120 Sudanese boarded a Bulgarian-chartered aircraft for the first flight to Sudan.  More will follow.

The Africans are fighting back, garnering public support to their cause.  They demonstrate, carry signs, sing, blare out slogans.  Their kids attend public schools, learn Hebrew, learn about Passover, Hanukkah and the Jewish way of life.  Their future here is far from certain.

They crossed a desert, came upon the Promised Land.

Will they be allowed to stay?

Taking No Prisoners

3 Jul

“One more time, photography is forbidden.  Leave all your personal belongings in the bus, no exceptions.”  It’s our tour guide speaking and he’s all business.  Finally our driver is given clearance to enter the grounds of Hermon Prison in Galilee.  Weeks earlier we had sent copies of our IDs to the prison chief to run background checks.  Most of the people on board the bus are gray-haired, harmless grandparents but prison security takes no chances.

Yael Lyn at metal detector

Yael Lyn, the social worker and prison spokeswoman, greets us by the metal detectors leading to the inside.  She’s in her thirties, attractive, wears a light blue shirt uniform with Israel Prison Service insignia stitched into the sleeve.  Three gold stars on each of her shoulder straps mark her rank.  We’re led single file to the outside.  I’m struck by the green lawns, the flower beds, and the sculptures of deer “grazing” near large tree trunks.  The prison, adapted from a model in Arizona, looks like a college campus.  The concertina wires at the edge of the property and a control tower remind you of the grim reality.

We take our seats in the orientation room.  Plums, biscuits, coffee, and ice water are on the tables.   Yael shows us a short film.  Total inmate population: 600, all men, half Jewish, half Arab.  It’s an experimental prison where rehabilitation comes first.  The language used here is different.  Prisoners are called “residents,” cells are “rooms,” and the prison is “home.”  There are no hard-core murderers here.  The prison “specializes” in drug addicts, dealers, alcoholics, sex offenders, domestic violence batterers, and your garden-variety white-collar criminals, mostly…lawyers.  And one member of parliament jailed for embezzlement.

The film’s over.  I ask Yael: “The Arabs make up 20% of the population yet they number 50% of the prison total.  Why?”  Yael must have heard the question before because she shoots back the answer.  “They have no safety net at home.  Little in the way of opportunities, lack of support at home, shame, boredom, and they return to a cycle of crime.”  I continue: “But Moslems are forbidden to drink alcohol.”  She rests her hands on the table.  “It’s all a myth.  All taboos are broken.  Arabs are found drunk by the side of the road, Druze men whose religion holds family values in high esteem are prosecuted for violence against women, Yeshiva (seminaries) boys are accused of incest, and orthodox men are jailed as sex predators.  Crime crosses all boundaries, all religions, all men.”

Hermon Prison

She explains that each segment of the prison population has its own rules and language.  The Russians are a close-knit bunch.  “You’ll have a Russian who’d arrived with not much more than his underwear late at night.  By morning the Russian leader has supplied him with extra clothes, food, cigarettes.  The Arabs form their own gangs.  The Jewish residents are the most spoiled.  They call their mommy, wife or girlfriend to bring in chocolate bars, tuna cans, pastries.  Make them take an expensive cab ride all the way from the center or south of Israel.”

We’re led to a large space inside a building that could easily be mistaken for a college dorm.  There are 50 chairs in a circle.  Yael brings in 2 men from their “rooms,” sits between them.  They’re wearing prison uniform: orange overalls with reflective stripes below the knees.

“My name’s Tal,” starts out the first one.  He’s 25, handsome, wears a kippa on his shaven head, serves a 3-year sentence.  “It was all about me,” he says and scans the room.  “I’m a drug-addict.  I did everything to get my hands on drugs.”  He speaks for 10 minutes about the hurt he’d caused and the progress he’s making.  He tells us about his daily routine.  “I’m up at 5:30.  There’s roll-call.  I start cleaning my room and whatever chores are assigned to me.  At 7:00 I eat breakfast in the cafeteria.  Roll-call.  I work from 8:00 to 4:00 with a break for lunch.  At 5:00 I attend classes to help me with my drug habit.  In the evening we’re allowed to change into regular clothes, make a 10 minute phone call.  We play sports, eat dinner.  We read at the library, watch TV.  Roll-call.  Lights out at 11:00.”Support Group Session in Prison

“My name’s Ahmed,” continues the second “resident.”  “I’m 39 and I’m from Um-El-Fahem.  I’m a drug dealer.  I’m one of six boys.  I didn’t get along with my father.  I ran off to Tel-Aviv, found work, even had a Jewish girl friend.  Most men drink one glass with their meal.  I finished off an entire bottle of liquor in one sitting.  I travelled to London, mixed with the wrong crowd, went to stay with my doctor brother in Switzerland, got into drug dealing, didn’t know night from day.  I smuggled drugs to Israel in my stomach.  My stomach ruptured.  I was rushed to hospital, was in a coma for 15 days.  I hurt everyone I knew.  I’ve learned plenty about myself here.  Tal and I are friends here.  We want a fresh start.”

We clap enthusiastically and throw words of encouragement.  The orange-clad men smile guardedly.  Show-and-Tell is almost over.  We’re escorted to their quarters.  Each inmate gets his own room.  It’s small, a bed, desk, chair, locker.  Decorative iron bars block the window.  Toilets and showers are shared at the end of the corridor.  The place is spotless.  They’re taught discipline, order, responsibility, cleanliness, respect, cause-and-effect.

Work is mandatory.  They start at the bottom of the scale and work their way up.  It’s all about carrots and sticks.  They must earn advancement.  They start out in the kitchen, laundry room, gardening, assembling plastic picnic silverware, install electrical wires on bus frames, and “graduate” to Teva shoe factory, the highest paying job.

The Teva Na’ot workshop employs about 80 men.  The room is well-lit and ventilated.  They watch us with little interest as we walk past their work stations.  They cut the South American leather with a carving machine.  Others glue the soles of the world-renowned sandals.  The rest sew the threads.  Each day about 600 pairs make it to the U.S. and Australia from Hermon Prison.  The manufacturer, kibbutz Ne’ot Mordecai, struck a win/win arrangement with Hermon Prison.  The kibbutz gets quality shoes with lower labor costs, the prison teaches the residents a trade, teaches them about schedules, deadlines, work habits, and helps keep them out of trouble.

Yael concludes, “We’re trying to reduce the revolving-door scenario known in many prisons worldwide.  We’re trying to break the mold of once a criminal always a criminal.  70% of all released inmates are arrested again.  At Hermon Prison, because of our rehabilitation program, it’s down to 40%.  We don’t want the prisoners back.  Criminologists from around the world come to see us in Israel and learn.”

We leave the way we came in.  I’m thinking of the two men who shared their experiences with us.  In time, they’ll be released to a halfway house where they’ll be reintroduced into society, learn to get up in the morning, apply for a job, reunite with family and friends.

As the bus leaves the compound and the barbed wires in the distance I thought of stealing a pair Teva sandals, size 11.

I’m glad I decided against it.  I don’t look good in orange.