Before launching its breakfast program, The Good People Fund worked with Lasova, Tel Aviv’s main soup kitchen, to provide two days of free breakfast as a pilot project. This is Allen Katzoff’s account of that first morning in February.
It was 6:45 a.m. when I arrived at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, across from the central bus station. I was bundled up in a coat, scarf, ski hat, and gloves, opening and closing my black umbrella every few minutes as the rain started and stopped.
The refugees were just getting up. In the playground shielded by a large tarpaulin stretched high above to offer shade in hot weather, the men were rolling up their blankets and sleeping paraphernalia, stacking it in a big pile under some clear plastic sheeting to keep it dry. When I walked onto the playground I saw the play surface was old and soggy, pitted with large scattered holes. Later I learned that large rats often emerge from those holes at night, sometimes biting the refugees as they sleep.
The good news was that there seemed to be some ad hoc organization: the collective storing of the blankets, a refugee who was going around with a large plastic orange bag, collecting the garbage that overflowed from a trash can. But, mostly I saw young black men desolately wandering, standing or sitting in small groups, or lined up across the street under the eaves of a building to stay dry. Twice vans came by and stopped. A small crowd quickly gathered, hoping beyond hope that someone was looking to hire a day laborer. But I didn’t see anyone get into the vans.
I saw a bit of blue sky as the chilly wind blew away the clouds just as a handsome gray-haired man named Gideon walked up with a helper, pushing two industrial-sized hot water containers. Within minutes, while the sun peeped out, they had set up the folding table, poured tea and sugar into the hot water vats, and put out large containers of boiled eggs and potatoes. A young woman from a nearby bakery walked over and placed a cardboard box full of leftover rolls on the table. The line immediately formed in front of the table – all men – the black faces surprised that they would get to eat this morning; unexpected manna.
Within an hour the 300 eggs were gone, but the line in front of the serving table never disappeared. The refugees streamed to the park from all directions as word spread that food was available. They came from a nearby temporary shelter that crams in about 120 refugees each night and from a derelict and nightmarish old chicken market where many others find dry nooks and corners to sleep in. Just last week the Tel Aviv municipality erected two large tents to sleep an additional 100 people on cots packed one next to the other. Even with those, people are still sleeping in the park and on the streets.
It was still cold that morning, but most of the men and boys had only sweatshirts. A few had hats. I couldn’t imagine how they survived through the rain and cold all night and day until the one meal of soup and bread was served at eight in the evening.