Seeking a haven

Activists believe that recent decrees and demonstrations against African migrants in Israel can spiral into actual violence against the vulnerable community.

Eritreans 521 (photo credit: Sara Levin)
Eritreans 521
(photo credit: Sara Levin)
“WE ARE NOT criminals.We respect and abide by the law,” says Mahari Haylu, a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea who has been in Israel for almost a year and a half. “We are not infiltrators. We are peaceful people asking the Israeli government to give us the right of refugees.”
Sitting in the offices of the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in south Tel Aviv, he waits for a group of other Eritreans who recently formed the Eritrea Political Asylum Seekers committee to appeal to the government for asylum as a group.
“We are not asking for citizenship. We are only here until peace and stability comes to our country,” Haylu continues. He points to a map tracing his trek, which began in April 2008 from Eritrea, where he was an English teacher, to Ethiopia, to Sudan, a failed attempt to reach Europe via Libya because the border was blocked, back to Egypt and final arrival in Israel. His passage to Israel, he says, was “very dangerous, very brutal and very merciless.”
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There are both Muslims and Christians in Eritrea, but most of the Eritrean refugees in Israel are Christians, Haylu points out, and they are coming to Israel out of fear they will be killed if they go to Muslim countries such as Libya or Yemen, which also serve as a launching point to Europe. They are also quick to leave Egypt – where there are reports of women refugees being raped and groups of refugees being kidnapped and held hostage until a ransom is paid – for what is seen as the relative safety of Israel.
“[The Muslims] can kill you. They think we are coming to fight Palestinians. They know we love Israel and we believe in Israel as a state and that it is the land of God and so they treat us very badly,” says Haylu.
ERITREA’S ONE-PARTY GOVERNMENT, accused of repression and hindering the development of democracy, is engaged in a long unresolved border dispute with Ethiopia. Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea, which has no privately owned news media, at the very bottom of its country-by-country ranking of press freedom.
With no organized government assistance, the refugees must depend on help from independent organizations like the African Refugee Development Center – which is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of refugees knocking on their doors – and asylum seekers who reach Israel following their treacherous journey are left practically to fend for themselves.
Their only hope is to band together and those with more experience, education and political savvy helping the weaker members of the community, says Yohannes Bayu, 32, himself a refugee from Eritrea who has been in Israel for 12 years and received Israeli citizenship after a long legal struggle.
He founded the ARDC in 2004 as a mutual help group. But the refugees simply can’t cope on their own, he says. “The number [of refugees] is growing and the government is ignoring them. They are invisible,” he says.
The ARDC is run largely by a core of some 120 volunteers – many of them young Jews from abroad – and receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and private donors.
In past years, ARDC had to put aside their original goal of self-empowerment for the refugees and instead turned to providing much needed humanitarian aid.
About a year ago they began once again to focus their energies on strengthening the refugee community, offering enrichment courses in English, Hebrew, computers, language classes for children and tutorials for TOEFL college entrance exams.
THINGS ARE QUIET ON A LATE afternoon in early January in the sparse offices of the ARDC during the winter break in classes, which will resume in February. In one room Haylu meets with a few other members of the Eritrean community to discuss strategy; in another upstairs room a Sudanese man is consulting with a legal volunteer about his conditional release visa; and a group of three young Sudanese men come in to register for a computer course. Only one of them speaks halting English and he translates as best he can for his friends and the American volunteer who registers the information on her Apple laptop computer.
“Have you had any type of formal education?” she asks.
The tall, lanky youth looks blankly at her until his friend translates for him. “No,” he shakes his head, he has never been to school.
The most important thing for the refugees – after finding work in order to feed themselves – is to gain vocational, technical and educational skills, says Bayu. “They are here without any skills...When they leave here they will need this kind of training.”
The ARDC has placed some 38 refugees in computer programming and auto mechanic classes at the Atid Vocational College in Tel Aviv and has assisted three refugees to register at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, where they have received half-scholarships and are doing well in their studies. The ARDC also supports a shelter for 21 single women with children and another smaller shelter for seven women, who are pregnant because they were raped by Bedouin smugglers. The women receive counseling from professional psychotherapists, who are paid staff of the ARDC.
The ARDC has arranged several special projects in which refugees volunteer to clean the homes of the elderly, poor and Holocaust survivors. Recently, says Bayu, he began registering refugees interested in helping with the clearing and tree planting at the Carmel forest.
Some 100 people have already signed up for the project.“We want to show we are productive if the government would give us a chance.”
ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE ARDC, a small group of Sudanese men crouch on the curb. To some Israelis they may look menacing, Bayu says, but these men are gentle and do no harm to anyone.
He waves to them. “What is going on is extremely bad and cruel and no one takes responsibility for it. The Egyptian government is not taking responsibility either and people are telling us very horrible stories... Smugglers keep them for ransom, they are used as slaves, women are repeatedly raped and nobody is doing anything about it. After all the suffering they go through to escape, and the difficult journey they make, they don’t get any assistance here,” says Bayu. “The UNHCR writes a report which just passes on their concerns but no one is taking any action.”
The situation is continuously getting worse, says Bayu, and with the recent decrees and demonstrations against refugees he fears it can spiral into actual violence against the vulnerable community. The ARDC itself was scheduled to move their offices to another building in early January, but at the last minute the landlord backed out of the agreement.
“This is racism at the highest level. The government is creating fear among the public.
The government has succeeded. These people are absolutely defenseless,” he says.
Problems with drugs and prostitution were prevalent in south Tel Aviv long before the refugees arrived, Bayu observes. He admits that while there have been cases of crime among some of the refugees, the violence is usually concentrated within the refugee community and has been blown out of all proportion.
While talking, Bayu, who works nights as a computer service repairman, has been waiting to meet with a group of Somali refugees who do not arrive. “The Somalis are in a very bad situation,” he says. “They are too few to be able to help themselves.”
The soft-spoken Bayu admits that his devotion to helping the refugees has taken its toll.
“This becomes your life. It affects you in many ways and affects your social life,” he says.
What is needed is a concerted government policy of how to deal with the refugees. “The major problem is that there is no constant policy or program from the government. The only government policy that remains constant is to drop the refugees off in Levinsky Park [after they are released from detention],” says Bayu grimly. “The refugees don’t work. They don’t have any proper documents. They don’t know what to do. Sometimes an employer will come around and pick them up for a job.”
Rather than bringing in foreign workers to do the menial jobs that Israelis “won’t even touch,” Bayu proposes using the refugees here to do those jobs legally. “To build the detention camp will cost millions of shekels, but to keep the refugees there will cost millions more. Yet, at the same time they are bringing over all these foreign workers. Why not use the refugees as foreign laborers?” he reasons. “They are not asking for handouts. Let the government not pay one penny for the refugees. Let the refugees work and they can even pay taxes. In other countries they either give the refugees proper documents so they can support themselves or give them shelter, social benefits and medical insurance.”
The Israeli government’s apparent policy of making it difficult for the refugees here is not working, he notes, as the flow of refugees across the border continues despite all the hardships they must endure. “The refugees are coming here to save their lives,” he says.
DUSK BEGINS TO FALL AND AT Levinsky Park near the Central Bus Station, not far from the ARDC offices, some 200 men – mainly from Sudan with a smattering of Eritreans – congregate on the lawn. Some take a slow spin around on the carousel in the park, where a colorful curving slide and plastic jungle gym go unused. There are no Israelis in the park. The refugees slept here on the bare hard ground last night; they’ll sleep here tonight and most likely the next night as well. If they are lucky, they have a blanket to cover themselves with at night; sometimes three men share one blanket. Some have not eaten all day, notes Bayu, some not in two. When it rains, they huddle as best they can under building awnings and under the playground roof, he says.
And across the street, the lights of falafel and shwarma joints glow in the twilight, bright lights glare from shops, owners of cheap bazaars hawk their wares, and citizens bustle along down the street in a hurry to get to where they are going.
None of the Sudanese at the park want to give their names or have their pictures taken for fear of repercussions against their families back in Sudan. They speak Arabic and halting English; a few speak English well. One 34- year-old man from Darfur says he left his wife and two young children in Sudan and he has been sleeping in the park for four months.
Another younger man says his four siblings were killed in the armed conflict in Darfur.
“If we go back, we will be killed,” says a 41-year-old who left behind a wife and four children. “We are not coming out of choice.
We have political problems in our country.”
People do not know where their families are, he says. He has been here in the park five months.
“It is no use. I can’t get any money,” he says.
One young Sudanese asks quietly how he can get back to Sudan. He would rather suffer in Sudan with his family than in Israel alone, he says.
“We don’t have blankets. The weather is very cold. You can’t separate people – this one is black and this one is white. Our God created many different people. You can love many people,” explains a short Sudanese from Darfur, who says he’s 20 but looks younger.
Some are wearing leather jackets and hats at a jaunty angle, others T-shirts and long-sleeved button-down collar shirts. These are their worldly possessions – even if they had more things they would have no place to store them.
They have one thing on their mind as they gather around to talk to a journalist: Can they get work? Everything else is secondary.“We are hungry,” one explains. “Are we not human? We need all the Israelis to see us.”