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Flash Reprint: Nneoma Ike-Njoku’s “We Won’t be Illegal Forever”

We Won’t be Ille­gal Forever

Nneoma Ike-Njoku


They found Aunty Kemi. Some­one said that they picked her up on the street, on her way to work one morn­ing. They wouldn’t let her take any­thing from her apart­ment, just took her phone away and put her on a bus to deten­tion camp at Ket­ziot.

After the protests at Hativka, peo­ple started to talk. Oz, the police unit that rounds up ille­gal immi­grants in Israel, came to our neigh­bor­hood almost every day. So we left our apart­ment on Etzel Street and moved here.

Even here, every­one is scared. No one leaves their houses much. If the police see you, they take you away. Any­one could inform on you. Even fel­low immi­grants.

I’m a smart girl, though, and I know how to sur­vive. Mother likes to say that I pick up lan­guages ”like water”. I speak flu­ent Hebrew, and my Tigrinya is good enough. I started learn­ing Eng­lish three years ago, from an old woman next door, because my father is an Eng­lish­man. He was a med­i­cine stu­dent at Tel-Aviv for eight months, mov­ing back to Lon­don just before my birth in 2000. I don’t want to be speak­ing Hebrew when I meet him in Eng­land.
The math­e­mat­ics teacher at the She­vah Mofet School, Ms Katya, said that the way I learn lan­guages, I could get a job as a trans­la­tor for the UN. She tried to teach me Rus­sian last sum­mer, but then the riots started and I couldn’t leave the apart­ment.

I’ve started sav­ing to see my father. I hear the news. Netanyahu wants to drive us away. All ille­gal immi­grants. First from Tel-Aviv. Then from Israel. So I’ve got to have some­where to go if he does. If they drive us away, I will go to Eng­land and find my father.

Mother came here from Eritrea. It’s a coun­try in Africa. She tells me sto­ries about her jour­ney to Israel. She talks about the end­less walk­ing, through the deserts of the Sinai Penin­sula. She tells me about the cru­elty of the Bedouin smug­glers, that though she had saved about 3000 shekels when she started off for Israel, she arrived pen­ni­less. She tells me of a pretty woman who dished out food to all the immi­grants at Levin­sky Park every morn­ing, sav­ing her from starv­ing her first few months here.

To save money, I do a lot of things. I still have some of the bot­tles of per­fume and scented soaps Aunty Kemi gave me when she worked as a cleaner at the hotel in Eilat. Aunty Kemi used to be our neigh­bor back on Etzel before she found hotel work at Eilat, but I’ve called her aunty so long I can’t remem­ber why.

There are twenty-three bot­tles in all. I sold five of them to some kids at She­vah Mofet School. They paid me a half- shekel a bot­tle. Last year, I hosted a neigh­bor­hood toy car rac­ing tour­na­ment with David, whose father owns the local phar­macy. We made the cars our­selves, using pieces of string, bot­tle corks and match­boxes, and charged a shekel for two matches and an optional re-match. About thirty peo­ple showed up in all: immi­grant, legal, rich, poor, chil­dren, almost-adults. David and I split the money half-ways, and I got forty-seven shekels and fif­teen. I also do some trans­lat­ing for three Eritrean fam­i­lies in the other block who speak only Tigrinya, for ten on offi­cial doc­u­ments. Per­sonal let­ters are free, and an excel­lent source of news.

At our old apart­ment in Etzel, there was a poster telling peo­ple to inform on their immi­grant neigh­bors. Play­ing one sum­mer, David and I doo­dled and drew funny faces all over the poster. The next day, Oz took away a Sudanese- Ivo­rian fam­ily of seven three apart­ments down. No one left their apart­ment for days.

At Etzel, we had lots of stuff. There were nine of us: mother and I, and two Ghana­ian fam­i­lies. Two of the kids were twelve, about my age, so I had some com­pany when we couldn’t go out. I taught them to play boats; they taught me to make bean cakes. We had three bed­rooms, a toi­let, and a kitch­enette which all the fam­i­lies took turns using. Mother got a radio. One of the fam­i­lies had a refrig­er­a­tor, so we could always store food.

Now we live above a restau­rant. It is a small room, almost like a closet. No win­dows. Mother works as a wait­ress down­stairs. Besides wait­ress­ing, she does a num­ber of other things. There is a pop­u­lar hotel in town so we go together once a week to see pil­grims from Africa. Peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood pay to send let­ters and money to their rel­a­tives in Nige­ria and Ghana and Sudan and Eritrea through the pil­grims, as ille­gal immi­grants can­not bank in Israel (many peo­ple, includ­ing mother, sew their money onto their clothes). She also buys dried stock fish, egusi seeds and Oha leaves from them, sell­ing them at a profit in our neigh­bor­hood. On Sat­ur­days, she braids some of the neigh­bor­hood women’s hair.

She used to let me sleep on the bed while she slept on the floor. But she moaned and yelled in her sleep and com­plained of con­stant back­aches, so I took out some money from my Eng­land sav­ings and bought a used cot for myself. When mother saw the cot she shook her head and said ”Now we have no stand­ing room”. But she sleeps soundly now.

Mother sold the radio and bought a cab­i­net which she’s started to stock with books. Nov­els. His­tory books. Sci­ence books. Old books. New books. Books writ­ten in Hebrew and in Eng­lish and some­times, in Rus­sian. ”Read, Asmara”, she says. ”Read. We won’t be ille­gal forever.” I believe her.


Note: Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2014, Dove­Tales, an Inter­na­tional Jour­nal of the Arts.


Author’s Note

”Ille­gal” was sec­ond place in the 2013 Writ­ing for Peace Prize and was inspired by my mother’s anec­dotes fol­low­ing a pil­grim­age to Israel in 2001. I was about six years old when she returned, and the sto­ries she told, of the immi­grants’ los­ing con­tact with every­thing before the present, of daily humil­i­a­tions too many and too much to write about made me won­der, too sim­plis­ti­cally per­haps, why the immi­grants did not just up and go home.

When I started the research on this story just over a decade later, it shocked me how many peo­ple still held on to the view that matu­rity and expe­ri­ence had taught me to dis­card. These immi­grants could not just up and go; Israel was theirs as much as any­one else’s, for bet­ter or worse.


Here's a pic.jpgNneoma Ike-Njoku is a Nige­rian writer and free­lance edi­tor. Her work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in Tran­si­tion Mag­a­zine, The Kala­hari Review, Ya Afri­ika, Inter­fic­tions: A Jour­nal of Inter­sti­tial Arts, and Afrikana.ng.

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