Tuesday, October 15, 2013

because we are also the strangers

Hey World,

So I'm having trouble writing this blog post...I want to share an experience I had and some information, and at the same time I feel like I am still in the process of understanding and information gathering. I want to put my experience out there because I think it's important to spread the word, so here it goes:

Last Friday I went on a trip to Tel Aviv with Truah  (a Jewish social justice organization, tagline: "a rabbinic call for human rights") to learn about the asylum seekers in Israel. These people fled their countries for fear of persecution and have ended up in Israel. This population of asylum seekers in Israel are mainly from the Sudan and Eritrea. There are around 55,000 of these asylum seekers in Israel, most of them concentrated in Tel Aviv. Why Tel Aviv? because when these asylum seekers crossed the boarder and made it into Israel many were given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv...and that's where they end up with no food, no money and no way to make a living. Many of these asylum seekers sleep in a large park by the central bus station (where they were first dropped off). The Israeli government has not given them much of anything. The Israeli government has not even given these people refugee status which would give them rights...

Let's step back briefly and explain the difference between an asylum seeker and a Refugee...These definitions are according to the United Nations Refugee convention (and these definitions and rights are used for Refugees around the world). So a Refugee is: "Someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself to the protection of that country." (So basically a Refugee is a person who has fled their country because of persecution since they feel they are no longer protected in their own country).

An asylum seeker is: "An individual who has sought international protection and whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined"

To go from being an asylum seeker to a refugee there is a  process where someone (attached to the government of the country) asks the asylum seekers questions about why they left the country, and if it is deemed that they fled because of a "well-founded fear of persecution" then they are granted refugee status. When the system is working like it should this step should not take long, depending on how efficient the system is and also how many refugees are entering the country at a given time...However Israel has not granted Refugee status to the asylum seekers from Africa.

Why does this matter? It matters a lot. Getting refugee status means you have certain rights that the asylum seekers don't have. Most basically you have the right not to be deported back to the country you fled and not to be persecuted for crossing the boarder in a "non-typical fashion." As a refugee you also have the right to work in the country you fled to and some access to government services (like healthcare in Israel).

So this population of 55,000 African Asylum seekers don't have those rights, and it looks like it will be a long time before they do. Israel has not been granting them refugee status so these people are in a country far from home and while they escaped the danger at home they are now living in a place where they have no way to make a life. Some of the asylum seekers have been able to find jobs, but since they don't formally have the right to work the jobs they can get (if they can even get a job) are not great. And while Israel is not giving them the right to work, Israel is also not providing them with services or money or food...

So yes, the crime rate around Tel Aviv has drastically increased in the past few years in conjunction with the refugee problem...which makes sense: If you have no way to get a job and make money and no help from the government then when  you need to eat what do you do??

What is more concerning to me is that Israel, as a Jewish state is acting in such a senseless way towards these asylum seekers. The UN resolution about Refugees was first made in response to mostly Jewish refugees after world war II, and now that there is a Jewish state it seems ridiculous that we should not be kind to the asylum seekers who have fled to Israel seeking safety. I remember learning in history class about Jewish refugees having no where to go because so many countries refused to take Jews in and Israel is doing what so many did to us?

The way Israel is treating these asylum seekers goes against our Jewish values and teachings. Throughout the Torah we are reminded (ohh about 36 times) that "you were strangers in the land of Egypt" so therefore you should be kind to the stranger. I can't think of a more relevant application of this scenario. We were once strangers/foreigners in the land of Egypt...we were once strangers who had no where to go after world war II...and now we have strangers coming to us for help. And what is happening? We are giving them a bus ticket to tel aviv and having them sleep in a park as if they are less than human.

So in addition to learning some of these facts about the situation in Israel, we also had the pleasure of hearing from Mutasim, an asylum seeker from Darfur. He spoke about his life in Darfur and his experience growing up there. For the sake of length I am going to focus on the part of his story where he came to Israel. Mutasim had to flee his home after he finished college (his parents had sacrificed to send him to school so that he would be educated and maybe able to help improve the situation in Darfur). Mutasim first fled to Egypt and was there for a few years as an activist. As a result of that he was imprisoned and tortured in Egypt for three weeks, so now that Egypt was no longer safe for him he had to go somewhere else. He decided to go to Israel because it was close by and because the other countries in the area all had Sudanese embassies, so Mutasim said he would be in danger of being sent back if he fled to those countries. So he enters into Israel and is welcomed by some Israeli soldiers who are patrolling the boarder. They tell him he is safe now and that he is in israel... Next he is sent to a detention center with other refugees where they are not free to leave. He was there for a while, until finally they let him out and handed him a bus ticket to Tel Aviv.

The way he described what it was like when he first arrived in Tel Aviv really struck me: Mutasim said he got off the bus in Tel Aviv and he had no idea how to get out. The Tel Aviv bus station is the 2nd largest bus station in the world and is super confusing (I have definitely gotten lost there). Mutasim described how his only goal at first was to just get outside, and he felt like he would never find his way out of the bus station and that was all he wanted. Then when he finally managed to get out of the bus station he had no idea where to go or what to do. He saw someone who was also from Sudan and he asked the man who directed him to Levinsky park. This is the park where thousands of Refugees would sleep and hang out because they had no other place to go. Can you even imagine?

Mutasim  has been living in Israel for 5 years and still has not gotten refugee status. He has been fighting for it, but nothing has happened. Mutasim said that his life has basically been on hold now for 5 years as he tries to get status. And he is just one of the over 50,000...

Of course there are many more layers to this issue and these stories. Yes, it is complicated for Israel to absorb so many people...but just because it is complicated does not rid ourselves of responsibility towards our fellow human brothers and sisters.

So now what? I'm not sure. After going on this trip I wanted to share what I had learned about what is going on here. If you want to learn more I got some websites that might be helpful for finding out more information: UN refugee agency: unhcr.org and ardc-israel.org has some more information on this issue and they do some programing too. And another website http://www.asylumseekers.org/ .

There are some issues that have been taken to Israeli courts and have seen some progress in some areas and not in others, so that is also another facet of this situation.

I will leave with a quote that was shared at the Truah wrap up session. It is a quote from  from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdon. He says in his book about Exodus in Covenant and Creation:

" I made you into the world's archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers--for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are whatever they are andwhatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are no in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine, There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question 'why should I not hate the stranger'? Because the stranger is me..."

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