A helping hand

Jewish volunteers provide a welcoming atmosphere at a youth club for teenage asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv.

The Assaf Club  (photo credit: Jenna Hanson)
The Assaf Club
(photo credit: Jenna Hanson)
ABOUT 20 AFRICAN teenage boys sit around in a circle in a small room in a low-rise apartment on a dark street in south Tel Aviv.
Screaming happily, they cheer on two friends competing in an arm-wrestling match. Alarge map of Africa hangs on one of the walls and several plastic containers in the small attached kitchen hold tonight’s meal.
A young Jewish woman and two men, along with a young-looking African man, supervise the activity and try to maintain some kind of order as the contestants in the middle of the circle change positions. “Ori, Ori...” the kids begin chanting rhythmically, looking to one of the Jewish men and waiting for him to enter the circle.
It’s a typical Thursday night at the youth club for teenage asylum seekers, run by ASSAF (an acronym for the Hebrew “Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel”), a non-profit group funded by private donations, as well by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the New Israel Fund, and staffed largely by local volunteers.
After the arm-wrestling comes to an end, the volunteers bring out the food and everyone begins to fill their plates with rice and lentils. “I want to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to get to hang out with you,” says Ori Meroz, the volunteer just beaten in the arm-wrestling competition. “I am going to India for a few months, so I won’t see you for a while.” A couple of the kids thank Meroz, some continue eating while others begin to run around the room wildly.
“I have been volunteering here for about a year and a half,” Meroz, 35, says, in between trying to maintain control over the exuberant kids. His hair is speckled grey, but his boyish face and kind eyes make him look much younger. “I come here once a week. My job isn’t extremely well-defined. Basically, we volunteers run the club. We are here to talk to them, to try and help. The kids who come here are not very open, and it takes a while to connect, for them to trust you. The basic thing is for us to be here, where they can come and feel some kind of home.”
Meroz, an interior designer by day, says he wanted to do his part to make a positive impact on society. “It’s very easy to sit at home and complain about how bad things are,” he explains. “I thought I should make a bit of an effort to change things. I wasn’t very aware of the problems of the refugees before I began volunteering.”
The hangout is open three nights a week and is visited mainly by Sudanese and Eritrean boys aged 14-21. The goals of the meetings are flexible; sometimes the volunteers provide some informal education but the most important goal is to provide the kids with a safe, comfortable, warm place and to provide a hot meal. The very existence of the place is its main importance.
“Every Monday night we watch a movie,” explains Aladin Abakar, coordinator of youth activities and community development at ASSAF and the only paid staff member at the gathering. Abakar, 32, escaped from a prison in Darfur and has been in Israel for the past two years. He is a psychologist by training and currently studies education at the Kibbutzim College. He is a stocky, smiling man who has a soft rapport with the boys.
“We also talk about social change and what this means, about the state of black people all over the world, about racism and violence. We try and talk to them about all these issues so that they can see there are other options. The club is open three nights a week. The volunteers here come from different places and backgrounds. Some are students of social work; others, like Ori, work in totally unrelated fields. I think it is important that they are here also because they show the boys that not all Israelis hate them.”
WATCHING THE TUSSLE, Meroz says, “Over the year and a half that I have been here, I can see how being here in Israel has affected the boys – the effects of racism and cultural rejection, and even just the effects of living in this very difficult neighborhood, with all the drugs and crime and prostitution – most of which does not involve the refugee population.
When I began to volunteer here, I realized that a ten minute walk from my house, things I thought only occurred in poor neighborhoods in the US are commonplace here. You walk around in the middle of the day and see people injecting drugs. Though this is mainly not the refugee population, it really affects these kids.”
Roman, 18 is the tallest of the boys at the gathering. He is very thin, and speaks Hebrew with great fluency and a nervous stutter. Roman came to Israel from Sudan via Egypt three years ago and is now attending the Herzylia Gymnasia, a well-regarded high school in north Tel Aviv.
“It was my dream to go to that school,” he says proudly. “At the beginning it was very hard. I didn’t have any friends. But now it is easier, and people are nice to me. I come here on Mondays and Thursdays. My friends are here, and sometimes the volunteers help me with homework. On Fridays and Saturdays I work in a hotel. My parents work very hard. It hurts me to see them struggling. Every day is uncertain – I never know what tomorrow will look like.”
Roman says his future will be either in Israel or back in Sudan. “If I stay here, I want to go to the army, and then to study law,” he declares. “I want to join the army so that I can say thanks to the Israelis who helped me. If South Sudan gets independence and if we can go back there, I would also want to study there. I want to study law so that I can be a politician or a lawyer, because politicians are the ones who make decisions and lawyers can help people.”
Listening carefully, Meroz observes, “Volunteering here has changed me. You see these kids, with all their problems and you see how they keep going and even enjoy the little things along the way. It makes you realize how strong people are, and how little your own problems are in the scheme of things.
“I do understand that Israel cannot absorb everyone who wants to come,” concludes Meroz.
“But we know how to remind the world that during the Holocaust no one would take us in. We were refugees not so long ago. In more than 60 years of statehood, how many refugees has Israel taken in? Not very many! Volunteering here has been a kind of mirror for me, with which to examine Israeli society. The refugees get the worst of it.”