College students visit Israel to aid African refugees

Hillel group 'overwhelmed' by 'awful living conditions' in Tel Aviv shelter.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Down a small alley in south Tel Aviv, there is an abandoned discotheque that recently transformed into a makeshift shelter for about 130 African refugees. This week, the shelter was augmented by 21 university students from all over the world who gave up some of their winter break to come to Israel to better the lives of the refugees with a little paint and many listening ears. In total, 129 students traveled from abroad with Hillel as part of the group's Alternative Break, to volunteer for various causes in Israel. More than 2,400 African refugees have entered the country in recent years through the porous border with Egypt. Roughly 1,700 are from Sudan, including some 700 from its war-torn Darfur province, according to Amnesty International. The refugees at the Tel Aviv shelter are not allowed to work, and many of them are afraid to walk outside for fear of being arrested. "In [Israel], they don't care about us. They hide us behind a wall," says Last Kouamie, a 22-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast who is seeking political asylum in Israel after an Ivorian militia burned down his tribal village. Upon arrival, he spent two months in prison. None of the refugees understand why they and their friends get imprisoned upon arrival. No other country does this, they say. "I am not a terrorist, I am not a criminal, so why do they put me in jail?" asks Kouamie. For the 130 refugees, there is one bathroom, a small kitchen and two sleeping rooms. They put mattresses on the floor and their belongings outside, and shower in the old kitchen of the disco with a small bucket. However, with the students' arrival, their living conditions have begun to change. When the students first walked into the shelter, the stench of sweat mixed with African cooking, unwashed floors and trash overcame them. "Walking in, we were overwhelmed by everything - the stench, the awful living conditions, the darkness inside the shelter," says Or Skolnik, a Georgetown University senior. As the students prepared to paint the rooms, the refugees had nowhere to put their mattresses but outside, among construction and chickens; however, they were eager to help the students paint their makeshift home. Since the refugees are not allowed to have jobs, they had nothing else to do during the day, and they quickly bonded with the students despite the language barrier. Soon Argentineans were painting next to Darfurians, and Americans were painting next to Ivorians, laughing as the groups simultaneously pulled out their cameras to take pictures with each other. "It was an unexpected pleasant surprise to have the refugees working with us. It made us equals," says Neta Boltzman, a junior at Clark University. "To see the reality of the situation - there is no way you can understand it until you see it." When it was time to take a break from painting the walls a bright yellow, the stories began pouring out. The students stood in a crowded walkway to hear the refugees recount their journeys. The refugees were as excited to share as the students were to listen. They fought to get a word in edgewise, talking to small groups at a time and then switching. They quickly pulled out plastic bags containing their refugee papers - the only thing the government has given them - which come with an expiration date. "I established a connection with many of them, and that was surprising. It was not at all hard to communicate," says Boltzman. What they will do when their papers run out, the refugees don't know. What they do know is that they are not being treated fairly. The government doesn't provide them with any humanitarian aid, such as healthcare or food. "We are not Jews, so they don't care," says Kouamie. In a speech to the Knesset in October, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed a plan for Israel to absorb 500 refugees from Darfur, but also denied that Israel had a responsibility to take in African refugees. "In a country like ours, when dozens of people arrive in the middle of the night, what can the state do, wait behind the border with guest rooms? Hotels? Fifty Shin Bet interrogators?" Olmert asked. "To say that Israel has a humanitarian duty to care for everyone who comes here is an irresponsible exaggeration." "We are hopeless, we don't believe in anything," says Bakayoko Souleymane, another 22-year-old Ivorian refugee. "I need to have a good life." Local NGOs Mesila and the African Refugee Development Center are trying as hard as they can to provide that for the refugees. "People from war-torn countries need care," says Alice Nagele, the program and shelter director for the ARDC, which is trying to raise awareness both in Israel and abroad. "The Israeli government is ignoring the refugee problem. Refugees only receive protection papers, not work permits. It's a slow process," says Nagele. "The government doesn't know how to solve it, but they know they cannot send the refugees home." Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.