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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.

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.”