Movement ahead

Young Israelis act as a moral beacon while taking the lead to help beleagured African refugees.

happy teens 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
happy teens 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the curtain closed on the 20th century, there was a certain sigh of relief. Man's inhumanity to man had reached horrendous heights and it was hoped that mankind was set to embrace the new millennium with "never again." But only a toehold into the 21st century, ethnic strife in East Africa has reminded us: "Never say never." Relatively few people knew where Rwanda was until the Hutus started massacring the Tutsis in 1994, and in 2007, few knew of the Darfur region of Sudan until the media started calling our attention to the mass murder there. In Rwanda, close to a million people were murdered in ethnic cleansing. The death toll in Darfur is more than 300,000, with another two million displaced. Who cares? As usual, Israelis - many of them youth. Thousands fleeing the African genocides have braved the dangerous crossing through Egypt to the sanctity of Israel, joining a growing community of refugees. While it is true that the Israeli government has yet to establish a policy on how to deal with this influx of refugees, voluntary groups, NGOs, kibbutzim and youth movements have stepped up to the plate. Reports abound about public support - from a group of artists in Givatayim who found housing and employment for Eritrean and Ivory Coast refugees to Kibbutz Tze'elim, which recently took in two young refugees, 'A' and 'B,' from Darfur. Refugees are hesitant to reveal their names, fearing reprisals for fleeing should they ever return to their homeland. A managed to escape an attack on his village by Arab militias (Janjaweed). Like many others, he wandered around Sudan's perilous countryside until he reached the capital, Khartoum. There, he came across survivors from his village and learned that his family were all dead - father, mother, brothers and sisters. At age 16, he was alone in a hostile world. His companion, aged 17, fared no better. When his village came under attack, he fled with his family. They arrived at a refugee camp after passing through a village called Nalma, whose entire population had been slaughtered. "All we saw were bodies - men, woman and children," he says. A few days later, B's camp was attacked in the night and he had to flee. Running for his life, he became separated from his family. To this day, he has no idea whether they survived. For young Israelis, it's not too difficult to imagine that in another time - not too long ago - they, too, could have been in the same position. "How is it possible?" they ask. "And the world stands by? Again!" Metro spoke to members of the Noar Haoved Ve'halomed youth movement in Afula, who started a support program for Darfur refugees. As most the refugees find themselves huddled in shelters - mainly in Tel Aviv and southern Israel - why has their plight sparked interest in this Jezreel Valley town? "Local geography is irrelevant; it's our history that demands we take a stand," says 23-year-old Tal Angert, a madrich (leader) in the movement and who lives in a gar'in (youth movement commune) in Afula. Angert, who grew up in Kfar Saba, draws inspiration from the biblical scholar and sage Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me. But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?" Angert is quite emphatic. "We need to act - and not tomorrow - now! Our school and youth movement tours to the concentration camps in Poland are to learn about the past, but learning about the past means ensuring that those horrors don't repeat themselves in the future. 'Never again' means 'never again' - not only for Jews, but for all mankind." Angert's fellow garin member Nitsan Rosenwacks of Hod Hasharon agrees. "We lost six million in the Shoah because others tuned their backs on us. We remember the ship, The St. Louis, that went from port to port with Jews fleeing the Nazis. No one wanted us. Six million died not only because of what the Nazis did, but also because what the rest of the world didn't do. We, as Jews, cannot turn people away who are fleeing persecution. And this, I'm proud to see, Israel isn't doing. But we should be doing more than merely not turning them away. The refugees come to Israel not because the gate is open, but because there's no gate." Rosenwacks is referring to the absence of a physical border. The refugees cross into Israel from Egypt, and if they are not picked up by the IDF and placed in detention centers, they make their way to Beersheba and Tel Aviv. "It's not enough for them to feel relieved because they're alive," continues Rosenwacks. "They're in a foreign country where they can't speak any of the local languages. And while we realize this government isn't short of problems, its failure to take a position [on the refugees] has compounded the misery. These people need to be officially classified as refugees… so that they can obtain work legally and be afforded [protection] by the state. In the meantime, we in the movement do what we can in our own way." With an estimated 2,600 refugees already living in Tel Aviv - some 800 of whom have lodged themselves in underground shelters - the city is struggling to cope. Aid facilities are full, so it is uncertain where incoming refugees will be accommodated. And recent reports say that with arrested refugees being released from Ketziot Prison in the South, they'll be arriving in Tel Aviv at the rate of 50 a day. "These poor souls are caught between a rock and a hard place," says Ramat Gan Histradut Chairman Avi Levy-Galili. "The government does a half-job. On the one hand they give refugees work permits, but they don't provide housing until [the refugees] find work." Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Yael Dayan bemoans, "We have nowhere to put them. We've asked the prime minister and some ministries to finance some of the costs of the refugees' absorption. So far we've received no response, as though we were a different country." Over an hour's drive away from the unfolding drama in the back streets of Tel Aviv, Afula youngsters are rolling up their sleeves to get involved. Noar Haoved Ve'halomed, working with the schools and supported by the municipality, has initiated an "awareness" program. Youth movement leaders address classes and run discussion groups. "We discovered how little they knew," Angert says. "I would start by asking a class 'Have you heard of Darfur?' Most hadn't. I would then ask those who had 'Where is Darfur?' Again, while a few might have picked up on the name from TV, very few could say where it was. 'India,' 'Cambodia,' 'Congo' - they would guess. It just wasn't on their radar screen the same way [they knew] where a soccer match or basketball game was recently played." Nevertheless, Angert relates, once the children were made aware of the problem, "Without fail, the overwhelming response was, 'Now that we know, what we can do?'" To further publicize the Darfur refugees' plight, the Noar Haoved put on a benefit in February. "We brought in local bands and dance groups, encouraged the other youth movements such as Bnei Akiva and Tzofim (Scouts) to participate and organized presentations in the foyer to convey the Darfur narrative," says Shai Greenberg, one of the event's organizers. "There was a great turnout. What's more, it was a cross-section of Afula's population, including many Russians and Ethiopians. We find that while there's still a separation… between various ethnic communities [in Israel], those barriers disappear when it comes to movement activities." Most important, Noar Haoved wanted parents to attend. "At times, we've encountered resistance from the parents to their kids joining the movement," says Gary Kaplan, another gar'in member. "Why? Because many parents today define education purely in terms of good grades. The collective spirit that once typified Israeli society has dissipated with globalization. The individual is king, not the state or the people. However, we in Noar Haoved are not an anachronism. We need to constantly be on guard as to what type of society we're building. We may not be draining swamps anymore, but neither do we want to be creating human swamps. We want a society that cares for all its citizens. It's an uphill battle, but we persist." Uplifted by the success of the awareness program, Noar Haoved then went on to raise funds and run a clothes drive. Masses of clothing were collected, brought to the youth movement's headquarters, and then trucked to Noar Haoved in Tel Aviv, where it was distributed by other members of the movement. "This is an issue [on which] we're mobilizing our hevre (friends) nationwide. At our kibbutz in the north, Ravid, we've taken in three young Dafurians. They're studying Hebrew as well as general subjects. Although there isn't a Noar Haoved in Eilat, we still sent madrihim to Kibbutz Eilot to teach Hebrew to refugees who were taken in by the kibbutz," says Angert. During recent cold weather, Noar Haoved has generated a lot of personal warmth by opening up their Ness Ziona and Bat Yam headquarters to a few refugees. "It was a wonderful experience," Rosenwacks says. What's been important about the Darfur campaign in Afula, asserts group leader Shikma Buchris, "is that it has provided many of our youngsters with a sense of empowerment. Far too often, young people cop out on taking stands on issues because they feel powerless; they feel their efforts will be a waste of time. We're proving that this isn't the case. Helping the refugees from Darfur, these kids are helping themselves become better human beings and helping Israel evolve into a better and caring society."