Two Women, Two Worlds and One Small Community Center
Sernai Dori, born in Eritrea is 27 years old and a mother of three.
Ariella Cwikel, born in America is 33 years old and a mother of one.
Their individual life circumstances led them each to Jerusalem in 2007-2008. Although their paths could have intersected in other various places in the city, reality brought them together at the Jerusalem African Community Center in 'Beit Yoel' in the center of the city.
Most of the city's residents are not aware of this center in the heart of the city. Most of the city's residents are not aware at all of the existence of a community of 2,500 African asylum seekers in Jerusalem.
Men, women and children, quiet and shy, struggle to survive in difficult and restricting circumstances. Without citizenship status and reliant on visas that that must be renewed every four months by traveling to the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv (an added burden as visas can no longer be renewed in Jerusalem).
"We live in constant fear," says Sernai Dori
For no less than nine years, Sernai, her husband and three children lived with uncertainty and daily anxiety, wondering what would happen if and when the day came their visas would no longer be extended. They feared the fate of their children who, despite being born here, have no status.
Finally, in 2009, Ariella Cwikel involved herself in the hard lives of African asylum seekers in Jerusalem.
"There are people who don't understand my involvement with the African community in Jerusalem. They say 'charity begins at home.' To them, I say, "These people are the charity at home, they are here, they live here, amongst us."
Three and a half rooms, a bit messy and greyish while on the brink of renovation, on the third floor of 'Beit Yoel' in Jaffa Street holds the promising title: "The Jerusalem African Community Center.” Ariella is a board member at JACC. This she does voluntarily, of course, like the vast majority of activists who take part in JACC's activities. Sernai, who has full proficiency in Hebrew, works at JACC translating from Tigrinya to Hebrew and from Hebrew to Tigrinya. She was an 11th grade student, 17 years old, when she got married so that she wouldn’t be recruited to the Eritrean army. "If I had had to go into the army there, it could have been until the age of 60."
Her husband, however, did not escape recruitment into the army and found himself in trouble. He was arrested and understood that he had no alternative but to flee Eritrea. It was clear to Sernai and her husband that she had to flee with him; otherwise she would have been arrested.
So they went to visit his parents in their small village near the border with Ethiopia. There they met only Segai's grandfather, whose father had escaped Eritrea a few years before and they knew he lived in Jerusalem. One night they crossed the border to Ethiopia.
"This was very dangerous, as many people had tried to cross the border but were caught and killed," Sernai explains.
They stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for three months, a camp that had stopped operating long before their arrival. With the help of other people they managed to get to Sudan.
When Sernai describes her and her husband's escape route from Eritrea, it is difficult to follow all the details, and is even more difficult to imagine the dangers they faced at any given moment. Somehow they managed to get from Sudan to Egypt, first to Asuan and then from there to Cairo.
"There we found people who helped us get to Sinai in an ambulance. We spent four days in Sinai until we managed to cross the border and get to Be'er Sheva. There we were caught and sent to 'Saharonim' facility."
Three months later they were released and went to Jerusalem to search for Segai's father.
Here in one short, dry paragraph is a summary of a six-month journey that was mostly made on foot, at night through the desert in unsafe conditions with long days with no food and water, with dangers lurking in every single step.
Nine years later and they are still far from home, still refugees, infiltrators to Israelis, invisible people without status and no foreseeable future.
Though cautious, Ariella still has "a certain optimism." It is her hope that within the dormant Israeli society "basic decency" and which has to potential to create increased awareness that there are people who have no place to return to, that the place that they come from is hell on earth" and maybe they will reach the conclusion that they could be migrant workers. And maybe with this awareness, under certain conditions some of the asylum seekers will find here the refuge that they need so much.
Ariella's journey to JACC is not quite as earth shattering as as Sernai's, and she wasn't exposed to dangers and to the horrific moments that Sernai and her husband experienced, but still it arouses wonderment, not to say real admiration. Ariella was born in America and came to Israel when her parents immigrated. While backpacking, Ariella discovered her need to be involved in places where social and community involvement is needed.
Everyplace she went on her travels she made efforts to get to know the local people and to help in different capactities. On her arrival in Cambodia, she decided to stay in Phnom Penh for a year to help establish an organization that provides aid for children who live on the streets.
After returning to Israel, Ariella decided to study Community Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she took part in an event organized by Israeli activists for South Sudanese refugees at 'Beit Hillel' at Mount Scopus campus. Knesset member Zahava Galon made a speech that evening, and Ariella was made aware for the first time of the existence of Sudanese refugees in Israel.
"I remember how Zahava Galon spoke about the hardships that the refugees experience in Sudan and then she quoted Ehud Ulmert, and imitated the contempt with which he asked 'what do they have to do with us' and I said to myself, everything, everything and how not?"
And here began her involvement. In 2009 she heard about a project for African asylum seekers in Jerusalem that would eventually become the Jerusalem African Community Center.
She saw these asylum seekers when they arrived at the Interior Ministry to renew their visas. "They were not allowed to go into the building, the refugees stood on the steps between Jaffa and Slom Zion Hamalca streets. The security guard would come out to them, give out forms; afterwards they would collect the forms and tell them to come back in a few hours. Then they would return the forms with instructions in Hebrew. 'Go to Salomei.' Who knew how to read in Hebrew? I realized that they were sitting on the steps, in rain and sometimes snow, transparent people, invisible people. It was clear to me that something had to be done."
Ariella speaks about "certain optimism," and Sernai, as surprising as it is, has hope.
As she testifies, she lives in fear. She is mainly anxious about the fate of her children who were born in Israel yet remain without citizenship or any time of status, as if they don't exist at all. "I have at least a passport number on the visa that I get that gives me the right to live here for another four months. My children don't even have that. I can't organize a bus ticket (Rav Kav) for my oldest son because he doesn’t have an identity number. I work as a cleaning lady and my husband works. And sometimes there are a few moments of security, and and I have big hopes."
Her hopes drive away all the fears of all those who object to the refugees and those who make their lives difficult from fear that they are requesting to stay here and settle in Israel. "Our hope is to return home. To return to Eritrea once it is quiet there and possible to return.
Part of that hope is thanks to people like Ariella, a social worker for the Jerusalem Municipality who serves as a member of the Board of Directors af the center and is responsible for helping with psychosocial causes. She emphasizes that, "The temporariness of the lives of the refugees is everything, the essence of their lives."
The center in Jerusalem was established to give refugees and asylum seekers a space to call their own and have a positive experience because, as Ariella points out, "It is important for them to know that in spite of it all, somebody cared." She goes on to say that the community in Jerusalem is proof that it can work.
People live here, succeed, like Sernai and her family, andkeep their heads above water with the help of a network of community support. They want to continue to develop, and they come to the center to learn.
And finally for a community of 2,500 refugees there are more than a hundred volunteers and people who want to contribute and help. "In our small world, in Jerusalem – it works."