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Face to face with asylum seekers

A visit to the Holot detention facility transforms the act of giving into a meaningful personal encounter

On a Sunday in mid-March, participants on KIVUNIM, a college-age program that inspires its students to forge a lifelong relationship with Israel and the Jewish people through world travel, journeyed to the Holot Detention Center in Southern Israel to spend the day with its residents. The following is a reflection by two of the program’s participants.

When we meet strangers, our first tendency is to notice the differences between us and them. Our visit to the Holot Detention Center was no exception. Standing face to face, we instinctively separated ourselves based on visible distinctions. As much as we try to combat these hesitancies and intermingle with one another, we slip back to our comfort zones even when our intentions are to break down those walls. To counteract that trend, we decided to take that leap of faith and speak directly to the asylum seekers who till then were just a number we heard in the news, but now had a face as well.

Before long, we understood that these foreigners were not so strange after all. By increasing our familiarity with the other, through direct engagement, we learned that it is better not to be fearful. We are all familiar with sending money to charity, but how often to we get to meet the people we are trying to help? We rarely connect places to individual faces and only now do we recognize the importance of personal contact. The first step towards this kind of change is making the extra effort to meet them, hearing their stories first-hand, seeing their smiles and physically joining in their struggle.

While at Holot, we met with a couple dozen men representing the larger group of asylum seekers in Israel. To some, this may seem insignificant because there seems to be this expectation, at least for us, to make a life-changing impact every time we try to help out the community. However, this is not necessarily the right way to approach these situations. We did not affect all 65,000 asylum seekers in one day; that would be impossible, but we took one step forward and made an effort few ever attempt. Drop a pebble into the lake and it goes “plunk”, and then disappears. However, skip a stone that touches the surface multiple times and all of the sudden, you see a ripple effect that can be felt throughout the entire lake. With a few minutes of practice, it becomes clear that with the right stone at the right angle, our message will go far and wide.

KIVUNIM participants meet asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)
KIVUNIM participants meet asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)

As of now, public policy and government action has done little to help these people in need. Change comes slowly, that is no secret. We need to find another way to offer our help, especially as teenagers who don’t have much influence on the political level. The men we met were exceptionally grateful for our effort. We talked with them and listened to their stories, heard about the families they left behind and the life-risking treks they endured to reach Israel. After all, the Jewish people are no strangers to crossing the Red Sea and finding our way through the Sinai in search of liberation from tyranny. Our histories are a huge part of our identities, and if we take a moment to look past our differences, we can relate on a very fundamental level. After one story, a recount we would never hear in the news, we could immediately empathize with them and better understand their situation. This goes to show the power and importance of human connection.

We stood there in a circle, everyone on an equal plane, listening to their stories and the messages they wish to share. We sat with them, ate with them, even played some soccer with them, developing a valuable personal human connection that is so crucial in these situations. Eye contact goes a long way, and a smile goes even farther. This way, we overcome boundaries and bridge the gap between them and us, the insiders and the outsiders. This provides a sense of comfort and enables us to understand who they are and what they are going through. Now, it is no longer “them” and “us”, but “we” are one community working together to dispel negative perceptions and build relationships that could create the first ring in a chain of ripples across the lake.

KIVUNIM participants and asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)
KIVUNIM participants and asylum seekers at the Holot detention facility. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)

Seeing them smile, despite their harsh living conditions, gives us hope that one day they will see a better future. As our new friend Hassan said, “If we stay strong and patient then one day we will be free.” His optimism shed light on to the surprisingly high spirits we witnessed all around us. All of the men gave us reason to believe in Israel, both the government and more importantly, the people. Hassan went on to say he does not resent Israel as a whole for the way he has been treated, even though he disapproves of the decisions made by specific people within the government. He and his friends look forward to meeting Israelis and learning Hebrew.

It would be very easy to write off Israel and everything that comes with it, but these people understand how unique their situation is and how lucky they are to be in Israel in the first place. Their unparalleled appreciation inspired us to make a change, to spread the word however we can. Right now, we may not have the power to effect national change, but we can certainly go out and educate others based off what we learned through our experiences. From the comfort of our own homes, we often view the people we try to help as outsiders, while we rarely make an effort to see them. By taking the time to meet the men in Holot, we are reminded of the injustice in our own backyard. Its time we open the door and take a step outside.

Prior to visiting the Holot Detention Center, KIVUNIM participants and staff raised $1400 towards the purchase of over-the-counter medicine, clothing, sports equipment, school and writing supplies, and food for those who remain interned at the facility.

A KIVUNIM group at the Holot detention facility in March 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)
A KIVUNIM group at the Holot detention facility in March 2014. (Photo: Courtesy of KIVUNIM)

Melody Wilkenfeld also contributed to this op-ed. She will be attending Brandeis University.

About the Author
Segev Yarden is a student on Kivunim, a gap year program based in Jerusalem in which participants study Hebrew, Arabic, Middle Eastern relations and global Jewish history. A native of Philadelphia, Segev will head to Temple University next year with the intention of studying journalism and Arabic.
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