The Other Israelis
Posted on Aug 7, 2011
A stroll to nearby Levinski Park takes one along sidewalks dotted with signs advertising calling cards to Thailand, the Philippines, Sudan and Nepal.
Tucked underneath an elevated ramp to the central bus station and between signs advertising restaurants in Hebrew is a shop bearing an English-language sign—“Maharaja Indian Market”—where Rohith Kumar works.
Kumar moved to Israel six years ago when a friend offered to arrange a caregiver visa in exchange for $7,000. He was fleeing violence in his hometown of Mangalore, India, where his brother had been killed in Hindu-Muslim clashes.
“When I came to Israel, my wife was pregnant,” said Kumar, 37, who spoke freely about his life story from the cramped and dusty second floor of his Indian market. “I didn’t see my child until three years later.”
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The agency that brought him to Israel—which, coincidentally, no longer exists—was “crooked,” according to Kumar. He would pay the agency $3,000 to $4,000 every three months, or else it would “cut off” his visa, causing him to be sent to jail by immigration police for violating the terms of his stay in Israel.
“If you don’t pay, they make problems for us,” he said.
Meanwhile, he worked for his supposed employer for free only two days a week, cleaning the house or gardening. The arrangement was, essentially, a front.
“A lot of Indian people are working not legally. We have a visa, but we are never working legally,” he said. Many people engage in black market, cash-based work “like house cleaning so that we can get a lot of money. I have also been working like that before.”
The agency taught both the immigrant and the employee to game the system. If Kumar was questioned by police about working for a family not designated on his visa, he would say that he was on his day off, visiting friends. And if the immigration police asked his supposed employers where their worker was, they would say he had gone to the store.
“The agency, they show the way how because they are also making business. They say, if you work like this, you can make a lot of money. But you will have to pay to us like this money,” he says, gesturing as if passing money below the table.
So the employee is lying to the immigration police?
“Yes, he is lying,” said Kumar matter-of-factly.
The agency, too?
“Yes. Me, I am also lying,” says Kumar with a laugh.
Kumar is caught between twin responsibilities: making money to support his family, and building a happy life for himself in Israel.
“I have children, I have parents. My big brother is dead. All the responsibility is on me,” Kumar said.
While he came to Israel to make money, the complicated underground economy in which he has been struggling has kept him indebted. Every effort to earn enough money to escape has further attached him to Israel: The security of a new refugee visa means he cannot go back to India; the loans he took out to open his Indian market means he carries a new monetary debt; and now, the girlfriend with whom he has been with for three years offers the promise of full Israeli citizenship.
“Always in my heart I miss my family. I miss them all the time,” he said. “I didn’t see my child when [he was] a baby. I will never get that again, his playing. He didn’t know his father. I will never get that. I cannot forget.”
Even though Kumar found more freedom with a refugee visa—enough to open his own store, with plans to open an Indian restaurant next door in the coming months—his friends are all struggling through Israel’s complicated immigration system.
“Every three months, six months, they are changing the rules,” said Kumar.
On a recent balmy morning in Israel, about 100 tiny soldiers, princesses, and ninjas ran around a gritty park in South Tel Aviv. Some scaled an aging, multicolored jungle gym, while others gyrated inside hula-hoops or danced upon a stage. It was Purim, or as it’s often called—the Jewish Halloween.
But unlike other Purim festivities, non-Jewish migrant caregivers and their children constituted the majority of party-goers, many of whom were under threat of deportation.
Until recently, pregnancy brought not only a child but also illegality.
Under Israeli law, children born to migrant workers had to leave the country within three months of their birth, leaving mothers with a hard choice: Either send their child back home or stay in Israel illegally with their newborn baby.
“The decision of the Israeli government is connected to the Jewish character,” said Lachmanovitch, explaining why the children were forced to leave the country by law. “We shouldn’t be ashamed that Israel is a Jewish country.”
For Purim, Dave and Aren De Silva dressed their 2-year-old son, Drew Jade, as a soldier. Aren came to Israel legally in 2006 to care for an elderly Jewish woman. But then she met Dave, a Filipino who holds a temporary residency card. A baby and an expired work permit soon followed. After Aren chose not to leave the country with Drew Jade, her family became illegal.
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