Israeli NGOs mobilise to meet needs of non-Jewish immigrants
Source: Common Ground News Service
Jerusalem - For the past few years, thousands of non-Jewish Africans have enacted a modern-day Exodus out of Egypt, making their way from their countries of origin to the “Promised Land” in the hope of finding a home – temporarily at least – in Israel, a country which defines itself as a haven for Jewish refugees.
With more than 60,000 sub-Saharan Africans already in the country (30,000 of whom arrived in the past two years) and concerns that hundreds of thousands more may try to cross the southern Sinai border, Israelis and local NGOs are mobilising to meet the challenges of integrating non-Jewish migrants in ways that are testing their commitment to protecting refugees and their respect for human dignity. This is an even greater challenge in the light of the recent anti-immigrant demonstrations which took place in Tel Aviv against African immigrants.
In July, 25 Jewish American high school students who were taking part in the highly selective Bronfman Fellowship program crowd into a hot and humid meeting room in Bnai Darfur (Children of Darfur, the first grass-roots organisation representing asylum seekers in Israel) in south Tel Aviv. Two Darfuri young men, one a 19 year-old Muslim, the other an 18 year-old Christian, have agreed to recount their story and give their perspective on the complexities of contemporary Israeli society. In a land where one expects to find clearly drawn lines, especially between Jews and non-Jews, exposure to the uncertain situation of African refugees is eye-opening.
Through my work with the Israeli Refugee Aid Organisation [ASSAF], which supports a club for African refugee youth, I knew that the accounts we were about to hear were in no way unique. One of the young men was born in Darfur to a family that abandoned their village when it was attacked by Janjawids, supported and armed by the Sudanese government, and escaped to a UN refugee camp in Chad. Years later, he left Chad for Egypt, intending to make his way to Israel.
The other young man has not seen or heard from his parents since 2003 when his older sister ran out of their burning Darfur village carrying him in her arms. After spending some time in a displaced persons camp within Sudan, he left when he was 13, without telling his sister. The roads of exile led him to Israel, a country he knew nothing about, pretty much by chance.
In leaving their homes, both hoped for a better future and for an education.
They survived their initial nights at Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, and began their journey in an ad-hoc shelter for African refugees, then, through a socialist youth movement, were taken into a boarding school, Rishon leZion. Four years after having arrived in Israel clandestinely, they are about to start their last year of education at one of Tel Aviv's prestigious high schools.
The Sudanese boys are dressed trendily and smile self-confidently as they greet the incoming soon-to-be high-school seniors from America with enthusiastic shaloms. Just before we start, one asks if it would be okay if they presented their stories in Hebrew. After all, “this is the language that is the most comfortable for us.”
A charged emotion accompanies the testimonies, followed by questions that come in droves: Why Israel? “Because we knew it was a free country built by refugees, for refugees.”
How have Israelis treated you? “The soldiers at the border welcomed us, they gave us food and medical care. And then, the guys from the youth movement taught us Hebrew. They gave us clothes, and friendship. Thanks to a social worker who believed in us, we moved from boarding school where our education was not so good to Gymnasia Herzliya, one of the best schools in the country.”
Do you feel Israeli? “A few months ago, I would have said that my life is here, that Israelis have given me a home. But recently, the incitement by politicians and acts of violence against people just because they are African has made me worry. I'm not so sure now.” One asks the American students, “Should Israel accept us as part of it?”
The following Friday, near the end of Ramadan, I call to thank one of the Sudanese young men for taking the time to meet with the Jewish youth from America. I tell him that I hope the period of uncertainty and intolerance we are living through is the worse that we will witness here. I would really like him to feel at home in Israel. It would be an honour to count them both as “part of us”.
“Thawman Makbulan,” I say, wishing him an easy fast. “Shabbat shalom,” he answers.
* Jean-Marc Liling is an Israeli lawyer, formerly part of the protection team at UNHCR’s Israel office and currently a member of the board of directors of ASSAF - Aid Organization for Refugees & Asylum seekers in Israel. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).