Sunday, January 19, 2014

March For Freedom: We are Refugees

Social Action Track participants on Tikkun Olam are based in the South Tel Aviv area, neighborhoods with a diverse and multi-cultural population. One group of people living there are the African refugees, whose plight has recently been the center of much debate in Israeli politics and media.

Two of our participants give their take on the situation, and talk about their experiences with this community.

Leah Rosenberg is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Alberquerque, New Mexico, who is volunteering in a number of different organizations aiding the refugee population.

On December 15th over 150 African refugees from Sudan and Eritrea marched from a detention facility in Israel’s Negev to the Knesset in Jerusalem to fight for their lives. More than 50,000 Africans have come to Israel in the past decade, fleeing civil war, oppressive regimes, and ethnic cleansing. Many were smuggled to the Israeli border by Bedouin kidnappers who subjected them to physical and psychological torture. Upon arriving in Israel, over four hundred such asylum seekers have been imprisoned for their “illegal infiltration” into the state. 
Asylum Seeker protest in Israel
I’ve heard stories like this before. We read articles about the plight of refugees and immigrants fleeing from unimaginable horrors; we hear the excuses and political rhetoric that emerge in host states; we know about the complex legal battles these individuals face, the criminalization of immigration, and the extreme racism and xenophobia that greets them when they finally arrive in new supposedly free lands. In certain ways I thought I had become numb to such stories. It seemed distant, far removed from my own life and experience. It was horrible, no doubt, but not something tangible or personal in any way. But last month, my perspective changed.
After living in Israel for four months I have become part of a complex, frustrating, and deeply troubling situation unfolding in South Tel Aviv. Through my participation in a social action program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa I have worked with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that serve African asylum seekers, primarily from Sudan and Eritrea. I work in their neighborhood, babysit their kids at a daycare center, accompany new mothers and their children to doctors’ appointments, and teach them English. Through these volunteer placements, organized by the Tikkun Olam program, I have seen a population that works hard in the face of complete uncertainty, a people that supports each other, creating networks and organizations to meet the needs of the community. But I have also seen the racism they face, the obstacles to freedom and economic security, and their struggle towards an uncertain future. The articles published about their plight are no longer just words on a page or troubling accounts of something far away. It is the story of people I have met, the parents of children I babysit, the peaceniks and advocates I have the pleasure of meeting and working with every day. 
On December 15th I marched with them. When I arrived at the Knesset I anticipated something far different than what greeted me on that snowy day in Jerusalem. I knew that 48 hours earlier over 150 asylum seekers left the detention center they were being held at in the desert, walked six hours to the closest city, and proceeded north towards Jerusalem, helped along the way by human rights activists and a hospitable kibbutz. When I heard their story I presumed the marchers would be angry, possibly hostile. I know I would have been given their situation. After all, the one democracy in the region, the one place within “walking distance” that was supposedly a friendly host for those fleeing persecution, was keeping them locked up. But that was not what I saw on that afternoon. Huddled together, probably in part for warmth, these 150 detained refugees, alongside their friends living in Israel and the advocates working alongside them, quietly chanted: “We are refugees. We are not criminals.” Chanting this phrase over and over, in both English and Hebrew, they remained calm and collected. I was in awe of their patience and their determination. After fleeing the detention center they could have run for their lives and attempted to find work illegally in Israel or hide out in a friend’s home somewhere in Tel Aviv. But they didn’t. They chose to protest publicly and raise their voices in pursuit of justice. They held signs citing the Torah, reminding Jews to “welcome the stranger.” They quoted activists like Nelson Mandela, and proclaimed that they too, were entitled to basic human rights. With resolution and a spirit, a ruach, unlike anything I have ever seen, they demanded freedom.
What unfolded after was nothing short of a tragedy. Immigration police officers, armed and ready, stormed into the protest and began to break up what was possibly one of the tamest political protests in Israel’s history. I was standing right there as these officers pursued what I can only describe as a racist strategy. If you were black, they grabbed you by the collar or the shoulders and dragged you from the march onto a bus just a few meters away. If you were white you were asked to step aside. Most protestors simply sat down on the wet pavement and waited. The officers would gang up, often three or more to a single person and violently remove them from the scene; they put these young men and women in headlocks, pushed and prodded them, until, after 20 or so minutes, the black faces that had comprised the majority of the march were gone and all that remained were articles of clothing, wet, torn and abandoned signs asking for freedom, and fifteen white Israeli activists screaming “we are refugees.” I stood helpless on the side of the street, in total and complete shock. Where was the law in this? How can such actions be considered moral or humane? What happened to the Jewish values that supposedly drive and define this state? It was the Africans, the Christians, and Muslims in the crowd that reminded us of what it means to be Jewish. 
Just two hours later, I had the opportunity to meet with Ruth Calderon, a member of the Yesh Atid party and a strong voice for civil rights in Israel. I visited the Knesset that afternoon with 200 young Jews from around the world as part of the Masa Leadership Summit. When I asked her about the anti-infiltration law that allowed for the detention of the men and women I had just marched with, she told our group that as difficult as the situation is, she supports the detention policy. She explained that Israel cannot be held responsible for all those in Africa who are subjected to economic or political distress; Israel does not have the capacity to house all the world’s suffering. She said that if we let these thousand refugees stay freely in Israel, then another thousand and another thousand will come. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was to announce that the refugees had two options: stay in detention or return to the lands that had persecuted them. In other words, stay jailed or risk death. Political responses to this situation have continued to shock me. They harken back 65 years to the Jewish pleas heard from Eastern Europe. As Jewish refugees fled for their lives, desperately seeking refuge, most western nations offered similar arguments: we can’t house them, it’s not our responsibility, we sympathize but who are we to get involved?

Israel has to be better than this. We know. We were there. Israel is a state built by refugees, a homeland whose vision is grounded in social justice and freedom. It is time to do more. It is time to stop accepting detention as the best solution. It is time to speak up for the 55,000 refugees currently residing in the State of Israel. It is time to stop making excuses. Israel does not have to take responsibility for all those who suffer, but we must care for those who are already here. Because as those 15 Israelis proclaimed after all the African marchers were detained, WE are refugees. We know the struggle they are facing. And we have to act. Now. 

Zoe Baker is a 10-month Social Action track participant from Denver, Colarado. She is spending her time here volunteering at a Mesila (a refugee daycare), Hagar & Miriam (a non-profit aiding pregnant refugees), and the African Refugee Development Center. 

Five months ago I came to Israel as part of Tikkun Olam to work with the refugee population. I was generally well informed regarding refugees on an international basis but knew nothing of the status of refugees in Israel. Until I spoke with the program coordinator before applying to the program, I was unaware there were refugees fleeing from Africa to Israel. With the focus on other issues facing Israel, little attention is paid to the plight of refugees who have few rights in Israel.

With my program I volunteer with an organization, Mesila, that helps children of asylum seekers and migrant workers find a day care for their children. Most people from this population cannot afford private day care and don't qualify for state-sponsored ones. I also work with Hagar and Miriam which assists pregnant refugees with the medical process in Israel. In addition, Tikkun Olam helped me obtain an internship with the relocation team at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in south Tel Aviv, which is my primary opportunity to interact with the refugee population. The ARDC is an NGO that works with refugees on education, visas and relocation/family reunification. Since then, I've fully learned to appreciate the objectivity of studying the topic in college opposed to being immersed in it, all day.

My first day at ARDC, my project coordinator told me that the most important aspect of my job was keeping my client's expectations realistic. Little did I know an equal challenge would be monitoring my own expectations. Rarely we are able to offer refugees a glimmer of hope by informing them there is something we can do to help them relocate to another country- this must be tempered by advising them that there is a two to seven-year waiting period.

Monitoring my own expectations has been equally as hard. There have been many "firsts" since I arrived in Israel: I'd never told a person in need that there was nothing I could do to help them; never seen a deportation letter or seven-day notice; never watched refugees loaded onto a bus like criminals; met victims of torture and observed firsthand the after affects of their trauma; never visited a detention facility for refugees; never had someone ask me how to report the murder of a friend who had been with them when they were kidnapped. I no longer have unrealistic ideas about helping refugees get settled in Israel. Instead I help this vulnerable population with the harsh reality that there are no options for them here and the majority of my week consists of helping refugees leave the country.

The best part of my day involves appreciating the little things-the rare times that theres something I can do to help someone. This may include helping refugees fill out a Sponsorship Agreement Holder application with Canada, one of the few countries with sponsorship programs, and the only country that still allows refugees from Israel to apply (refugees in Israel are not granted refugee status); or helping a man register for computer technician classes who had had all his fingers on one hand removed in a torture camp in the Sinai yet still had a positive outlook on life.

However, the majority of my day is spent handling the fallout of refugees crushed dreams for a better life. One tragic story after another: the man released from the Israeli detention facility for 30 days to try and get his pregnant wife out of the Sinai but he doesnt have the $300,00 ransom and doesnt know what happened to her; the woman telling me about the dead bodies left next to her at night when she was locked in a basement while being trafficked by Bedouins and how they would electrocute her and burn her with cigarettes. And the steady line of people on the verge of tears asking me in broken English or Hebrew how I can help them only to be told theres nothing I can do. 

During the Masa Leadership Summit in Jerusalem, I went to the refugee protest at the Knesset. The refugees had marched from the newly opened detention facility, built to house the refugee population, to Jerusalem to protest their treatment as criminals in Israel and their lack of rights. The event resulted in the refugees being dragged on to busses by immigration police to be bussed back to Holot with me left crying in the snow while the media took pictures. On a positive note the protest inspired the March for Freedom in which I have taken an active role. But it also culminated in my working the front desk when panicked refugees came in with their “invitations” from the Ministry of Interior to report to the detainment facility and my feeling helpless once again when I tell them I don't know how, or if, ARDC can help. Refugees now seek advice whether they should renew their conditional release visas every three months as required,when the likely result is that they will be given orders to report to the detention facility, or even be outright denied a new visa.

My time in Israel has made me question where are the Jewish ideals I grew up with. Here I am, living in a country that accepts me because Im Jewish, that is supposed to be governed by Jewish values. Every time I hear an Israeli use the n-word Im reminded these werent people who were involved in the American Civil Rights movement for the equality of African Americans. Every time I hear government officials and news outlets provide false information about refugees being infiltrators or migrant workers and the need for their deportation I am furious. The irony is, this is all taking place in a country founded by refugees that is now violating refugeesrights and locking them in detention facilities. Somewhere along the way Israel forgot what it was like when they were strangers and when their rights were being violated. 

As Elie Wiesel said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Hopefully pressure from the international community can help remind them.

No comments:

Post a Comment