We Won’t be Illegal Forever
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.
”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.
Nneoma 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.