This week, the Israeli government began issuing deportation notices to thousands of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. For these asylum seekers, the notices present two grim options: accept a small payment from the Israeli government and a flight to Rwanda, or go to prison indefinitely.
In this difficult time, the Jerusalem African Community Center is doing what it can to respond to the deportations and offer support to refugees faced with the prospect of a government notice.
In the past few weeks, JACC has begun holding meetings for members of the community to provide updates and answer questions about the proposed deportation process--when it will take place, who is likely to be affected, and exactly what options refugees will have.
An important part of this work has been offering advice to asylum seekers who may be exempt from the current deportation policy, but who may not realize that they're exempt, or who may not have the essential paperwork completed. Right now, the state is only deporting men. But men who have children they are caring for in Israel, or who can show that they were victims of trafficking or torture, are not included in this round of deportations. JACC has been working to reach out to men with children who may not have filled out the necessary forms showing that they are caretakers. And it is helping men who were trafficked complete a lengthy form that may let them claim refugee status.
These deportations are bringing an enormous amount of uncertainty and fear for members of the community, and JACC is also helping to connect people with counseling and psychiatric support.
Advocacy has been part of the equation, too. In mid-January, JACC members organized a mock slave auction outside the Knesset to highlight the stakes of deportation. A group of Eritrean men, shirtless, wore chains and covered their mouths with tape. One member of the Knesset, Dov Khenin, came out in solidarity.
JACC has also been lending support to Otsrim et Hagerush (עוצרים את הגירוש, or Stop the Deportation)--a vocal group that has emerged to protest the government's policies on refugees--and has helped the organization deepen its connections with the African community in Jerusalem.
Some of that work was apparent last Thursday, at the intersection of King George and Ben Yehuda streets in downtown Jerusalem. There, hundreds of protesters gathered to fight against a policy that threatens to send thousands of men into desperate circumstances. The diverse group shouted chants against the deportations and lofted signs. "Blood is blood" one sign said in Hebrew. "Light to the Nations" said another, invoking a famous line from Isaiah that is often used to call upon Jews--and the Jewish state--to model high moral standards.
The protesters also had an Israeli flag, and the event ended with Israelis and asylum seekers singing the national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), together. The moment was a reminder of the affection that many asylum seekers, some of whom have lived here for years, still feel for Israel. And it was a reminder that many people fled here because of what the state represents--namely, hope.