Bringing them into the picture

Art show seeks to spread awareness about African refugees' plight in Israel.

Asaf Kilger 88 248 (photo credit: Roy Rochlin)
Asaf Kilger 88 248
(photo credit: Roy Rochlin)
Unbeknownst to most Israelis, 15,000 refugees fleeing from war-torn countries in Africa - including Sudan, Congo, Chad, Eritrea and several others - are currently living in Israel, according to statistics of the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF). Many refugees fled to Egypt, but finding the situation there equally perilous, fled in a large wave to Israel in 2007. The art exhibition Maror (Hebrew for bitter), currently on display at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design through April 6, seeks to spread awareness of the bitterness the refugees have experienced, both in their pasts and now in Israel. Not granted refugee status by the Interior Ministry, these men, women and children struggle in Israel, unable to legally obtain employment, without access to medical care, with their movements restricted to certain zones within the country. The show, which features photography, paintings, video and multimedia pieces depicting refugees, includes pieces made by students from Bezalel and from the Hebrew University, by professional artists and works done by refugees themselves. Maror's production was a group effort by Asaf Kliger, a photography student at Bezalel; the Hebrew University student organization Students for Sudanese Refugees (SSR); and ASSAF. Kliger, Maror's lead organizer, was inspired to create the exhibition after having spent over a year and a half devoted to helping a Sudanese refugee family in Tel Aviv. While on the beach in Tel Aviv, Kliger encountered five members of the Cadin family, refugees from Southern Sudan, leaning on a sewage pipe draining to the sea. Struck by the shocking stories they recounted to him of fleeing from Sudan to Egypt, and then to Israel, Kliger asked if he could photograph them. Bringing copies of the photographs to the Cadin apartment near the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, Kliger was appalled by the extent of their suffering. "I was shocked. There were 20 people packed into this tiny one-room apartment. I'm a third generation Holocaust survivor, and seeing them like that reminded me of the horrors of the Holocaust." Roused with indignation at their plight, Kliger became a seraph to the Cadin family, making a trip from his home in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv twice weekly to bring them food, clothes, toiletries and blankets. As he grew closer to the Cadins, Kliger started teaching them Hebrew, helping them find work and was the photographer at a Cadin family wedding. "Asaf gave us everything. Without him, I really can't say where we'd be now," said Yassir Cadin. This past December, Kliger approached Mollie Gerver, lead coordinator of SSR, to collaborate in producing Maror in order to spread awareness of the dire situation of the refugees in Israel. SSR, which Gerver started in 2007, interviews refugees, transcribes their accounts and publishes the interviews on its Web site "to open people's eyes," said Gerver. The organization also teaches refugees Hebrew, and has petitioned MKs to prevent the deportation of refugees back to Egypt, where they would either be killed or sent back to their home countries to await a similar fate, according to Gerver. SSR was happy to contribute the project, and called on ASSAF to get involved. ASSAF, founded in the wake of the influx of refugees to Israel in 2007, provides humanitarian care and psychosocial services to refugees, also assisting them in finding shelter and jobs, according to Elisheva Milikowsky, one of ASSAF's founders. Milikowsky considers the exhibit "important as visual evidence, and [it] will certainly serve our ultimate goal of getting the government to acknowledge their status as refugees. They are afraid that acknowledging the refugee presence will open the floodgates and millions of African refugees will spill into Israel. But they are here now, and they have no rights." She said the Interior Ministry has been arbitrarily throwing refugees into jail, "simply because they don't know what to do with them." YASSIR CADIN, who attended the gallery opening with his wife Shama and their 15-month-old son Adam, was one of those thrown into jail. "I was in Tel Aviv, and the police asked what I was doing there. I said I was a refugee, and they said I wasn't and took me to jail. I was there for a month, my wife and baby left all alone. The way they treat us here is terrible. We want soon to be able to return home." Gabriel Kuol, a refugee from Southern Sudan whose video is featured in the exhibit, is a spokesman for the refugee population in Israel. He recalled that after fleeing to Egypt, the refugees encountered "genocide-like conditions." According to Kuol, Egyptian employers commonly raped refugee women, and refugees were many times kidnapped, tortured and killed at the hands of Egyptian police. In 2006, when a group of refugees gathered in protest of these abuses in front of the UN office in Cairo, "the police tried to gun them all down," said Kuol. Now in Israel, Kuol says the refugees still face tough challenges. "Without work, we have no money. Some don't have clean drinking water, and many are homeless. We are not willing to stand on the street and beg. We want to work." SSR hosted a trip for the refugees featured in the exhibit to Yad Vashem. "It was so big for me. It brought me right back to what I saw with my own eyes in Sudan," Kuol said, his voice building with anger. "I was among those forced to be Muslim, I was among those pushed out of my own home." Although struck by the common ground he shares with Jews in Israel, Kuol notes that "in 1943, England almost sent a ship of Jewish Holocaust survivors back to Nazi Germany. Now Israel wants to do the same to us by sending us back to Egypt." Kuol echoes Cadin's sentiment in wishing to return to Sudan, and anxiously awaits a 2011 referendum on Southern Sudan's autonomy. As of now, "this event is a good sign for us. I look back to 2007 when I came to Israel and there was no attention like this for our plight."