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Israel’s African asylum seekers are living in limbo

CM 19/09/2021

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For more than a decade, Israel’s African asylum-seeker community has essentially lived in limbo. While legally allowed to reside here and work, their status leaves them in a precarious situation. Fleeing wars, genocide, authoritarianism and harsh economic conditions, tens of thousands have made their way into the Jewish state, primarily living in the Tel Aviv area but spread across the country. 
Despite discrimination and traumas from back home, these communities make the most with what they have. Most are working long hours in low-paying jobs, rarely receiving healthcare. 
The government tends to take a long time processing each individual’s claim for refugee status, and rarely grants it, leaving them stuck in a country with almost no rights and an uncertain future. 

There are, however, organizations that provide a wide array of services including health, legal counseling, lobbying and more. Hotline, a nonprofit organization defending the rights of migrants and refugees, found in a May 2021 report on asylum-seekers that there were 21,000 asylum-seekers from Eritrea and 6,100 from Sudan. The two countries account for more than 80% of all asylum-seekers from Africa. The NGO also found that there are 7,000 children of asylum-seekers who were born in Israel. 
In response to the length of time that it takes to process applications, the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) told The Jerusalem Post it worked in line with international norms. 
“The issue is handled by a special PIBA unit – RSD. The unit works in accordance with international conventions and standards,” PIBA wrote in an email.

African asylum seekers wait to apply for a visa in Bnei Brak, Israel (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)African asylum seekers wait to apply for a visa in Bnei Brak, Israel (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

BLUTS ZERU, 40, grew up in a town in southeastern Eritrea along the Ethiopian border. He earned a degree in geography from Asmara University and went on to teach at a high school for four years before eventually fleeing to Israel in 2010.
Eritrea is one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries on Earth, ranking last in Reporters Without Borders’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index. This lack of freedom and many other egregious violations were the reasons Zeru fled. “You can’t move inside the country from place to place,” he said. “You have to cross three or four checkpoints” from one city to the next.
“I can’t be a slave for the rest of my life,” he said about his civil servant work as a teacher where he made only $15 a month. Unable to switch jobs, Zeru spent time in prison on multiple occasions. “They [the government] forced me to leave,” through these actions and violations.
To say that the journey to Israel was long and challenging would be an understatement. Zeru paid Bedouin smugglers $2,500 (less than most) to get him to Sinai. Along the way he had to run from Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers – “The only option is to run” – and witnessed two women shot to death by Egyptian soldiers along the border. “It’s very dangerous,” he said, “I was lucky enough… the journey is very difficult, you don’t have enough water or food. If you’re lucky you’ll reach Sinai.”
In Israel, Zeru became an active leader within the Eritrean community, dedicated to helping his fellow countrymen adjust to the difficulties of refugee life in Israel, as well as pushing for real change back home. 
Zeru finds deep purpose in trying to bring about reform to his troubled country. Every Friday he meets with other community members at an office in Tel Aviv’s Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood where they drink tea and eat injera and broadcast on a Facebook channel back home a conversation on how to unite the people and create meaningful change. Zeru believes that the only way this change can be made is by the regime falling. 
In Israel life is hard for Zeru as it is for most Eritreans, but “even though the money isn’t enough… I’m working and trying to live my life,” he says. “This is better than my country but… Israel is not fulfilling its obligations” to asylum seekers like EU states, he says. The government, he says, “isn’t looking at our issues in a transparent way,” noting hardships in constantly having to renew visas every six months at the Interior Ministry, where asylum-seekers are often forced to wait longer than Israeli citizens. 
As an activist, he has a good feel for the pulse of the Eritrean community in Israel and admits that unfortunately “we are not all on the same page” because some here still fear the regime back home. Zeru hopes to return home one day, but in order for this to happen, “we have to fight.”

 BLUTS ZERU taking a selfie from the Neve Shaanan office where the Eritrean community meets every Friday. (credit: AARON ENGELBERG) BLUTS ZERU taking a selfie from the Neve Shaanan office where the Eritrean community meets every Friday. (credit: AARON ENGELBERG)

TONTON AMISI, 38, came to Israel in 2016 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A gifted musician whose father is a famous gospel singer in the DRC, Amisi was a journalist back home who hosted several radio shows between 2010 and 2016, in which he uniquely promoted human rights and peace and reconciliation through music.
Shortly after taking to the airwaves, Amisi started feeling opposition to what he was doing; this would only increase with time. He really started fearing for his life – and that of his wife and two daughters – when he started receiving threatening messages and phone calls from unknown people telling him to stop what he was doing. 
In 2015 his brother-in-law, Dr. Gildo Mugaju – a colleague of well-known Congolese human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege – was assassinated in his home. In light of the assassination and after a home break-in, Amisi moved his wife and daughters to Uganda. 
With pressure and threats mounting to cancel his radio show, and interrogations from government officials, in early 2016 he saw an opportunity to leave the DRC through a two-week trip to Israel with a Christian tour group. “I always dreamed of visiting Israel, the people were all excited, but I didn’t expect to visit in this situation,” he recalled.
During the trip he met a Nigerian man who arranged for him a place to stay; shortly after this he was introduced to a Congolese pastor living outside Tel Aviv, who happened to be the first Congolese to ever be granted refugee status in Israel. For a little while he lived with the pastor and his family, which allowed him to manage the church’s choir.
In 2019, Amisi was reunited with his wife and daughters in Israel; they now have three daughters with a fourth on the way. With numerous obstacles he faces in Israel, he said the most positive thing about living in Israel is the education his daughters receive. He currently works at a home supplies store, lives in Bat Yam and continues to lead the church choir while patiently waiting for a response from the government regarding his case.


ISAAC BUNDU KAMARA came to Israel from Sierra Leone 10 years ago, fearing for his life, which became dangerous after his father’s death in 2007. “My father was head of a powerful secret society,” he explained, and as his father’s only son, he was expected to take his father’s place at the head of the Gbanbanie secret society. 
When Kamara was nine, he left his village with his uncle to live in the city, where he converted to Christianity. For him, the Gbanbanie, with its idol worshiping and tendency toward violence, went against his beliefs, and therefore refused to become the leader. “It’s a very harsh society… so that’s why I fled my country.” 
Despite having an appreciation for the culture when he visited his father’s village, he said “as soon as I left with my uncle and became a Born-Again Christian, I concluded that I wouldn’t be a part of that society.” 
In October 2010, while visiting his father’s village for a memorial, his home was attacked and he was kidnapped and taken to the woods, only narrowly escaping after being tied to a tree when his captors fell asleep. Fleeing through the forest for two days, he was aided by a friend’s uncle who enrolled him in a short course on “local development” in Israel. 
He recalled that he had no choice because the Gbanbabie were scapegoating him, saying that he “angered the gods” and “crops did not do well.” 
Around the time he came to Israel, his wife and three kids had to flee to a different region within Sierra Leone in order to avoid danger. Kamara filed for asylum through the Interior Ministry and began studying Government and Diplomatic Strategy at IDC Herzliya, thanks to a sponsorship from a Jewish American, who would fund his master’s degree as well. “I very much appreciated this,” he said gratefully.
Expanding on his experiences in Israel, he mentioned that most employees treated him well and during the first COVID lockdown in 2020 he said that social workers in Bat Yam, where he lives, provided some food for his family while paying half his rent for two months. However, he did express frustration about feeling like an “outsider” in Israeli society, saying that many landlords “think all Africans are criminals,” and constantly threaten to throw them out. 
As Kamara nears completion of his master’s degree, he’s optimistic about returning to Sierra Leone. “I’ve made up my mind to return to my village… things have started changing” thanks to technology and social media. Despite existing obstacles, such as crime and youth unemployment, he is currently building a school back in his village with the help of a local pastor and has recently registered with a political party. If he is able to organize protection through the government, which has taken a strong stance in opposition to secret societies, he sees himself returning home soon because he wants to use his skills and education to contribute to his country’s future. 


ALI ABAKER ADAM, 35, came to Israel in 2012 from Sudan’s Darfur region. After witnessing unimaginable atrocities and human suffering during the infamous Darfur Genocide between 2003 and 2007, Adam began studying law at Omdurman University near Khartoum in 2008 with an eye toward human rights and government reform, especially “telling students and citizens about what’s going on in Darfur.” 
Despite the risk, Adam became very active in a student forum on campus, opposing government policies. Noting how the government blocks media access to the Darfur region and denies the genocide, he expressed how “freedom is very important for the people.” Additionally, there were incidents where the security forces killed students protesting the regime. “There was a security office in the university, so they would call the police to forcibly disperse the [student’s] forum… some students got injured by police bullets and would die if the wounds were serious… Me myself have had stains on my body because of torture.” 
Due to his activism, Adam felt he needed to leave Sudan. His journey was “very risky,” he recalled, noting that as a Sudanese citizen, Israel was the only banned country listed on his passport. His trip started at the Khartoum airport, where he purchased a flight to Cairo. There, he was questioned by security officials and had to give up $300, which they said he would get upon his return. Once in Cairo, he organized a way to get money sent to him so he could pay smugglers to get him across Sinai and to the border. Once at the border, he saw firsthand people seriously injured in attempts to cross the border fence. However, he was able to get across safely before being picked up by IDF soldiers, who took him to a nearby base. From there he was interrogated and met with lawyers before spending two weeks in the Saharonim prison in the Negev. 
Once released from Saharonim, he was given a ticket to Tel Aviv. “When I came to Tel Aviv, I thought there would be shelters for the people…. unfortunately when I came to Tel Aviv I didn’t have any friends and had to stay in Levinsky Park.” He spent a month there, sleeping outside, eating one meal a day before locals began asking “where are you from and what are you doing here?” The locals started coming every evening to bring clothes and food, and pretty soon Adam and other Sudanese started organizing a community in the park “to help those who most needed it.”
After early struggles, Adam started to find his way. He spent time working in construction and later moved to Haifa before getting the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in international law and human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Despite the hardships of being a Sudanese asylum-seeker in Israel, he hopes to one day pursue a PhD in human rights at a prestigious American or European university and help bring peace and justice for Darfuris and real democracy to Sudan. 


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The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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