No Quarter Or Hope

Published 11 years ago
No Quarter Or Hope

The lights are off and the curtains drawn. The Africa Corner Bar in downtown Tel Aviv is a shadow of the popular night spot it once was. It jumps more in fear these days, than it ever did to the beat. It is also out of time with name of the neighborhood it is in—the Quarter of Hope.

That name fitted like a glove when Amine Tekele Zegeta opened the bar last year. The Eritrean refugee believed he’d given birth to a place that would make worthwhile the anguish of his difficult journey to Israel.

Eight months on, Tekele Zegeta sits largely by himself in his bar. It’s Thursday afternoon and the place has only three patrons, one of whom has his eyes glued to the small TV set broadcasting an Eritrean music channel that seems to be playing the same three songs in Tigrigna over and over.


The bar has been this empty since May 23, the day a protest against the influx of African migrants spun out of control. The people of the Quarter of Hope ran amok, smashing African-owned stores and terrorizing Africans. Israeli parliamentarians called African migrants infiltrators who should be cut out like cancer.

That night a rock shattered the main window in Tekele Zegeta’s bar. Looters surged in and stole his stock. Out on the street, the rioters chanted racist slogans as they blocked a car driven by a man from the Ivory Coast and smashed his windows, before attacking any Africans they could find. The string of racist demonstrations and inflammatory language worry many, especially Israel’s 120,000-strong Ethiopian community.

“Ever since that day, I don’t feel normal. I am afraid to come to work. I open at irregular hours. I don’t know what will happen next,” Tekele Zegeta says.

It wasn’t the first time Tekele Zegeta’s bar had been hit. Several months after he opened, Israeli youth attacked him outside the bar and beat him up. A few weeks later he was harassed on the street, but managed to escape. Just two days after FORBES AFRICA interviewed him; Tekele Zegeta’s bar was again attacked when a man on a motorcycle roared up to the front door and threw in firecrackers.


“People don’t want to come here. They know there is trouble. They are lying low and not going outside too much, they don’t want to be attacked,” he reflects sadly.

Since 2005, some 60,000 Africans, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, made their way to Israel, mostly seeking refuge from war, persecution and dictatorship. Like Tekele Zegeta, they cross into Israel via its porous border with Egypt and many tell tales of vicious torture and rape at the hands of their Sinai Bedouin handlers. Once in Israel, they are picked up by the army, given basic medical treatment and taken to a prison to be processed. They are set free after 10-12 days on conditional release, a status they must renew every three months. Then they are left to fend for themselves.

Israel considers the migrants interlopers, but the country has a policy of not deporting them, especially the Sudanese and Eritreans who are given group protection because they could face persecution—or worse—if they are sent back. Because they’re not recognized as refugees, most of them are not given the rights that go with being a refugee, such as the right to housing, work and medical care. Many end up sleeping in public parks and roaming the streets by day, with no hope of making a living.

Tekele Zegeta has it tough, but he is one of the lucky ones. He is recognized as a refugee and has a work visa. He left Eritrea in 2007, leaving behind his parents and a young daughter, for a journey that took him about a month. After years of cleaning apartments and offices, he pooled his savings and borrowed from friends to open the bar. He serves coffee, tea, soft drinks and beer in Israeli and European brands as well as Asmara, a brand named after the Eritrean capital. The bar is modest; it has eight tables with plastic coverings and the walls are adorned with posters of Eritrea or Ethiopia.


“I wanted to have a place for African patrons. They can come here, drink something, talk. But I don’t know if I will stay open. How can I?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t say this is my dream but I can’t stay cleaning houses for the rest of my life. I wanted to do something to get ahead. In Eritrea, I was ok. I had a home, an income, a life. I came here as a refugee, I came here for help.”

Tekele Zegeta is highly critical of the Israeli government’s handling of the situation.

“It is clear that Israel doesn’t want us here. I have been here five years and what do I have to show for it? In other countries, after that many years, you get some sort of permanence, citizenship, a chance at a normal life. Israel keeps us in limbo. It accuses us of seeking work but is working a crime in any other country? Israel should abide by the law. It can either send us to a third country or help us.”


In a high profile campaign, Israeli authorities began a crackdown on Africans in June, arresting and deporting mainly South Sudanese nationals. Israel maintains that since South Sudan is now an independent state, with ties to Israel, no-one sent back would face danger.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also lauds his government’s plans to finish the construction of a fence along the Israeli border with Egypt and a detention center that will house some 10,000 people, in the Negev desert. The government is not saying what it will do with the thousands of people who reside in the country but have no rights.

Ethiopian MK Shlomo Molla is on record as saying: “We feel very uncomfortable about what is happening… Jews talk about how we were slaves in Egypt and how we suffered because of our religion and culture outside of Israel—but now we are making others suffer.”

Back at the Africa Corner Bar, Tekele Zegeta is cynical.


“What did the government do after the demonstrations? Nothing! It cannot go on like this. Israel can’t just throw people to the dogs. It must care what happens to us. If I close, I will be left with nothing, and I will owe money. I would be back at square one.”

Tekele Zegeta may have to shut Africa Corner Bar’s doors, no longer feeling safe in the area and in Israel in general. But he knows he cannot go back to Eritrea and is now seeking asylum in a third country. “At least, if I can be accepted in another country, that would be better,” he concludes.

For Tekele Zegeta, this place of refuge has become a place to seek refuge from. It is a sign of the times in Tel Aviv that an African as battered as he is can be considered lucky.