Sean Mongoza as Gabriel in ChaiFlicks’ “Asylum City.” (Photo/Nati Levi)
Sean Mongoza as Gabriel in ChaiFlicks’ “Asylum City.” (Photo/Nati Levi)

African refugees in Israel, now actors, relive trauma in ‘Asylum City’

Shai Fredo was born in Ethiopia. He walked across Sudan with his family and spent 11 months in a Sudanese refugee camp before coming to Israel in Operation Moses, the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Chancela Mongoza was born in Congo and fled to Israel seeking asylum. Michael Tesfahans-Aforki escaped to Israel from Eritrea. All three are now actors, bringing their history and trauma to their performances in the dramatic series “Asylum City.”

Though not a documentary, the series, which aired in Israel from 2018 to 2019, is soaked in the blood of realism and social unrest, as it explores the challenges of emigres of African origin living in the Jewish state. Each episode runs with the disclaimer: “Some of the stories depicted in the series are inspired by real-life events. Names of people and countries have been changed.” Understanding that the actors themselves have stories similar to those depicted in the series adds to its gravity and authenticity.

(The series is available on ChaiFlicks, a Jewish streaming platform, for a $5.99 monthly subscription. I screened nine of the 12 episodes before writing this review.)

The central story in “Asylum City” involves the murder of young legal assistant Michal Poleg (Mali Levi) and the chief police inspector’s subsequent search for the killer. Chief Inspector Anat Sitton (Hani Furstenberg) has something to prove with this case, her first in her new role. But it seems as if the true perpetrator might not be the African migrant who confessed and is now in custody.

A few days before her death, Michal had confronted someone coming out of the illegal bank that took advantage of local African workers. (Legitimate banks are not open to the refugees, so organized crime fills the void.) The bank leadership had her attacked in the street. She emerged from that encounter alive, but by the next morning she was dead of blunt force trauma. Meanwhile, her ex, Yariv, who had drunk himself into a stupor the night before, awakens hungover and covered in blood.

As of episode 9, the killer has not yet been revealed. There are a lot of desperate people who might be responsible for or have contributed to the murder: internal politics at the police department, violence in the world of organized crime in which thugs and lawyers are equally scary, and a government that does not have the interests of the emigres — or arguably Israel’s citizens — at heart.

If you mistrust the Israeli government, this series is not going to help. Government representatives smile to engage constituents and then lean into corruption, shelving humanity in pursuit of power and control. As gleeful as “Red Sea Diving Resort” was about Israel’s operation to rescue Ethiopian Jews in Sudan, “Asylum City” is dour, portraying corruption, self-interest, criminality and hopelessness. In what feels like a hybrid between a “Law & Order”-style procedural and a tense “Homeland”-style conspiracy drama, viewers get a crash course in the challenges surrounding the desperate emigres and the Israeli structures trying to serve, contain, control or expel them, from expiring visas to organized crime-run banks to casual and systemic racism.

The opening credits, for example, feature fragments of Torah texts about not oppressing the stranger, as well as newspaper clippings, official immigration documents and other objects. All of these things convey the obscene number of bureaucratic and social blocks that African migrants face in Israel, in the series and on the real streets of south Tel Aviv, where an estimated 90 percent of them live.

There’s also significant racism against the Africans, who are often referred to as cushim, a racial slur. In episode 2, a local police officer implies that Israel is only looking to deport them.

Hani Furstenberg in "Asylum City" (Photo/Nati Levi)
Hani Furstenberg as Anat Sitton in “Asylum City” (Photo/Nati Levi)

Co-creator Uzi Weil told Variety he “wanted to create a series that would make everyone, no matter what their political conviction was, just look at the people behind the headlines, from all sides of this tragedy: the refugees, the Israeli residents in those crumbling neighborhoods, the criminals and the government.”

Perhaps appropriately for a show set in the crowded streets of south Tel Aviv, the drama is overcrowded with characters, some with muddy motivations and possibly murderous agendas. Each character offers a window into  the various worlds of this series and uncovers the levels of criminal activity. One gangster’s story reveals him as a reluctant criminal. A district attorney awakens covered in blood, but can’t remember what happened. A poor refugee will do anything to save his sister. A member of Knesset befriends a young activist who discovers that her husband is hiding something from her. With so many characters in “Asylum City,” stories are bound to overlap, but some threads seem to have been dropped, and I wonder if they’ll be coming back for a surprise ending, or if they were red herrings within the story.

The narrative is supported by excellent Israeli actors, including some faces that will be familiar to fans of Israeli TV: Doron Ben-David (“Fauda”), Gal Toren (“Losing Alice,” “Hit & Run,” “Messiah,” “Mossad 101”), Liraz Chamami (“Mossad 101”). Illegal bank director Faro is portrayed by Dvir Benedek (“Messiah,” “A Matter of Size”).

The series makes it clear that the migrants who make bad choices do so because there are no good ones. Desperation leads the refugees to take all steps to avoid deportation, which might mean death back in their countries of origin. When one character’s sister’s life is threatened, he is ready to do or pay anything to redeem her and save her life.

In one scene, activist Nataly says that 90 percent of what happens to you depends on where you were born. Most of us who have been born into relative privilege have never been in the position of having to ransom a relative from kidnappers. But while we’re asking ourselves a specific question about what we would or wouldn’t do to protect someone we love, “Asylum City” prompts an internal reckoning: What would we do to protect people we don’t know or have never met?

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.