How an Israeli restaurant owner and a Gazan Arab found food for thought - in Manchester
As Israel-Arab negotiations continue to founder, an unlikely meeting in Manchester between an Israeli and a Palestinian offers a positive reminder that harmony is possible — outside the political sphere at least.
Jamal, 43, who is scared to publish his surname, fled his birthplace of Gaza and came, without his family, to the UK on a false visa in 2010. After five days in a detention centre, he was granted refugee status.
A builder by trade, Jamal said he had no prospects of serious employment to enable him to support his wife and 11 children.
He fears for their safety as they still live in a neighbourhood that frequently experiences violent clashes between Palestinian factions and has also been rocked by Israeli military incursions.
“When I arrived, I had nothing,” Jamal explains. “I got no help from my own community which lives here in Manchester. I met an Egyptian man and asked him ‘please show me where the Jewish area is.’
“He charged me £10, took me to Prestwich and left me on the street. I turned around and saw Hebrew writing on the Ta’am restaurant and that’s where I met Amos.
“I knew the Jewish community would help me,” Jamal recalls, standing outside the kosher shwarma bar in north Manchester.
Ta’am’s owner, Amos Vaizman, originally from Caesarea, northern Israel, says Jamal naturally turned to Jews because when his son was born with a foot deformity he received assistance from Israeli doctors after Palestinians wouldn’t treat him.
“He moved into the area looking for a job. He had nothing to eat. Of course I gave him work with the restaurant. He was very sweet and told me he’d been helped by Jews before, and had hope we would help again,” says Mr Vaizman.
“I knew straight away he was Palestinian. I didn’t think it was strange or suspicious. He was open and honest. We are from Israel, it’s not something new to have Arab workers and Israeli-Arab friends.”
“I love Jamal, he’s a character and now a good friend. He spent so much time in Israel he knows the lyrics to all good Israeli pop music, and sang them constantly in the restaurant,” adds the Israeli, who also employs a Jordanian-Syrian and a keen Afghani cricketer — nicknamed “Imran” — who now plays in the Manchester Jewish cricket league.
Amos introduced Jamal to Israeli friends in the building industry, in which the Gazan now earns enough to support his family back home, indeed to put his children through university.
A son has qualified as a dentist and a daughter as an English teacher, partly through Amos’s financial help.
“In Gaza, if you don’t have money, you don’t get anything,” says Jamal. “No medical treatment for my son, who needed 10 trips to hospital and an operation as a newborn, even though there are UN hospitals.”
That same son, Ali, now seven-years-old and healthy, was given treatment in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, paid for by the Peres Centre for Peace, founded by the Israeli president.
“The world doesn’t recognise that these things happen, only the bad things between Jews and Arabs,” observes Jamal, adding:
“I want to be far away from political comments. I needed to be in Manchester for my family. But I’m so happy to show there is friendship between Jews and Arabs, not just fighting.”
Jamal’s current struggle is to be reunited with the family he hasn’t seen since arriving here four years ago. The father-of-11 has made six attempts to request visas from British authorities. His seventh court hearing is being heard later this year.
“I left when my youngest child was three-months-old. I’ve never met her. I only know her through talking on the internet over Skype,” he says.
“It’s very hard, but I want to tell the British immigration authorities how grateful I am for allowing me to stay in the UK, and how I hope they will allow my family to come too,” says Jamal.