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`I Came With Nothing, I Leave With Nothing'
Embittered, ill and awaiting deportation, Wang Chang-Chi, formerly a one-man aid organization within the local Chinese community, says some of his fellow expatriates would rather die in a terrorist attack than endure life in Israel.
At 4:30 A.M. two Sundays ago, Wang Chang-Chi heard a loud knock on the door of his apartment in South Tel Aviv. Wang, an illegal foreign worker from China, was not afraid to open the door. He was confident that even if the immigration police were looking for him, he would emerge from the episode unscathed. After all, he is one of the leaders of the Chinese workers in Israel, had assisted the police in solving crimes within the community, and helped lead the immigration police to a brothel that employed Chinese prostitutes. He has accompanied Chinese workers to the hospital, served as a liaison between the Chinese community and the press, and exposed corrupt practices, such as how Chinese workers have their passports taken from them when they come to Israel and are then forced to pay several hundred dollars to manpower companies to get them back.
But all of this was of no avail. Wang was taken to Ma'asiyahu Prison, where he is now awaiting deportation. Various organizations that assist foreign workers are trying to prevent the deportation from going ahead.
"The importance of the assistance that Wang gives the Chinese workers, who are the weakest and most exploited in Israel, can hardly be overstated," activists from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, from Kav La'oved - The Foreign Workers' Hotline, and from Physicians for Human Rights wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. "His absence will make it harder for them in their effort to protect themselves from having their rights violated."
We're not interested in cultivating a local Chinese leadership, says Minister Poraz. "They come here to work for a few years and then return to their countries. They don't need to have leadership."
After two weeks in Ma'asiyahu Prison, Wang has grown very thin. At the time of this reporter's visit, he was ill with the flu and seemed on the verge of tears most of the time. The prison guards at first bring another Chinese man with a similar name to the office where the interview is to take place. "Their names are all the same. It's very confusing," one of the guards explains. But it's not hard to tell Wang apart from the dozens of other Chinese men awaiting deportation: He speaks fluent Hebrew.
"I decided that if I want to work here, I have to learn Hebrew," he says. "I learned it on my own, on the street and at work. When someone speaks, at first I don't understand, but I pay attention. By the second time, I understand. When I first came to Israel, I didn't even know how to say `Good morning.' I got better over the years."
Wang, 27, arrived in Israel in March 1996 with a work visa for the Malibu construction company. He was born in the city of Wing Na and grew up in the Szechuan province, the second of three children. His father was a construction worker.
"My parents went back to Wing Na a few years ago. There's no telephone there, so I haven't spoken to them for many years, but they're in good shape financially," he relates. "My father has a pension. And my brother and sister are doing OK, too. I'm not married and I don't have anyone in China to send money to, so I was able to help other Chinese here. I'm less worried about my wages than an ordinary Chinese worker who has to send money home, and I have more time to help other Chinese when they're in trouble."
Wang has only had six years of schooling: "I read and write a little Chinese. When I learned Hebrew, I couldn't write the meaning of the Hebrew words in Chinese because of my limited writing ability in Chinese. I had to learn everything orally."
At age 12, he started to work in the kitchen of a big factory, "with 10,000 workers." He says it was the factory that decided that he ought to go to work in Israel, saying that he could find better work there. "I paid $10,000 to a governmental manpower company and arrived with another 100 Chinese at the Malibu company in Rishon Letzion. At the airport, they took my passport away. When I asked for it back, I had to pay the manpower company $700 dollars to get it."
In Rishon Letzion, they were housed in trailers at the building site, "right next to the Hazahav mall." He worked long hours. "Three times a day, I had to prepare meals that the Chinese would like. It was mostly rice. When the boss gives the Chinese workers a pita with sliced cheese, he may think that he's feeding them, but he doesn't know that they throw it in the garbage. We don't touch bread or cottage cheese, either. It doesn't taste good to us. We eat Chinese soup and rice and drink milk, but we don't eat [other] dairy products."
As a rule, the Chinese workers don't attach that much importance to food, he says. "We came to Israel to earn money, not to waste money on food. And in any case, it's impossible to make the food that we're used to here. In China, we eat snakes, for example. You call what you have here snakes? They're small and not like the snakes that we have. And we don't have the time here to go looking for snakes anyway. We're always working."
Wang decided to stay on in Israel to earn some money for himself, and this meant he was an illegal worker since his work visa was limited to his employment by Malibu. He found work despite his new status. Enough employers are keen to hire illegal workers who, for fear of deportation, are forced to settle for low wages. Wang worked as a street cleaner in an Arab neighborhood, was a custodian in a Petah Tikva nightclub, and worked in a warehouse of a plant that manufactured Chinese food products and in a chain of discount stores in Rishon Letzion.
"The work is hard," he says. "In China, they promised us that in Israel we'd work just nine hours a day, earn $1,500 a month and be able to take another job after-hours to make a little more money. They promised us that we'd share an air-conditioned room with just one other worker. In reality, I earned $200 a month, I worked from morning till night and lived with several other workers in a trailer - which were OK sometimes, but other times very decrepit."
Wang says that the 90,000 Chinese in Israel have no life. "They work all day until 10 at night, with no vacations. They work on the Chinese holidays, too, and some employers make them work on Israeli holidays as well. Sometimes they get to go to the beach on Friday or Saturday. In seven years in Israel, I went to a Chinese movie once and to a restaurant a few times."
Another problem is that there is no real communal life for the Chinese, says Wang: "Most of the Chinese here are men, and the women who come here are mostly older. A young Chinese woman won't come because she can find work in China. There are no weddings in the community because most of the workers are family men who have come here to make money. Children aren't born here. I know of just two Chinese children who were born in Israel. I had a Chinese girlfriend whom I met at the Central Bus Station. We broke up after I started to help the Chinese workers. She said I was wasting a lot of time and money on it. She has gone back to China now. We talk on the telephone and are still very much in love."
Violence is an even tougher problem. "There's a Chinese mafia here - 13 Chinese who came from Xuja. They work together like one family in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Holon and Pardes Katz," says Wang. "They enter the homes of Chinese workers and demand thousands of shekels. If you don't give it to them right away, they take out a knife. Some of them have guns. They shot one Chinese worker three times in the leg. They can't be caught. Everyone is too afraid of them. They also resolve disputes within the community. When a Chinese wants to take revenge on another Chinese, he gives them NIS 3,000 and they beat the guy up so he can't work for a month. They have a whole price list for what they do. You pay a different price if you order the cutting off of a finger, a hand, an eye or an ear. They have a hammer and knives.
"Then I get called to take the injured person to the hospital. I never leave an injured man lying in the street, even if he doesn't have any money to pay the hospital. When you show up at the hospital with an injured man whose finger has been cut off, they have to take care of him, even if he doesn't have money."
Israelis are often very cruel to the Chinese, too, he adds: "The Chinese workers are weak. Most of them are illiterate. They don't speak Hebrew or English. English wasn't taught in China until recently. So they don't know anything here. They don't know the street names. When they leave the house, they can't always find their way back. They're very afraid of the police and of the Israeli criminals. There are Israelis who see Chinese men on the street and ask them, `Want a job, China?' When the guy gets in the car, they take him to a side street, beat him up and take his money. It happens a lot. They also often knock on the door, say it's the police, barge into the house and steal everything."
But do all Israelis seem like that?
Wang: "Things have become really terrible in the past few years. When I first got here, I didn't know Hebrew and there were a lot of good people who were willing to help me. But not today. A lot of Chinese say that they dream of dying in a terror attack because it would solve all their problems. Then they won't have to endure life here anymore, and their family will receive money from the state. The Chinese in Israel are very miserable."
"Some people here had a problem with that - that while he was helping the Chinese, he was also exploiting them in a way," says Sigal Rosen, director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. "I think that if he was working 12 hours a day like all the Chinese workers, he would not have had the time to help them. And he was living in very modest circumstances himself. He didn't make big sums `on the backs' of the Chinese."
Wang says it was when he was hired by a construction company to be the foreman for a group of 50 Chinese workers at a Tel Aviv construction site, he discovered there were Chinese who were much worse off than he was. "One day, the boss moved most of the workers to Jerusalem. I had 10 workers left in Tel Aviv. The Chinese from Jerusalem called me and said they wanted me to come. I went to Jerusalem and I saw that they had them working paving roads. It was very hot, their lips were cracked and after work they lived in three closed trailers and couldn't go out. It was like a pen for animals. The housing wasn't fit for humans. They weren't even allowed to go out to go shopping. They couldn't got to the market to buy food to prepare for themselves. The boss asked me to tell them that he'd break the leg of anyone who tried to run away. I brought a bus and took them all back to Tel Aviv. They escaped from the boss and looked for work in other places. That's when I started helping the Chinese here."
Why did you do it, really?
"Because I'm Chinese like them and I know Hebrew, so it's easier for me to get along here. There are people here who are my father's age. I can't stand to see them suffering so much, when they don't know anything at all about their rights. A lot of times, the police apprehend legal workers and deport them. The workers themselves don't know whether they're legal or not, and when the police officer stops them, they're afraid and don't know how to tell him that they're legal workers."
Wang has helped Chinese workers bold enough to complain about horrid working conditions stand up to their abusive employers. "In Petah Tikva, the employer didn't pay the Chinese workers their wages and he housed them in a small room. The Chinese generally live in industrial areas - in places like Ashdod or Holon. The workers refused to go to work. The boss beat them. One Chinese man was in a cast for three months. They called me and I found them work and apartments in Tel Aviv.
"Chinese workers from Ramle called me to come see the conditions they were living in. Their trailer was full of cockroaches and their bodies were covered in sores because of all the filth. The Chinese here are not always that clean to begin with - they're here alone, without their families, and they have a lot of worries [like] the family back home waiting for money, the police and the mafia that harass them here - so they don't have the time and money to spend on hygiene. It's always a little smelly where they live. But the bosses don't take care of them at all, either."
With two cellphones at the ready, Wang was a one-man aid organization. "Everyone knows my phone numbers and I got calls day and night," he says. "Even though I'm here illegally, I even entered a prison once to bring some Chinese who were being held there their passports."
The authorities that heard about Wang and his willingness to help the Chinese workers frequently turned to him for assistance, too. He accompanied Chinese workers to court hearings and translated for them and for the court - without receiving any compensation. He says the police just asked him to come and help out. He even helped solve a murder case in the Chinese community.
"A friend of mine disappeared and I couldn't find him for six months. I finally decided to report it to the police. A week later, they discovered that he had been murdered. The police also call on me to help them catch the Chinese mafia. They showed me their pictures. The Chinese here are afraid of them and so am I. What good will it do if they catch one of them? There will always be more. Now they'll be able to take revenge on me in China. In Israel, they didn't dare to touch me. China is a big country. They could kill me and no one would know it."
A police officer at the Yiftah station in Tel Aviv confirms that they have relied on Wang's help many times. "He helped us a lot with translation in cases where Chinese people were victims of robbery."
Wang reports that he even helped the immigration police find a brothel that employed Chinese prostitutes: "It's really sad. They come here from Egypt. They don't know Hebrew. When they can't find work, they start to work in prostitution."
In his wallet, Wang carries the card of an officer from the immigration police. "He told me to call him right away if I ever have a problem. Now they act like they don't know me."
The police officer who gave Wang his card declined to talk. "How did you get to me? I don't know him," he says.
Wang is also a familiar face at the hospitals. "I take Chinese workers to the hospitals and clinics. If a Chinese worker loses a hand or a foot on the job, or is beaten up, I'm always there. At the hospitals, I make sure that they'll treat the person first and that we'll talk about money afterward. There have been times when I've paid NIS 1,000 or NIS 2,000 out of my own pocket."
Wang became more well-known as a result of the bombing at the old Tel Aviv central bus station in January, in which three Chinese workers were killed and seven were injured. He spent an entire week in the hospital, doing what he could to be of assistance to the injured. "I barely ate. I had to help the wounded," he recalls.
In newspaper and television interviews, he described the difficult conditions of the Chinese workers' lives. "I sent him to all the media outlets that wanted to know how the Chinese were coping with the bombing," says Edna Alter of Mesila, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's center for the assistance of foreign workers. "He comes from the Chinese community and he can talk with reporters and explain to them exactly what's going on in this community."
"Some police officers had told me not to worry, that if the police knocked on my door, I should open it and go with them and that they would help me afterward. But the officers from the immigration police wouldn't let me speak. They cursed me and wanted to beat me. I asked them how they could treat me that way - I'm a human being, too, not a dog. I have a mother and father just like them. When I helped them, they were my best friends. Now they took me away with just the clothes on my back."
Friends offered to pay bail so he could get out of prison before being deported. He refused because he didn't want to be out on the street, knowing that he was destined for deportation.
"Seven years after I came here from China, I'm going back there with nothing," he says. "All I have are the clothes I'm wearing. Everything I had at home was stolen after I was arrested."
Organizations that work with foreign workers say that Wang refused to become an informant for the immigration police and that's why he was arrested now, after being here illegally for six years and having spent the past two years helping the police and the courts. They all agree that his deportation will be a serious blow to the Chinese workers in the country.
"It's not easy to find Chinese volunteers who can develop such a good relationship with the Chinese community," says Edna Alter. "We haven't been able to speak with them. In a short time, the immigration police have already deported 15,000 foreign workers, but there are still a lot of workers here and as long as they are living here, they deserve to have a dignified life. Wang was extremely helpful. Before we knew him, it was hard for us to be in contact with the Chinese workers in Tel Aviv. When the bombing at the bus station happened, he ran around to all the wounded to see what they needed. The wounded Chinese people couldn't eat the hospital food. One man with a fractured hand had nowhere to go after he left the hospital. He helped with these things.
"He also helped us start a Hebrew class for Chinese workers and before the war in Iraq, he translated the instructions from the Home Front Command into Chinese. He was a very important person in the Chinese community. Arresting the community's leaders harms the foreign workers' basic human rights, like the right to organize and the right to produce a natural leadership."
"If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have known what was going on in the Chinese community in Israel," says Sigal Rosen. "There are a lot of people we never could have reached without him. He also exposed a lot of corrupt practices toward this community, such as the demand for money to get passports returned. Now this community could be closed to us because it's very hard to communicate with them. Representatives of the Chinese manpower companies know English, but it would be inviting disaster if they served as our translators. Wang is a born leader. Even in jail, he is helping anyone he can. From prison, he oversaw the transfer of a group of Chinese to a new employer and, over the phone, made sure that they would be adequately paid."
There are manpower companies that make the Chinese workers sign a contract that forbids them to organize - politically, religiously or socially - and forbids them to turn to the Israeli authorities or the Chinese embassy for assistance [Haaretz has obtained copies of such contracts - S. L.-D.]. But when a leader like Wang emerges, the Israeli authorities apparently become wary.
An attempt to obtain a work and residency visa for Wang in recognition of his special standing in the Chinese community was unsuccessful. In June 2002, Batya Carmon, director of the visa department at the Interior Ministry, wrote to the Hotline for Migrant Workers: "You must understand that the Interior Ministry will not be able to approve an extension for someone who knowingly violated the law for years ... We are certain that people who can fill Mr. Wang's shoes can be found in the Chinese community that is here legally."
The immigration police also don't seem very impressed by the uniqueness of Wang's case. "He was arrested like any other foreign citizen, when it was discovered that he was here illegally," says Chief Superintendent David Mondani, commander of the immigration unit in Tel Aviv. "We didn't know who he is. We went to another 20 apartments that night, too. About 70-80 foreign citizens were arrested and he was one of them."
But that happened not long after he was shown on television to be a leader of the Chinese community.
Mondani: "We don't pay attention to things like that. We don't have any lists of who is a leader and who isn't. He doesn't have any immunity from the law."
Your officers knew him. He helped them and your men promised to help him if he got into trouble.
"No police officer in Tel Aviv knows him."
Did you try to get him to become an informant and decide to deport him when he refused?
"He was arrested because he is in the country illegally."
Why did your officers curse him when they made the arrest?
"Who said that? Did he say that? He can just as well say that they killed him. He can file a complaint. We treat everyone properly."
"If a foreign worker is considered a leader in his community, that isn't sufficient reason to allow him to remain in the country," says Interior Minister Poraz. "We don't make a personal judgment about him. The judgment is made in terms of Israeli society - whether he makes a special contribution to Israeli society."
A leader who helps his community, the police, the courts and the hospitals isn't contributing anything to Israeli society?
Poraz: "We aren't about to establish a community of foreign workers here with local leaders. There is no leadership here and there's no need for it either. We have no intention of giving them autonomy and we aren't establishing a state within a state or a Chinese canton where Mandarin is spoken. We don't want them to establish an organized Chinese community, because then what will we tell the Palestinians when they demand the right of return?"