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The new faces of Israel

Tel Aviv has become something of a melting pot, with immigrants from the Philippines, Romania and South America.

TEL AVIV, Israel — On a Thursday night at Mommy's Place, AJ Masajo took his normal place in front of the karaoke screen. Clutching a microphone, the 34-year-old from the Philippines belted out “Sweet Child of Mine,” including an air guitar solo. Masajo, who studied music in Manila, comes to the restaurant each Thursday.

"It's like the Philippines in here,” said Masajo, dressed in dark jeans and a tight pink shirt. He has worked as a caretaker in Israel for the last four years. “In every home in Manila there's karaoke.”

Mommy's Place is owned by an Israeli-Philippino couple, Yossi and Lucy Hazut, who met 19 years ago. The two-story restaurant is right off Neve Sha'anan, a three-block pedestrian walkway lined with cobblestones and framed by crumbling Bauhaus buildings. The street is the service and cultural center to the city's 40,000 foreign workers and 5,000 African refugees, according to the city of Tel Aviv. On weekends they stream onto the pavement to take a rest from cleaning hospitals, walking the elderly and pounding away on construction sites.

Their increasingly vibrant neighborhood is growing into Israel’s first Chinatown. Yet despite investment from city hall, Neve Sha'anan is also a no-man's land of the homeless, prostitutes and drug addicts of Tel Aviv. Urban planners say that until national Israeli policy accepts the non-Jewish foreigners, their neighborhood will remain marginal.

According to Tel Aviv University Geographer Itzhak Schnell, Israel has had foreign workers since the 1980s. The phenomenon expanded in 1993, when then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin tightly restricted Palestinian day labor in Israel. Foreign workers from Ghana, Thailand, the Philippines and around the world were eager to replace them, and they built their own social outlets.

“The South Americans had salsa clubs and a soccer league, according to nationality,” Schnell said. “The Filipinos had beauty pageants. ... The Romanians went to brothels.”

In a survey he took of neighboring residents, Schnell found Jewish Tel Avivis of all classes open to the foreign workers, whom they saw as quiet and hard-working. Their only reservation was toward the Romanians because of prostitution.

“Part of the reason was that the foreign workers replaced the Palestinians,” Schnell said. “The Israelis thought [the foreign workers] saved us from terrorist attacks.”

Refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and other African countries began arriving in 2006. Tel Aviv hosts a growing humanitarian infrastructure including a women’s shelter, a clinic and at least 10 African churches.

The openness of Tel Aviv extends to city hall. Ten years ago the city of Tel Aviv founded Mesila, the only municipal welfare organization for foreigners in Israel. Director Tamar Schwartz said the Sudanese did not start businesses right away.

“In the first year or two years, they were in survival mode,” she told GlobalPost. “Then after a year or two, they got jobs, they found apartments. Once their basic needs were met, they began thinking of other needs.”