02.11.23, Dana Rapoport, United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees , UNHCR
On the morning of October 7, the lives of every Israeli have been turned upside down. The terrorist attack in southern Israel claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people, left 6,000 wounded and more than 200 held captive by Hamas. The 70,000 asylum-seekers living in Israel also awoke that Saturday to a new reality of deep anxiety and great uncertainty. Asylum-seekers and refugees know how to spot a war. They have lived through dictatorship, genocide, fighting, fear, and insecurity. They survived all of this and reached the country of refuge, which is supposed to be a safe home for them.
“It evokes something in me that I’ve begun to forget,” says Fouad Motaz, who came to Israel 13 years ago from Darfur, via Libya and Egypt. “It reminded me of every little thing I went through in Darfur, and on the difficult way from Sinai to Israel.” says Fouad, one of thousands of Darfuri Sudanese living in Israel as asylum-seekers for more than a decade, and Co-founder of the ‘Sudanese Home’. “I’m already at another stage in my life, and suddenly it triggered all the memories: how merciless and inhumane in their way of murdering. It’s just scary. These memories follow people everywhere.” He says that since October 7, he and his friends have been in complete panic. “Suddenly, I jump from every noise outside, lock the doors of my apartment. I’ve been here for a very long time, and I’ve never felt this way.”
“The asylum-seekers’ initial reaction was: What can we do to help you?”
Fouad lives in Jerusalem where, like in most parts of the country, sirens are heard frequently. But for those living in the south, the rockets mean imminent danger and immediate evacuation. This, in addition to loss of work, educational activities and gaps in knowledge and communication, and homes without a secure space or shelter. This has placed the community in a new and incredibly stressful situation. “We fled because of war… We want them to know that this war affects everyone, everyone. And it impacts everyone.” says Fouad.
The high death toll in a small country like Israel means every household is one degree of separation from a family who suffered a loss. The tragic news did not spare the asylum-seeker community either. Among the murdered were two asylum-seekers, one Sudanese and one Eritrean, and another Eritrean currently considered missing.
Tali Ehrenthal, Executive Director of ASSAF, an aid organization for refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel (a partner organization of UNHCR office in Israel) says she is already witnessing a dramatic spike in distress signs in the community.”This Shabbat of October 7, was one of the most traumatic and frightening events in Israeli history, for all of us. So for refugees and asylum-seekers who have lived through hell, who have been subjected to genocide and torture, these days are not only traumatic, they also produce retraumatisation… and their access to mental health services is close to zero. This makes me very, very worried”.
But despite the trauma, security fears and economic challenges, the asylum-seekers’ initial reaction was: What can we do to help you, Israelis?
“As early as that Saturday evening, I started receiving calls from the community, asking how can we pitch in, what can we do?” shares Kibrom Tewelde Gebremariam. “I, myself still hadn’t fully digested what had happened, and I didn’t know what to tell them, other than: take care of yourselves, follow guidelines, don’t go outside… I didn’t think we had anything to contribute, but by Sunday morning there were already many members of the community on the ground.”
The civil organizations, which mobilized quickly and efficiently, gladly embraced the hand reached out by the asylum-seekers. During the first days of the war, and throughout the first two weeks, with the coordination of UNHCR in Israel, hundreds of volunteers from the Eritrean community arrived at the biggest ad-hoc logistic hub in Tel Aviv, wearing their sky-blue T-shirts, that had become their uniform, and packed packages, collected donations, and prepared injera and lentil dishes for the other volunteers. These days, Eritrean volunteers assist with the much needed agriculture field work. Thus, in the country’s most difficult hour, asylum-seekers became an inseparable link in the civilian chain of volunteers.
“On Tel Giborim Street, dozens of asylum-seekers help collect and transport donations for soldiers. One of them spoke on the microphone: “To anyone who says thank you to us – we don’t do it for that. We came to Israel, and this is our duty.” “See it, and get get goosebumps,” Haaretz reporter shared on X (Twitter) as well as one of Israel’s leading journalists Ben Caspit.
While many assisted the home front, others helped evacuate families from the combat zone. Saleh Adam, 34, an asylum-seeker from Darfur, Sudan, lives in a kibbutz in southern Israel and is studying to become a social worker. “When the war broke out, a parent from the mentoring program (a mentoring program in Sderot for children of asylum-seekers Saleh founded. D.R.) called me extremely worried, they had to leave their homes immediately, and didn’t know who to turn to. Soon after this call, I had 12 more families reaching out with the same question. Since they have no legal status, the municipality does not give them the option of evacuation like the rest of the citizens in the town.”
Saleh, struggling to find answers amid the chaos and sirens Saturday morning, did not give up. “It took us more than 48 hours to evacuate one family.” He was able to save one family at a time by posting on Facebook and sharing it with the college administration and refugee aid organizations. Together they found people who opened their homes to families. He overcame challenges such as cultural differences, language barriers and general anxiety that made it difficult to evacuate some families under fire. “There was one case of a family already promised a place in the kibbutz, but the family felt isolated and preferred to rent an apartment at their expense in Netanya and be close to the community. I understand them, but I also tell people, ‘take what you get, it’s an emergency situation.’”
Today, almost a month into the war, and with no end in sight, the challenges grow exponentially with each day that passes. “I’ve reached a point where there are a lot of phone calls, the lists get longer, but our response is limited, and every day the possibilities for hosting are reduced even more,” Saleh worries.
Still, not all is bleak. Asylum-seeker organizations and community grassroot volunteers are providing the security net that the community lacks. Throughout the country, the staff of ASSAF, Mesila, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, ARDC, Negev Refugee Center, CIMI in Eilat, and JACC in Jerusalem, work around the clock to find solutions for housing, transportation, translating instructions and psycho-social and emotional support for all the needs of the community.
Fouad invited ASSAF’s team to speak to the Sudanese community over Zoom. “It was very, very helpful, they explained how to help children with anxiety, about different ways for coping, limited exposure to the news and media, and even explained about what to do during the sirens. They also helped us approach Tel Aviv municipality, as most asylum-seekers do not have a “secure space” in their building or neighborhood.”
ASSAF’s CEO says the organization’s humanitarian assistance has expanded from day one, as well as their phone reception hours to be able to respond to and map all the needs. But from the picture that is emerging, as the lack of security continues, dire consequences are expected for the community. “What worries me the most is that refugees don’t have an economic safety net, and the situation has become similar to what we witnessed during COVID-19, starting to deal with shortages of basic goods. This is a community that already faces food insecurity and severe poverty, and of course not working for a month has very dramatic consequences.”
Amid all the uncertainty, challenges and resilience displayed by the community, in the most difficult time for the State and its residents, rare moments of understanding, meetings of solidarity and buds of hope are born.
Many families of asylum-seekers found Israelis opening their gates in Nitzana village, Kibbutz Hanaton, and the Baptist Village in Petah Tikva. More than 100 asylum-seekers have been relocated together, as a community, with all their needs addressed, including educational activities for children. “I cried with excitement when I heard about the welcome these people received, and that they were given a place that sees them first and foremost as people, and this is my hope for Israeli society that in these situations it is difficult for all of us,” Sala says.
“There is a reason why we feel a deep sympathy to Israel’s pain, it’s something that we went through and know very well,” says Kibrom. “The terror we saw on Saturday, like the terrorists in Sinai, we know it well.”
Between packing donations and working the phones for housing, a warm meal, or computers for the community, Fouad and his friends came from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to support and strengthen the families whose loved ones are being held hostage in Gaza.
“We came to Kaplan Street to stand with the families of the abductees, and I told them my story, about what we went through in Sinai, on the way here. I felt a deep connection as they listened to my story, and suddenly we hugged. It was very unusual.” Fouad adds: “Everyone listened, and then they shared (stories) about their children, and it was a difficult and sad moment, but also a very powerful and moving one.”
Kibrom echoes a similar sentiment, expressing the spirit of the community, people who, once again, found themselves in the middle of war. “It feels like a drop in the ocean, that we will offer sympathy to strengthen Israelis, but as someone who has been here for 15 years, and knows a lot of people, I would just like to say that personally, and collectively, we are feeling their pain and hope the country and its citizens will know better days.”