The Man Behind the Tours from Within
One of the unique characteristics the Jerusalem African Community Center is the way in which it facilitates and fosters initiatives from within the community. The "Tour from Within" is an example for one of these initiatives, that came from 29 year old Thomas, a community member. Thomas put together a special tour, which focuses on African refugees’ and asylum seeker's perspectives, offering Israelis a chance to experience firsthand their everyday lives in Jerusalem. Although this initiative is fascinating so too is the person standing behind it. Thomas and his attitude towards the complex situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Israel are truly noteworthy.
Thomas’s involvement in the African Community Center began two years ago, just a short time after it was formally established. In this framework, he helps translating documents in both Hebrew and English, and is involved in the rights awareness and advocacy and support project. From his experience working for and from within the community, Thomas notes, these projects prove to be extremely valuable in helping members of the community to learn Hebrew and English and in providing proper guidance and advocacy regarding their rights. However, in his opinion, making the African community more “accessible” to Israelis is also important. "We, the community members, need to invite Israelis to get to know us and hear our stories. This is the only way they can understand where we are coming from, and the only way to achieve long term change".
By change, Thomas refers not only to governmental policies toward African refugees and asylum seekers, but also to interpersonal relationships between Israelis and community members. "This tour, I hope, will make Israelis more interested in the person standing in front of them, taking into consideration that each of us has a unique story. This can be reflected in the simplest things, for example, in saying hello or asking someone how he is doing, and it can even result in true friendships between people".
On a more personal note, Thomas shared with me how valuable these friendships can be. When he arrived in Israel, the manager of his first job opened her home for him. "The first time I went to my manager's house she invited me to a Shabbat dinner with her family. There I met her son, and even though I knew only a few words in Hebrew, we became good friends. I even went to his wedding". Thomas marks this experience as important and empowering. "It made me understand that there are people that care. It gave me confidence and encouraged me to open up".
These kinds of relationships between individuals, he believes, will in turn be a catalyst for a much bigger change. "I believe that the people have the power to influence the state and its policies towards refugees and asylum seekers." In this regard, Thomas emphasized that giving better conditions to members of the community is something everybody will benefit from. "As I see it, we can all benefit if the state, for example, will help me enhance my education. The more qualified I'll be, the more I will be able to achieve my aspirations and dreams in life, and contribute more to the whole society".
When we finished the interview, I realized that I hadn’t ask Thomas when he came to Israel. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the interview was conducted in Hebrew, and that when trying to schedule this meeting we texted each other in Hebrew. Try to imagine my surprise when Thomas told me that he arrived to Israel just five years ago. Now, try to imagine his potential as a scholar, as a manager or as an entrepreneur.