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מרכז לקהילה האפריקאית בירושלים

Faces of Asylum Seekers

The close to 38,000 African refugees living in Israel currently face an impossible choice. Come the end of March, single male asylum-seekers must either accept Israel’s offer of $3500 and a plane ticket to an unknown location in Africa, or remain in a detention center in Holotin prison indefinitely.

Fortunately, Israel recently announced those with open asylum applications will not be deported until these cases are resolved, giving some slightly more time. However, for these refugees and their families, the future is tremendously uncertain. Many have been living in Israel for several years, struggling to make a living and fully integrate into society.

Despite their difficult lives, many remain optimistic, showing a brave attitude in spite of their situation. Over the past several years, volunteers for the Jerusalem Asylum Seekers CenterAfrican Community Center (JACC) have had overwhelmingly positive interactions with these refugees. One might think that their circumstances would lead them to have feelings of resentment for Israel and its efforts to forcibly remove them from the country that many now consider their home. In fact, the opposite is true. These refugees, despite their hardship, are some of the most grateful, nurturing, and selfless people. They surprise the volunteers at JACC every day with acts of selflessness and altruism.

Melissa Fragiadaki, JACC’s Media Coordinator and computer skills instructor, detailed an interaction with one of her computer students when she was ill in the hospital. During the three weeks she spent there, this student took a bus to visit her in the hospital and brought her a full bag of groceries. Despite the twelve hour shift he had spent doing manual labor that day, and the hour and a half bus ride each way, this man made sure to show Melissa his concern for her, and . He spent his much-needed funds on groceries. He also made sure to text Melissa regularly to see how she was feeling. This inspiring act illustrates how appreciative the refugees feel toward the volunteers, and their genuine caring attitude toward the people who help them. Unfortunately, this man was detained in the Holot prison not long after this interaction. Even under these circumstances, he brought ESL tTextbooks with him and started a successful study group. Happily We are happy to report that he is one of the few asylum seekers who have managed to leave Israel for Canada.He is currently living in Canada.

Roi Galil, both a Board Member anda volunteer at JACC, detailed his experience with inwith JACC’s educational playgroup. the “play group project.” When women come to the center to study either Hebrew or English, and their children play together while supervised by volunteers. The women will often come with refreshments and toys to share each time. Despite their limited means, they still make an effort to be generous to the other participants and volunteers. One of the families even donated their used stroller to another family in need. These refugees want to be able to give something back, to show their gratitude rather than solely communicating it.

Ariella Cwiekel, another a Board Member and volunteer, detailed a pattern of people being generous and hospitable when she visits their homes, welcoming her with food. When she meets refugees for coffee, they always insist on paying for her. They are always concerned about her well- being, and show interest in learning more about her life. In these scenarios, the refugees could easily have spentspend time focusing on their woes, and sharing stories of hardship. Instead, they focused on Ariella and her happiness, hiding any feelings of fear of their own.

Ariella also shared an incredible story of a South Sudanese friend who felt overwhelmingly grateful for his time spent in Israel, and refused Israel’s offer to pay for his plane ticket back to Sudan. He paid for his own ticket, citing his refusal to be the recipient of any more acts of hospitality. He was thankful for the time he had in Israel, and accepted his fate with stunningly confident attitude. In countless instances, refugees help themselves and their community with their own resources before asking for help from outside. There is a sense that they don’t want to inconvenience other people.

At the end of our conversation, Roi made a point tothe important point that emphasize, “what you give [to the refugees], you get it back.” The African asylum seekersThese examples illustrate the heroic acts of these refugees. They in this country have retained their humanity and values, and feel indebted to everyone who provides even the smallest amount of assistance. The services JACC provides are vital to this population, and despite their needs, their poverty, and overwhelming uncertainty about what the future holds, the relationship between volunteers and community members is not one-sided.

There is giving happening with both groups, both the refugees and the volunteers. Despite their poverty, and overwhelming uncertainty about the future, the African asylum seekers retain their humanity and values.

If allowed to remain in Israel, theyasylum seekers wouldwill remainbe an asset to the country.

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