Inside a low-security wing of Ma'asiyahu Prison in Ramle, scores of Sudanese refugees sit and await their fate. They have entered Israel on foot - illegally - to escape religious persecution, threats of genocide and grinding famine back home in Darfur.
"The only crime these detainees have committed is the desire to be safe and free," say attorneys Anat Ben-Dor and Michael Kagan of the Refugee Rights Legal Education Clinic at Tel Aviv University (TAU), where they and a team of law students are working to secure the asylum seekers' release.
The legal clinic is one of six run by the Elga Cegla clinical legal education program at TAU's Buchmann Faculty of Law. The other five clinics specialize in human rights, criminal law, social welfare, the environment, and small business law. All the clinics have the same dual goal: to make sure all people in Israel are given access to justice and freedom, and to give the next generation of outstanding young lawyers hands-on experience in bettering Israeli society.
Funding support has come from private donors and organizations such as Hadassah and the Ford Foundation.
As part of their work as educators, Ben-Dor and the other clinic lawyers open their files to some 25 students each year in each clinic. The clinics place students at the front line of legal and social problems faced by marginalized groups in Israel, such as access to healthcare, inheritance rights and environmental pollution, while also providing academic credit.
For some young lawyers, work at a clinic primes them to be more compassionate in their future careers as criminal or corporate lawyers; for others, the experience has motivated them to devote their lives to social welfare and causes.
"Life changing" are the words law student Michal Sarig, 25, chooses to describe her work at the Refugee Rights clinic two years ago. As Ben-Dor's prot g , Sarig got to play a small part in shaping Israeli asylum law well before she earned the right to practice law.
She couldn't have done this anywhere else in Israel, as the TAU clinic is the only human rights program in the country with the expertise to represent refugees at every level, including at the Supreme Court and United Nations High Commission for Refugees. "Working for refugee rights has no doubt had a great impact on my career choice," says Sarig, who today volunteers at a human rights organization and hopes her law career will go in that direction.
Sarig and Ben-Dor began reviewing cases of Sudanese refugees at the TAU clinic when the first wave arrived in early 2005. Since then, some 220 Muslim and Christian Sudanese have braved the long desert journey to seek political asylum in Israel - only to find themselves thrown into jail. "It is not easy for the State of Israel to accept these refugees," notes Ben-Dor, "because Sudan is classed as an enemy state and the Sudanese government has a frightening record of violence against non-Muslims. For these reasons, Israel sees all Sudanese refugees as threats."
Ben-Dor and his team of students personally work with the refugees, using their knowledge of the Israeli legal system to win individuals asylum and to persuade the government to change its policies toward Sudanese refugees. Thanks to their efforts, four refugees have been released to start a new life in Israel. The clinic expects many more will be released in the coming year.
The refugee clinic is just one example of how the Cegla legal education clinics are helping develop laws and policies in Israeli society for the common good. Recently, the Social Welfare legal clinic helped reform migrant workers' rights by ensuring access to healthcare and enabling them to switch employers. The Environmental Justice legal clinic lobbied and won the case for sewage treatment in unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev desert; and the Human Rights legal clinic fought and won in favor of same-sex inheritance claims - even if the partner dies without leaving a will.
Other reforms the clinics have initiated and brought to pass include opening access to public beaches and making cochlear implants available to all Israelis.
Dr. Neta Ziv, academic director of the clinical program, says all six Cegla legal clinics have a two-pronged goal of teaching law and improving Israeli society. "We pull in students as they go through law school and teach them that being a lawyer includes social responsibility, ethics and social justice," she says.
Through her own devotion to a number of causes, Ziv sets a good example of how a lawyer can align her professional work with serving society. She is a founding member of the Israel Women's Network Legal Center; the chairperson of Bizchut - The Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, and a board member of Itach - Women Lawyers for Social Justice.
"At the clinics we provide legal assistance that helps people solve their problems, and on a higher level we work to change, create and enforce laws," says Ziv, adding that poverty, limited access to justice and lack of essential resources in segments of society are the top three problems facing Israel as a country today.
As part of her daily work, Ziv exposes students to both small and large problems. She asks students, "How can we improve the lives of children in development towns when their libraries are being shut down? How can we improve the study conditions of Beduin children when there is no electricity in their homes?"
Through their work at the individual clinics, the law students attempt to answer such questions.
Attorney Dori Spivak, deputy director of the clinical programs at TAU, notes the Cegla clinic has the largest human rights legal team in the country. It not only works to educate young law students, it also partners with local NGOs, granting them a team of lawyers at arm's length for counsel or representation in court.
"There are great advantages to working on social justice issues within a university," says Spivak. "Here we can leverage the experience and expertise of the university's law professors, and at the same time tap into the motivation and talent of the law students to accomplish our goals."