The new faces of Israel

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.”

Sabir Yagoub, 29, started a coffee house a year and a half ago, six months after fleeing Darfur for Israel.

“I walked around Neve Sha'anan and [nearby] Levinsky Park,” Yagoub said. “I saw the people just sitting there on the grass. I thought the people would want a place to hang out."

On a Saturday at 7 p.m., his coffeehouse at Neve Sha'anan 13 was packed with Sudanese and Eritrean men playing cards, sipping on a warm Sudanese milk drink called leben and gazing at an Italian soccer match. One customer was Ibrahim Saadeldin, 29, a Darfurian refugee who used to clean a synagogue in northern Tel Aviv but who is now learning Hebrew five days a week in the hopes of attending law school.

“We live in the tiniest, narrowest rooms,” Saadeldin said. “We come here to breathe. If I need to meet someone, we always decide to meet here.”

While there are Chinese and Ethiopian restaurants elsewhere in Tel Aviv, nowhere in the city or the country are so many non-Jewish foreign businesses clumped together. According to city spokeswoman, Almog Cohen, Neve Sha'anan hosts 90 businesses, mostly eateries and grocery stores. The city does not keep records on the origins of business owners, Cohen said, but Tel Aviv does not require entrepreneurs to be Israeli citizens.

Almog said Tel Aviv has poured “millions” of shekels into renovating Neve Sha'anan, including repaving the street, improving lighting and renovating the large neighborhood Levinksy Park. She said the city and the police cooperate to reduce crime in the area. Yet in January, a Sudanese refugee was shot dead in a clothing store; a week later, an Eritrean was found fatally stabbed outside a Neve Sha'anan restaurant. Men urinate on the streets. In Levinsky Park, heroin users shoot up along the fence of the basketball court.

Israeli Dani Rahon, 42, has sold Asian groceries such as sweet potato noodles and tom yum soup paste for the last seven years. His Dragon store stays open until midnight on weekends, and Rahon said three staff always stay until close because of security. He said he was attacked at night but declined to elaborate.

Schnell cautions that until Israel becomes more accepting of foreigners, Neve Sha'anan will never be a real Chinatown, “a place that's pleasant to walk around in and enjoy the exoticness.”

For two months in the summer, the Ministry of the Interior ruled that all refugees and asylum seekers must live outside Tel Aviv. That measure was rescinded, but in January Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Israel was building a fence along the Egyptian border to limit infiltrators. Later in the month he announced a plan to reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel, today estimated at 300,000, by at least 10 percent.

“There are periods when the police comes out, and everyone is terrified,” Schnell said. “To create an atmosphere of vibrant communities, its not just to bring a few cleaners [to the area].”

Still, for a few Israelis, Neve Sha'anan is already a place to feel foreign. Last Saturday, Boaz Shamir, 39, and Tamir Noy, 32, picked their way through a sidewalk lined with peddlers hawking vacuum cleaners, clothes, plates and bike racks. They had just come from a Chinese restaurant. Shamir, a lawyer and soundman, said the neighborhood “is not defined as Chinatown. If it was, the city would invest in it. But it is our Chinatown.”

Added Noy, who works in security, “It’s changing the city and I think it’s for the better.”