Money for migrants

A new micro-financing project is giving new hope to migrant work seekers in Tel Aviv.

February 8, 2012 15:43
Sudanese and Eritrean refugees gather in Levinsky

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees gather in Levinsky Park. (photo credit: Courtesy )

Monday evening, a church hall in south Tel Aviv. About 20 people are gathered around tables arranged around a chart. A couple of Eritrean men sit quietly; three Nigerians argue animatedly, but with good humor. A Chinese woman sits at one end of the horseshoe, reading a pamphlet. A Filipino man arrives with his small son in tow; he sits the boy in a corner, where the child occupies himself with a coloring book.

These members of Tel Aviv’s fast-growing African migrant and refugee community have assembled to participate in an evening class about the basics of running a business. Over 10 weeks, they’ll learn about the essential factors in setting up a small enterprise, and will draw up business plans framing their own ideas. This evening, they’re learning about business terminology: customer base, profit margins, opportunity costs. Regardless of the size and ambition behind an enterprise, the underlying principles always remain the same.

Among the group sitting and listening carefully to the presentation is Oscar Olivier, who hopes to start a modest clothes-ironing business.

Olivier fled his native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1994, where he became a target for his activities as an opposition spokesperson at his university. After being attacked by government agents and stabbed in the chest, he knew he must leave or die.

“It was not a surprise. I was told that such a thing may happen to me, that I should be aware,” Olivier tells The Jerusalem Report.

When he fled the country, his first port of refuge was Egypt. But it did not present as the safest place for migrants fleeing persecution. “The country wasn’t particularly democratic,” Olivier observes. In fact, it was much like the DRC. “A safe place for me means a place where the freedoms of speech and activities are guaranteed,” he says.

“The only place in the region where the situation seemed better was Israel,” Olivier says. This was in 1995 when entry into Israel was comparatively straightforward. “A relatively good relationship between the DRC and Israel existed at the time… it was not difficult to get a visa from the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.” After less than six months in Egypt, Olivier entered Israel. But in some respects his optimism was misplaced.

He soon discovered that life as a refugee in Israel is tough, but after a long struggle against a social and political framework unsympathetic – at best – to the needs of his community, he believes he now has a chance to start his own business and gain a degree of independence.

“It’s a clothes-ironing venture,” he explains, sitting in his modest apartment in south Tel Aviv. “I want to buy a utilitarian vehicle to pick up clothes, iron them and return them the next day, for a fee.” If he succeeds, he will have an income. But the project will offer Olivier something else: a sense of security, the feeling of autonomy, both of which he has lacked since his arrival in Israel. All that is missing is the financial wherewithal to start the venture.

Since the mass immigration from Africa and the Far East – much of it illegal – began about a decade ago, Israelis have been divided over the presence of refugees like Olivier in the country. One side argues that Israel lacks the resources to absorb large numbers and says they should be barred from entering the country, regardless of their claims of persecution in their homeland.

However, human rights activists contend that Israel has both a legal and moral duty to offer refugees sanctuary. Last December, more than 100 anti-immigrant activists marched in protest through the "Little Africa" growing up around the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, demanding the newcomers be expelled.

As the debate rages around them, refugees like Olivier are trapped, living uncertain lives. Unable – or unwilling – to return to their native homes, but unable to find legal employment in their new home, they either subsist through poorly-paid work in a burgeoning "grey" economy or rely on the goodwill of charities working with indigent refugees.

Olivier has firsthand experience of the economic and social challenges faced by refugees in Israel. “Opportunities? There are none. Everyone is in the same basket, everyone is trying to struggle in his own way.” Olivier has worked in menial jobs since he came to Israel. “Small jobs here and there, washing dishes, working on building sites. But over time, he has slowly broadened his prospects, in part thanks to his experience of advocacy in the DRC. He learned Hebrew in language school and volunteered with the Magen David Adom ambulance service and Physicians for Human Rights. He is now a spokesperson for the refugee community of south Tel Aviv.

Olivier's experiences have made him aware of the challenges that refugees face in an unfamiliar environment. Through his role as a spokesperson for the community, he understands the impact these challenges have on the community as a whole, particularly those with children. "I see that many of the parents suffer a lot,” he says.

If he can start his small business, he thinks it will benefit others in the community. “I hope to be able to offer jobs to people in the situation I have been in," he says. "The rate of unemployment is high in the area; but not because people do not want to work.” Even if they negotiate the complexities of working semi-legally, the bar for anything beyond menial work is set too high. “They are expected to have a particularly high level of education – which they do not have. And even if they do, they are told that they do not have enough experience.”

The rapid growth of the immigrant and refugee community in Tel Aviv over the past decade has prompted the emergence of a range of non-profit organizations that try to provide urgent humanitarian aid needs such as food, shelter, medical care and clothing.

One of the non-profits, Microfy, works with the refugee community with an idea almost radical in its simplicity: Rather than agonizing about Israel’s capacity to absorb the growing refugee community, why not support self-sufficiency and help them set up independent small businesses?

By facilitating small loans for people to start their own businesses, microfinance has proven an important weapon against poverty across the developed world. Its guiding principles were developed by Mohammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his work in the field of poverty.

“Our mission is to empower disadvantaged communities, such as refugees, by giving them the tools they need to raise themselves out of poverty and become independent and active members of society,” says the Microfy mission statement.

“I didn’t know that I was going to do microfinance until I discovered the refugee community in Tel Aviv,” says Andrea Kruchik Krell, an immigrant from Uruguay, who founded the organization.

As a final-year student of economics at Bar-Ilan University, Kruchik Krell stumbled across the refugee issue whilst casting about for a topic for her undergraduate thesis. She had intended to write about the impact of microfinance in developing countries, but after tagging along with friends taking food and clothing to destitute refugees, she changed tack.

“I was shocked to discover that I didn’t have to go to Africa to research microfinance; Africa had come to me," she recalls.

The first group of 10 women had clear ideas about what they wanted to do – to make and sell embroidered bags, handicrafts and small artifacts – but lacked the resources to do it. Locked within a virtual refugee ghetto, they had only peripheral contact with the wider world beyond their immediate community.

“They didn’t know where to go for anything,” Kruchik Krell recalls. “We went shopping together, bought the materials they needed. And the money each spent, it became the microfinance loan – 200 shekels (about $50), something like that.”

The mechanics of the project were straightforward. With a bag, for example, the materials needed cost 5 shekels. The bags sold for 60 shekels; from this, the women returned the initial 5 shekels plus 10 percent interest. Even at this basic level, the results of the pilot were impressive. The women could make an independent living, albeit on a modest scale; equally important, they had begun an independent process of social integration.

“Firstly, they were doing something by themselves, without men, for the first time in their lives,” Kruchik Krell observes. “Secondly, they were talking to Israelis, and Israelis were talking to them.”

Building on the success of the pilot, Microfy was formally established in 2009, by Kruchik Krell and social worker Lauren Isaacs. After some tinkering with the basic principles of microfinance, Microfy settled on a three-stage format. T he fi rst stage – the business class we witnessed in the Tel Aviv church hall – assists participants in preparing a business plan. The course is run by the Community Education Center, a volunteer-run adult education program established by the migrant community in Tel Aviv, and run in conjunction with the migrant advice organization Mesila.

On completion, prospective entrepreneurs enter a mentoring program convened by the Micro Business Law Clinic at Tel Aviv University. This provides practical business development assistance and counseling. If both stages are completed successfully, then Microfy offers a business loan. Terms are variable, depending upon the applicant's unique circumstances. The interest accrued from loans is returned to the organization to fund new loans.

In its first two years, Microfy operated with the support of seed capital provided by an anonymous donor. Today it has funding of $30,000, provided by CitiBank.

Microfy’s ambitions extend beyond economic emancipation. “If someone has food and a roof, then they can start to think about how to take their lives in their own hands,” says Kruchik Krell.

The impact on the lives of Microfy's participants has been remarkable. Faida Bakaji Tshiuma was an administrator with an aid organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Israel, she scraped together a living as a cleaner. With the support of Microfy, Tshiuma opened a kindergarten for immigrant children in south Tel Aviv in an effort to provide quality childcare that would serve immigrant children and help their parents, who were out at work.

“Our vision is a large professional kindergarten for the well-being of immigrant children, promoting education and early development,” Tshiuma says. In 2010, she traveled to an awards ceremony in Paris to accept an international microfinance prize, sponsored by PlaNet Finance.

Josephine Kate was a professional seamstress and proprietor of a clothing store in her native Congo. In Israel she became a cleaner. She was able to return to her original profession as a seamstress after receiving a loan from Microfy. Today she runs a clothing design business, specializing in African fashion: “I have 18 years of experience in tailoring and design,” she says. “I enjoy my profession.” Now she has the opportunity to continue to do so.

Microfy is about empowerment more than money; returning independence and autonomy to a community that finds itself marginalized and stereotyped by Israeli society.

Olivier is cautiously optimistic. “Refugees have never been welcomed with flowers,” he observes. “We are not accepted; at best, we are tolerated.” This could change, with Microfy’s help, but he warns that people cannot sit back and wait for outside salvation. “Refugees are not alone, there are people helping us, but we should help those helping us to help us. We must help them to help us,” he says.

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