Providing hope for refugees in Tel Aviv

It is the State of Israel’s responsibility to give back and protect the vulnerable and the unprotected.

Volunteers and African refugees in Tel Aviv 390 (photo credit: Tamar Shertok)
Volunteers and African refugees in Tel Aviv 390
(photo credit: Tamar Shertok)
For centuries, Jews have been targets of persecution, incrimination and hostility. Following the Nazi regime’s discrimination, victimization and horrific, genocidal crimes, the international community established a homeland to protect the Jewish people.
Now, it is the State of Israel’s responsibility to give back and protect the vulnerable and the unprotected.
As the Torah states, “love thy neighbor as thy self.” Based on this verse all humans should be treated with equality and respect, regardless of race, nationality, or ethnicity.
From September 2011 to February 2012, through the MASA program Career Israel, I volunteered at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) located in south Tel Aviv.
There I witnessed firsthand the daily hardships refugees face in Israel.
Over 40,000 African refugees have made the dangerous trek across the Sinai Desert in search of a safe haven in the State of Israel. Not every African is truly fleeing from persecution; some are only looking for work and a higher standard of living. Nevertheless, among those crossing the border illegally are Africans fleeing from horrifying human rights violations. Unfortunately, once they arrive most are met with prejudice and hatred.
Despite the pushback from most Israelis in south Tel Aviv, there are a handful of non-profits in Israel – mainly in Tel Aviv and Eilat – which work with the refugee community to help them access basic social services.
The ARDC hosts a variety of services, such as psychotherapy sessions, a women’s shelter and assistance in visa identity disputes.
I volunteered on the relocation team in the legal assistance department, which recognized that living in Israel is not a durable solution for the African refugee population. I worked mainly with Sudanese and Eritreans, as well as Nigerians, Liberians and Ivoirians, to help them navigate the immigration system.
I filled out sponsorship and family reunification applications as well as researched and compiled United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) resettlement files. I interviewed over 50 asylum seekers while at the ARDC, and I heard their individual stories of torture, rape and persecution in their home countries.
SINCE IT usually takes years for the applications to process, I did not see a case through from start to finish; nonetheless, while volunteering at the ARDC, I saw a Sudanese family in the women’s shelter resettled though the UNHCR to Baltimore, Maryland, and a man from Ethiopia reunited with his brother in Canada through a family reunification program. Although the relocation department has a low success rate, it provided the most hope for the refugees to have an improved lifestyle.
Not every person tells the truth and not every person has fled persecution, however, those that do have real refugee claims must be acknowledged.
The Interior Ministry granted Sudanese and Eritrean refugees a temporary group protection status as their countries are considered in crisis.
Once the ministry decides the country is no longer dangerous, the refugees are required to return home, as seen recently with Ivoirians and South Sudanese.
Aside from the temporarily protected groups, the rest of the refugees are committed to a restrictive and unreliable individual refugee status determination (RSD) process. In 2010, about 3,000 asylum-seekers went through an individual RSD process and only six received legal refugee status recognition.
When the Africans cross the border into Israel, they are placed in a detention center, and then eventually dropped at the Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv with basically nothing.
Those with temporary protection receive a visa which they must renew every three to six months. This visa forbids employment, which is a catch- 22 considering the fact that it is impossible to survive without work.
I met with numerous refugees who scrambled to find “chick chack” or quick jobs, but they are not easy to obtain. Consequently, while some can afford to rent apartments with multiple roommates, hundreds sleep in Levinsky Park or on the streets of Tel Aviv.
ONE OF my clients, a woman from Sudan, cried as she described how she was imprisoned, beaten, burned and raped in Sudan by military officials.
She fled first to Egypt where she was beaten by Beduin in the Sinai desert, then ducked gunfire from Egyptian border guards until she finally reached safety in Israel.
Since she did not receive adequate medical assistance upon entering Israel, she is now in pain, depressed and vulnerable.
I was a helpless volunteer trying my best to help her relocate to another country where she could receive better social services and support. Since she is from Sudan, however, she has a temporary visa, but has limited access to the RSD process. This means that once Sudan is no longer considered dangerous, she will be forced to return home.
I understand the perspective of the Israelis living in south Tel Aviv. No one asked them if they wanted to be in charge of caring for the Africans. They bear the burden of the rest of the country. For years, the government failed to effectively address the requests for help from the south Tel Aviv community. Africans roam the streets, hungry and tired, as south Tel Aviv has become poorer and poorer.
Now, the Israelis living there have lost patience.
Over these past few weeks, I have read with disgust and embarrassment that people in Israel have rioted against the refugee community and assaulted them on the streets.
Although I understand the frustration among people in south Tel Aviv, there is no excuse for violence and racism.
These people who are searching for safety from persecution are human beings. We, as Jews, understand how it feels to be targets of discrimination. I am aware that not all of the Africans in Israel have a real refugee claim, but those that do must be heard and must be protected.
Instead of the rash and aggressive approach of deportation, the Interior Ministry must establish a reliable and legitimate system to distinguish the real refugees from the migrant workers.
These people might have a different skin color and practice a different religion, but they are still human beings and do not deserve to be thrown aside and disregarded.
The writer was a placed by MASA as a volunteer with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv.