Growing up in Post-Apartheid South Africa I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had been born 20 years earlier during the height of Apartheid. Would I have had the courage to speak out?
I understand why my parents and grandparents did not, it was a brutal regime and the repercussions would have been severe. Thankfully there is no comparison to the situation in Israel today where we do live in a democratic state with a free and vocal press and civil society. This is why I believe it is so essential that when we are disappointed and disturbed by the actions of our government we make our voices heard.
When I speak to the determined and courageous leaders who are leading the refugee protests in Israel and hear their calls for liberty and basic human rights through peaceful protests I cant help but hear echoes of Nelson Mandela and my own country of birth’s struggle for freedom. No doubt Mandela and the other exiled leaders of the ANC in the 1980’s would have been classified as “infiltrators” if they were to seek refuge in the Israel of today.
Over the past few weeks I have had the privilege to play a small part in this struggle, mainly as a witness and supporter and I have been humbled and inspired by the dignity, respect and humility of its young leaders. This is despite the fact that since the passing of the amendment to the “Anti-Infiltration Law” in December they are living under constant fear of arbitrary imprisonment. Young men who have committed no crime, and until now have been productive members of Israel’s economy, are now receiving summons to report to the Holot ‘Open’ detention Centre in the Negev, for an indefinite period of time.
My interactions with refugees in the year and a half since I moved to Tel Aviv always leave me inspired by their desire to improve their lives and build a better future for themselves and their families despite the unimaginable challenges they face. Joe, a refugee from Sudan teaches English every night from 6-10pm. Each day, the men he teaches begin their day in the early hours of the morning, working in restaurants, cleaning offices or performing other forms of manual labour, yet they are committed to coming to Joe’s lessons three times a week in the hope that learning English will improve their lives and afford them opportunities in the future.
When you meet the refugee leaders in particular you cannot help but be impressed by these well spoken, educated young men and women who have all the trappings of youth leaders, educators and professionals had they been living in “normal” circumstances. Many have far better Hebrew than I do and switch effortlessly between English, Hebrew and Tigrinya or Arabic. People have asked how the refugees are so well organised, disciplined and generally “un-Israeli- like”, some are even attributing this to foreign players coordinating these protests. Yet if any of the critics where to attend these meetings and talk to the refugee leaders, many of whom are trained as lawyers, engineers and teachers, they would understand that this is not the case. These are people whose skills are in high demand in Africa and would not have chosen to leave in order to clean toilets or dry dishes in Israeli restaurants; they left because they had no alternative, something our politicians often don’t seem to understand.
At the meetings there is a tangible feeling of common purpose and mission as well as a lot of good-natured humour, despite the severity of the situation and a seemingly unwarranted sense of gratitude to the Israelis who have chosen to take part in their struggle. If there is anything positive to take from this struggle from the perspective of Israeli society, it is to see the Israelis that have come out to support it, the restaurants all over Tel Aviv that held events last month in solidarity with their African kitchen workers, the school teachers that have organised petitions and marches in solidarity and the students and activists who have been spending their weekends travelling 2 hours each way to Holot to show their support to their detained friends.
More of us need to join these individuals who have taken it upon themselves to support the struggle, the fact that we live in a democracy places upon us the responsibility not to ignore the plight of these people who are fleeing terrible persecution in their home counties, because our voices can be head. The fact that asylum seekers are not receiving a fair process to determine their refugee status and that Israel’s acceptance rate of refugee claims is well below 1%, the lowest in the Western world and that these people who have been living in limbo for the past few years are now being summonsed to Holot Detention Centre in the Negev with no judicial proceedings or attempts by the government to determine who is in fact a refugee, is something that needs to be changed.
So what can we as Israelis, do about it? For starters we can educate ourselves on the the facts (see these FAQ’s for a good overview), organise or attend a RefugeeMeeting to hear first hand why these people came to Israel or join the MarchforFeedom facebook group to learn about other ways to get involved.
In my view, if we don’t take it upon ourselves to engage and try find solutions to these people’s problems, we will have no excuse for being on the wrong side of history when our children ask us where we were during the refugee protests of 2014.