Providing hope for refugees in Tel Aviv
It is the State of Israel’s responsibility to give back and protect the vulnerable and the unprotected.
Volunteers and African refugees in Tel Aviv. Photo: Tamar Shertok
For centuries, Jews have been targets of persecution, incrimination and
hostility. Following the Nazi regime’s discrimination, victimization and
horrific, genocidal crimes, the international community established a homeland
to protect the Jewish people.
Now, it is the State of Israel’s
responsibility to give back and protect the vulnerable and the
As the Torah states, “love thy neighbor as thy self.” Based
on this verse all humans should be treated with equality and respect, regardless
of race, nationality, or ethnicity.
From September 2011 to February 2012,
through the MASA program Career Israel, I volunteered at the African Refugee
Development Center (ARDC) located in south Tel Aviv.
There I witnessed
firsthand the daily hardships refugees face in Israel.
African refugees have made the dangerous trek across the Sinai Desert in search
of a safe haven in the State of Israel. Not every African is truly fleeing from
persecution; some are only looking for work and a higher standard of living.
Nevertheless, among those crossing the border illegally are Africans fleeing
from horrifying human rights violations. Unfortunately, once they arrive most
are met with prejudice and hatred.
Despite the pushback from most
Israelis in south Tel Aviv, there are a handful of non-profits in Israel –
mainly in Tel Aviv and Eilat – which work with the refugee community to help
them access basic social services.
The ARDC hosts a variety of services,
such as psychotherapy sessions, a women’s shelter and assistance in visa
I volunteered on the relocation team in the legal
assistance department, which recognized that living in Israel is not a durable
solution for the African refugee population. I worked mainly with Sudanese and
Eritreans, as well as Nigerians, Liberians and Ivoirians, to help them navigate
the immigration system.
I filled out sponsorship and family reunification
applications as well as researched and compiled United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement files. I interviewed over 50 asylum seekers
while at the ARDC, and I heard their individual stories of torture, rape and
persecution in their home countries.
SINCE IT usually takes years for the
applications to process, I did not see a case through from start to finish;
nonetheless, while volunteering at the ARDC, I saw a Sudanese family in the
women’s shelter resettled though the UNHCR to Baltimore, Maryland, and a man
from Ethiopia reunited with his brother in Canada through a family reunification
program. Although the relocation department has a low success rate, it provided
the most hope for the refugees to have an improved lifestyle.
person tells the truth and not every person has fled persecution, however, those
that do have real refugee claims must be acknowledged.
Ministry granted Sudanese and Eritrean refugees a temporary group protection
status as their countries are considered in crisis.
Once the ministry
decides the country is no longer dangerous, the refugees are required to return
home, as seen recently with Ivoirians and South Sudanese.
Aside from the
temporarily protected groups, the rest of the refugees are committed to a
restrictive and unreliable individual refugee status determination (RSD)
process. In 2010, about 3,000 asylum-seekers went through an individual RSD
process and only six received legal refugee status recognition.
Africans cross the border into Israel, they are placed in a detention center,
and then eventually dropped at the Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv with
Those with temporary protection receive a visa which
they must renew every three to six months. This visa forbids employment, which
is a catch- 22 considering the fact that it is impossible to survive without
I met with numerous refugees who scrambled to find “chick chack” or
quick jobs, but they are not easy to obtain. Consequently, while some can afford
to rent apartments with multiple roommates, hundreds sleep in Levinsky Park or
on the streets of Tel Aviv.
ONE OF my clients, a woman from Sudan, cried
as she described how she was imprisoned, beaten, burned and raped in Sudan by
She fled first to Egypt where she was beaten by
Beduin in the Sinai desert, then ducked gunfire from Egyptian border guards
until she finally reached safety in Israel.
Since she did not receive
adequate medical assistance upon entering Israel, she is now in pain, depressed
I was a helpless volunteer trying my best to help her
relocate to another country where she could receive better social services and
support. Since she is from Sudan, however, she has a temporary visa, but has
limited access to the RSD process. This means that once Sudan is no longer
considered dangerous, she will be forced to return home.
I understand the
perspective of the Israelis living in south Tel Aviv. No one asked them if they
wanted to be in charge of caring for the Africans. They bear the burden of the
rest of the country. For years, the government failed to effectively address the
requests for help from the south Tel Aviv community. Africans roam the streets,
hungry and tired, as south Tel Aviv has become poorer and poorer.
the Israelis living there have lost patience.
Over these past few weeks,
I have read with disgust and embarrassment that people in Israel have rioted
against the refugee community and assaulted them on the streets.
I understand the frustration among people in south Tel Aviv, there is no excuse
for violence and racism.
These people who are searching for safety from
persecution are human beings. We, as Jews, understand how it feels to be targets
of discrimination. I am aware that not all of the Africans in Israel have a real
refugee claim, but those that do must be heard and must be
Instead of the rash and aggressive approach of deportation,
the Interior Ministry must establish a reliable and legitimate system to
distinguish the real refugees from the migrant workers.
might have a different skin color and practice a different religion, but they
are still human beings and do not deserve to be thrown aside and
The writer was a placed by MASA as a volunteer with the
African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv.