Thursday, December 18, 2014

Standing up to the South Tel Aviv Stigma

Natalie Astor, from Potomac, MD, is a 5-month Internship Track participant. She is interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic, and volunteering at Kadima Wolfson, a community after-school program for children in South Tel Aviv. 

After studying abroad and interning in Tel Aviv for almost 8 months last year, I thought that I left with a deep connection to the city and a sense of understanding and belonging. However, in all my time living, learning, and experiencing life in Tel Aviv, I never once ventured into South Tel Aviv. Not only was this a place that I did not feel the need to go, but a place I purposefully tried to avoid. Being a naïve newcomer to Israel as a whole, I pretty much started on a clean slate and developed my outlook over time based off the information I gleaned from others. My first exposure to the notion of division in the city was when my friend and I were planning a trip to Jerusalem and our ulpan teacher told us not to go to the central bus station (located in South Tel Aviv), but to go to one in the center of the city. When we asked why, she simply said that it was a bad area of town that we should avoid and we would not be safe there. Another time, I wanted to buy a bike located in South Tel Aviv, but when I spoke to my friends about going to look at it, they said I should only go to look if it is during the day and I am not alone.

A year later when I told my friends and colleagues that I was going back to the city I loved and that brought me so much happiness, I was confronted with mixed reactions. Nearly everyone I encountered was supportive of the service work I would be doing, but those who were familiar with Tel Aviv advised me not to go to South Tel Aviv (or live there) and to be careful. They said it was “another world” and that it was too dangerous for me. Even people I spoke to in Israel tried to instil a sense of fear within me by telling me that South Tel Aviv, and the bus station in particular where I would be working, is not only the worst part of Tel Aviv, but the worst part of the country.

This whole time, I was basing my judgments off of the opinions of others, not any experiences or interactions I personally had. Living and interning in South Tel Aviv for nearly three months now has truly opened my eyes to another world, both positively to diverse and vibrant cultures, and negatively to the radical polarization and exclusivity exhibited by many in Israeli society. I’m currently interning at the Terem Refugee Health Clinic at the Central Bus Station, which offers an array of subsidized medical services to asylum seekers that are not covered by the national health insurance law, which provides universal health care to all Israeli citizens. It is a bit ironic to me that the national insurance law, affirming access to health care as a fundamental and collective right, would in reality not be universal and exclude a significant portion of the population.

The failure of the Israeli health system to include the asylum seeker population under the national health insurance law demonstrates the larger problem of the government’s unwillingness to grant this population refugee status. Though the terms are often used synonymously, asylum seekers and refugees are quite different in that asylum seekers are not entitled to the same civil rights and social benefits as refugees. While thousands of asylum seekers have fled persecution and sought refuge in Israel, only a small percentage have been granted refugee status. Not only is this distinction damaging in terms of access to rights, but the failure to grant refugee status downplays and disregards the terror, hardship, and violence these people endured before they arrived here. It pains me that after all the asylum seekers overcame to get here, they are still denied the basic opportunity to better themselves and have limits placed on their aspirations. Interning at the clinic has allowed me to interact with the asylum seeker community in a variety of capacities. I get to work with many Eritrean staff members, work in reception at the clinic, complete patient histories, and conduct research in order to develop a chronic disease workshop for the clinic. Whether I am sitting in reception trying to communicate with a mother about her baby being sick, or asking a patient about their symptoms to produce their medical record, I am exposed to the humanity and humility of individuals that want the best for themselves and their families.

 It is easy to get swept up into all that Tel Aviv has to offer (the nightlife, coffee shops, beaches, etc.) and to live in a bubble, blind to the struggles and challenges faced by those living right next door. As difficult as it is, more people need to take a step and face the harsh reality, in which the same place that is welcoming and allows so many thrive and enjoy life, can also be exclusive and stifling to others. The division of South Tel Aviv from the rest of Tel Aviv is indicative, to me, of the treatment of asylum seekers and migrant workers by the greater society; as outsiders, infiltrators, and those that are not welcome. The purposeful attempt to restrict asylum seekers acts to separate them from the rest of Israeli society and make them want to leave. Many people in Israeli society readily assign blame and hatred to the asylum seeker community, without even knowing them or giving them a chance. Characterizing South Tel Aviv negatively not only perpetuates a cycle of fear and hopelessness, but exacerbates the consequences of categorizing people as others and forgetting that they are human too. We need to stop simply putting a label on South Tel Aviv as different and integrate it into Tel Aviv and Israel as a whole. We need to put off finding a solution and recognize that the asylum seekers deserve better.

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