‘Now I feed my children every night’: asylum seekers in Tel Aviv turning to food bank

07.11.21, Rosie Scammell, The National News

Asylum Seeker Community

In south Tel Aviv, asylum seekers who have lived in Israel for years are turning to a food bank for help after being hit hard by the pandemic. “Since this food support is available, I’m not starving,” said one Eritrean woman, 30, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t have family here, I’m supporting myself and my children alone. I need a lot of support.” The hotel worker, who arrived in Israel 11 years ago, recounted the hardship of raising four children in the seaside city.

Her family is only one of hundreds who have come to rely on the food bank, from where skyscrapers of Israel’s financial capital are visible. The small “supermarket”, which has shelves filled with supplies such as lentils, cooking oil and canned beans, opened in July as a response to widespread hunger. Natalie Silverlieb from Mesila, an organisation within the municipality which supports asylum seekers and undocumented people, recalled people pleading for help last year. “People started to come in saying ‘I’m hungry, I have nothing to eat’,” said Ms Silverlieb, Mesila’s food security programme manager. “It was a humanitarian crisis – people saying they were starving.”

While Israeli citizens were able to turn to state benefits during coronavirus, these was not available for asylum seekers. The UN refugee agency last year said there were more than 32,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers of particular concern in Israel. They have been in legal limbo for more than a decade. Israel has approved fewer than 0.1 per cent of more than 80,000 asylum applications since July 2009, UNHCR figures show. Thousands of people have had their paperwork pending for years and, in the meantime, are allowed to work. Many held jobs in hotels or restaurants, Mesila said, and lost their income when businesses closed during the pandemic. Israeli authorities have imposed three nationwide lockdowns since March 2020, as part of efforts to cut the number of coronavirus infections. In Tel Aviv, non-governmental organisations arranged food handouts at the start of the pandemic to address the immediate crisis.

A survey was conducted a year ago to determine the depth of the problem, which found more than 86 per cent of asylum seekers and undocumented people in south Tel Aviv were mildly to severely starving. The research was commissioned by the municipality and the Israeli Health Ministry. Participants were asked questions such as how often they were skipping meals, as well as the food they were missing in their diet.

The findings contributed to the launch of the food bank by Mesila, charity Lasova and the Tel Aviv Foundation. The project is currently serving 600 families who visit twice a month. “Our aim is to reach 1,000 families, we still have a waiting list because we couldn’t take all at once,” Ms Silverlieb said. Wheeling buggies and small shopping trolleys, customers walk down an alley beside the food bank and wait their turn. Signs inside written in Arabic, English and Tigrinya – the language commonly spoken in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and in the highlands of Eritrea – indicate the quantities each family can take. Extra donations, such as fancy dress costumes, sit in a basket.

Sitting outside on a plastic chair, one of the customers said shelves were stocked with food essentials. “What we need additionally is nappies and milk,” said the woman, 33, who has three young children. She remembered the fear which struck her Eritrean community when coronavirus emerged, both of the disease and the financial fallout. “We always work from hand to mouth,” she said, 11 years after arriving in Israel. “I stopped working first because of coronavirus, then second because of my health,” she said of problems unrelated to the Covid-19 pandemic. Israel has eased most restrictions imposed during the pandemic, allowing many asylum seekers to return to work in service industries.

Since November 1, tourists have been allowed to enter in large numbers for the first time since March last year. Despite such developments, many asylum seekers are still struggling to feed themselves. Some 80 per cent of the community was unemployed for nearly a year, Mesila said, and rarely had savings. “Previously I worked and I paid for my rent, then I had nothing,” said the 30-year-old Eritrean, explaining how grateful she was to receive groceries. “But now I get support from this food bank,” she said. “I serve food to my children every night, every day.”

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