Fighting for Israel's African refugees

"The refugees are on your soil, in your house, so give them a corner to stand in," says activist.

nic schlagman 248.88 (photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
nic schlagman 248.88
(photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
Driven by a passage from the Bible and the memory of his grandparents' plight, British-Israeli activist Nic Schlagman, 29, has decided to dedicate his life to helping Israel's African asylum-seekers. In the absence of a coherent government policy on the estimated 17,000 to 20,000-strong African population in the country, volunteers like Schlagman, who heads the Israel Activists group, and other NGOs are attempting to fill the vacuum. "My grandmother would be spinning in her grave if I wasn't doing this," Schlagman said on Wednesday evening. He was crossing the south Tel Aviv immigrant neighborhood of Neveh Sha'anan, which was filled with the sounds of African and Asian music, and the sights and smells of market stalls. "My grandparents staggered out of Eastern Europe as refugees," he said. "'You shall not oppress a stranger... for you also were strangers in the Land of Egypt.' If you replace Egypt with Eastern Europe, you would be talking about today," Schlagman said. "Events like the Exodus and our recent history form the cornerstones of Jewish identity. At the very least, we must be sympathetic to refugees coming to our gate." Earlier this week, local authority and police sources told The Jerusalem Post that southern Israel was being inundated with African migrants, and that most were not refugees fleeing crisis zones. But Schlagman strongly disagrees, saying, "Of the 17,000 refugees here, 8,000, the largest group, are Eritreans. The Eritrean military conscripts from the ages of 14 to 45. Soldiers don't have enough food to eat. Large numbers of young people flee." Some 80 percent of Eritreans who apply for asylum in other countries around the world receive refugee status, Schlagman said. In Israel, in addition to the Eritreans, there are approximately 6,000 refugees from southern Sudan and Darfur, he added. In countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, asylum-seekers are processed within 30 days, but the majority of African refugees in Israel have had no decision taken on their fate for months and years. "We just want a clear and just policy on refugee rights," Schlagman said. He recognized the necessity of deporting some of the arrivals, he added. So far, only 170 Africans have been granted asylum. One of the lucky few is Ethiopian Christian refugee Yohanis Bayo, 36, who lives in Jerusalem. Bayo co-founded the African Refugees Development Center near Tel Aviv's central bus station, aimed at giving other refuge-seekers basic Hebrew and English literacy skills, and the chance to survive on Israel's streets. Under Bayo's guidance, refugees have volunteered to help Israelis, carrying out tasks such as Pessah cleaning of the homes of poor Holocaust survivors. "There is no policy on refugees," Bayo told the Post. "Millions of shekels are being wasted by this lack of policy. The government's approach is unimaginably terrible." Bayo said the only policy he could identify was an attempt by the government to make life as difficult as possible for the refugees, so that they would refrain from bringing family and friends, and would eventually leave. "But this isn't working," he said, since most of the refugees had nowhere to go. "The people are already here. You can't send them back. You've got to do something. The refugees are on your soil, in your house, so give them a corner to stand in," Bayo said. "Putting them in prisons for five to six months is costing the state millions," he said. "We don't want to be a burden. We want to work, but we can't obtain work permits or travel freely around the country," he added, referring to the "Gedera - Hadera" ban in place on many of the refuge-seekers, which prohibits them from entering the Central region. "Freedom is a fundamental world right. Most of these people are here because they had no freedom in their own country. Their freedom should not be stripped here," Bayo said. Eyal Gibstein, 23, an American-Israeli student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, is volunteering hours of his time to teach the refugees Hebrew. He jokes with his mostly African students as he cajoles them back into class after a coffee break. "They come here after long hard hours cleaning, lifting heavy weights. They're so keen to learn and improve themselves," he said. "The satisfaction I get is unbelievable. To see them learn Hebrew, and to know that I did this, that's a priceless feeling," Gibstein said, exuding passion. "I also try to instill Zionism in them." Many of the refugees are religious Christians, and already view Israel as a holy land. "We as Jews have no right to treat them badly," Gibstein said.