In order to make sure that we were in the office for a goodbye party yesterday, Abigail and I went to the prison at 7 am instead of the afternoon as usual. Unfortunately, the guards were not happy with our early arrival, and almost refused to let us enter. Eventually we found one department where the guards were more laid back, and were willing to let one or two prisoners out to talk to us as long as we requested them by name. One of the prisoners wanted to apply for asylum to Australia, and had a copy of the form but didn't know how to fill it out because it was in complicated English, so I was glad that I was able to help. (It definitely made me think of the work Kelly's doing in New Zealand).
Usually when we get to the prison, all the detainees are out in the yard, a small area with four picnic tables, a fridge and a sink. In one of the departments, the yard also has a ping-pong table. It isn't really “outside,” more like an enclosed space with sunlight streaming down, although it is cooler and breezier than the stuffy cells. Each cell has anywhere from six to sixteen people in bunk beds, with very little extra room to move around. What we've learned so far from conducting interviews is that during the day the only thing to do is lie in bed and watch television. There are no books, no educational materials or classes, no music, and no events of any kind. Prisoners can hold onto their cell phones as long as they are basic, with no internet or camera, and no mp3 capabilities. They're “outside” for about 5 or 6 hours each day. This time, most of the prisoners were still in their cells, and it was a much different experience sitting in the deserted, dusty yard, with just one other prisoner.
Next week, I'm planning to visit the detention center in the South of Israel, close to the border with Egypt. This is where most refugees who are discovered crossing the border are brought, while their identities are checked. There is not enough space in the building for prisoners, so there is a tent city set up outside. I'll write more about this once I see it, but I'm anticipating a very long and difficult day.
In the meantime, after last week's post, I've been trying to see the nicer side of Israel. On Friday, two of the other interns and I visited Bethlehem for a day of letting ourselves be normal tourists. We were in the city during Friday noon prayers and heard the sermon (although only one of us understands any Arabic) and then visited the Church of the Nativity. Then I spent shabbat (the sabbath) in Jerusalem, which was beautiful and very relaxing. On Sunday, I participated in a photography competition in the Old City of Jerusalem, and tomorrow, I'm going to see the opera, Carmen, being performed for free in a park in North Tel Aviv. I've also been noticing the simple day-to-day things about Israel that I admire, such as the fact that every building has a solar water-heater on its roof, and several main streets have bike lanes packed with bicycles. Israel is also the only country that had more trees in 2000 than in 1900. The whole country is very conscious of conserving water, as well, since water leads to so many of the region's conflicts. Every toilet even has two handles – one handle only flushes a little bit, to save water.
Another positive development is that the Knesset (Israel's parliament) is expected to pass a bill in the near future that would give citizenship – actual, full citizenship – to the children of migrant workers who have grown up here and attended Israeli schools, as long as they entered Israel legally. It's similar to the DREAM act in the USA that Obama mentioned in his July 1 speech about immigration, that still hasn't passed after many years in Congress. One problem with Israel's version is that it doesn't extend citizenship to older siblings who came after finishing schooling, only to small children, and their guardians receive residency, not full citizenship. And the ministers of the Knesset (MKs) have thus far refused to say exactly what will happen to the children of migrant workers who don't get citizenship – until now, they have never detained these children (unlike, for example, the USA and Canada, which I'm learning about). We're hoping that the government doesn't start to detain children once this chance for becoming legal passes. The bill doesn't automatically give the eligible families citizenship – they must apply, and because of this, we are going to be VERY busy. I'm glad that I'll still be around to help, because the Hotline for Migrant Workers is going to be packed. We're already seeing many more small children around the office than usual. More updates on this soon!