In recent years, Jerusalem Day activities have become more violent and racist, coupled with harmful and cruel chants towards the city’s Arabs and nationalistic overtones. Rather than participate in the problematic marches throughout the city, we wanted to provide an alternative to these that promoted tolerance and understanding between the many different communities that live here. We were excited to hold a walking tour of Jerusalem in the eyes of its refugees, guided by a group of asylum seekers who have lived in the city for the past few years. The tour was organized in a joint effort between our Israeli volunteers, community members, participants in our leadership group, and Master’s students in Community Development at Hebrew University.
We chose to dub the tour “Asylum City,” which is a biblical concept that denotes a city that offers protection and refuge. We wished to raise public awareness to the question of whether Jerusalem can be such a city. With a group of 30 participants, we explored Jerusalem through a different lens and visited a wide range of places that were special to our great tour guides, Jack and Thomas.
For one of the stops on the tour, Jack and Thomas took the group to the Ethiopian church, where we learned how it has a special meaning for refugees. For refugees in Israel, a church is not just a place of prayer to gain hope and seek refuge, but also a place in which community members get married in order to save themselves from deportation or detention. Also, because refugees in Israel are forced to work on Sundays, they can only come to church on Saturdays. Thus their state here in exile has an effect on their religious lives. This shows how the church and religion gain unique meaning in the lives of refugees.
“Asylum City” was a great success, providing a holistic and meaningful experience for those who sought to celebrate Jerusalem Day in a different way. Many participants expressed that if it were not for JACC’s tour, they would not have left the house on Jerusalem due to fear of racist mobs. Others requested more tours in the future and expressed a wish to volunteer with us. We ended the tour at an Ethiopian restaurant where we all shared beers and got to know each other. These positive interactions between the African refugee community and other Israelis connect directly with JACC’s mission to create dialogue and neighborly connections between the different citizens of the city. We are excited to hold more events like this in the future!