Did you know that there are more than 18,000 African refugees in Israel?
The majority of them living in Tel Aviv?!
We didn't until we met Yohannes Lemma Bayum, the Director and Founder of the ARDC (African Refugee Development Center) at the Human Rights March in Tel Aviv. He invited us to come to their office and learn more about their cause. We were incredibly stoked and honored by the invite as we had been told by many people to look up the ARDC. So, we went a few days ago for a brief tour where we had the chance to see their work, snap a few photos, interview some of the volunteers and staff, meet a few refugees, learn about their struggle and spend time with some of their children.
Nic and Karen, two of the amazing ARDC staff, told us that most of these refugees come in through the Egyptian border after fleeing from Eritrea, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, DRC and Rwanda. They seek a life better than the one they live, eager to be relieved of oppression, practice their own religion freely, or to live under a democratic government. This is far from reality. Instead, they are immediately detained when crossing the Israeli border and placed into prison for anywhere from a few months to a few years. Once the prisons are filled to capacity, they are then released to the streets without any assistance or knowledge of where to go. It's insane. They remain in prolonged legal limbo without knowing their immediate future. Many of the refugees are women, pregnant women, and they often have multiple babies in tow.
Since the Israeli government has not adopted asylum legislation, let alone create solid policy regarding these refugees (contrary to the 1951 Convention), when they are released to "freedom" sometimes years after their arrival, they are left homeless with almost no hope. So for the past five years the ARDC has provided this hope, working to empower these refugees and asylum seekers in Israel with education, community development, housing assistance and basic health needs. And one of the most inspiring things about their organization is that all of their programs are heavily dependent upon our volunteers - 120 volunteers total- from Israel and around the world.
We first visited a shelter - a refugee camp/hostel/apartment, call it what you will, for new mothers, pregnant women and their children. The rooms, packed with as many as five women and their young kids, immediately crushed any of our recent complaints of hostel life. Perspective. As one mother held her newborn close, she sat comfortably knowing that she had a roof over her head and food for her children in the immediate future. However, others aren't so lucky. Karen explained how more shelters like these are needed for the unknowing mothers who will walk off the bus next week with ARDC's phone number in hand looking for help.
Nic then took us to meet some of the local refugee families seeking asylum. The smiles on their childrens' faces and those we met would contradict their stories of struggle. The multi-family filled rooms were without testosterone as in many cases, lucky mothers were sent first ahead of their husbands (costs of the border crossing reach up to $1,500) to gain freedom, while others were either raped or left by their previous partners. We met one mother who had crossed the Egyptian border only to lose her oldest son to the bullet of a soldier; her youngest son now plagued with the hate and pain of his loss. Though, surprisingly the smiles and playfulness of the girls and boys gives hope that they haven't completely lost their youth.
A quick drive to a local park gave us a new perspective where we witnessed dozens of men seek shelter from a sudden downpour of rain. These men, who at first glance appear to be casually drinking in the park or skipping out on work, are in fact educated refugees who are now living on the street. We met Malik, born and raised in the Sudan. Speaking impeccable English and with a smile to swoon the ladies, you'd expect him to get work easily and live a life off the streets in Tel Aviv. Though on the contrary, according to his good friend Jonathan (a Rwanda refugee), they have been living in Tel Aviv for almost three years now but are still treated as second class with racism and bigotry.
Leaving the park, hearts shattered and minds blown, we realized our understanding of the African struggle in Israel is minimal at most. Why have we only heard about Bedouin and Palestinian refugees in Israel...and how can these men, women and children be ignored. Passing what looked like typical graffiti, Nic translated the tagging for us; "We don't need foreign enemies." He explained how this graffiti is common to these parts as a racist slogan of hate towards these "unwanted" refugees. Israel, as a State founded on Jewish values, should do anything but oppress or wrong a stranger (it's actually a commandment).
We will be spending more time with Nic, Karen, Yohannes and the rest of their team in the coming weeks to learn how we can truly help them and gain a deeper understanding of the issue. We are currently editing video and organizing the rest of our photos. Please check back soon as we'll be posting multiple videos to give you our first hand experience and perspective, with a fundraiser campaign in tandem.
Levi Felix, Chief Activism Officer at Causecast will be traveling around the world with Brooke Dean and other activists for the next 6-9months capturing stories of leadership and heroism, learning about communities in need and conflict, and connecting them with the support of those looking to give it. Follow their adventure and get involved at This Is The World We Live In.
If you know of an individual or group that they should meet, organization or movement to volunteer with, in any country on any continent, please email Levi at Levi@Causecast.org