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On friendship and our collective soul: A personal take on African refugees in Israel

A personal take on why Israel is failing the thousands of others who face ongoing detention or deportation
Illustrative: Over 80% of the shelter-seekers came from Eritrea in 2015, though nationalities run the gamut from Africa to the Middle East. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Over 80% of the shelter-seekers came from Eritrea in 2015, though nationalities run the gamut from Africa to the Middle East. (Rossella Tercatin/ Times of Israel)

Last January, several dozen of us sat in a cramped Jerusalem apartment, drinking steaming cups of tea and sampling the refreshments. We were a motley crew — a rabbi, some lecturers from a local college, a handful of co-workers, relatives and friends — gathered to celebrate and bid farewell to someone who had brought much joy and laughter to our lives.

Like most goodbye parties, it was a bittersweet occasion. The lively background music and colorful decorations lent a festive air, but there was also palpable sadness.

We should have been thrilled. Six years after coming to Israel from Eritrea, Effie was moving to Canada, where he could finally complete his academic studies, pursue a career and put down roots without the constant fear of detention or deportation.

But, we were far from ecstatic. Underneath the veil of celebration was a sense of cheshbon hanefesh, soul-searching and moral reckoning.

“He will be fine,” one of the party-goers assured, comforting herself as much as everyone else. “But will we?” pointedly interjected another.

We were mourning the loss of a friend. We feared the loss of our collective soul.

I wondered: Have we, as individuals and as a society, done enough to shift the poisonous political discourse in Israel depicting African asylum seekers as a “cancer”? Have we raised our voices in demand of a well-functioning system to process asylum claims? Have we embodied the Jewish values of compassion and dignity towards the strangers in our midst? I, for one, had a hard time answering all those questions in the affirmative.

These days, I find myself texting Effie frequently. I send him pictures of me in a packed Knesset auditorium at a conference calling upon Israel to halt its plans to forcibly transfer African asylum seekers to third countries; me in a synagogue at a meeting of Jerusalemites ready to open their homes to their Eritrean and Sudanese neighbors; my 1-year-old son, Lavi, born days after Effie’s departure.

I text him so that he doesn’t feel disconnected. I text him so that he knows I’m trying to continue in his footsteps. I hope he’s proud. I worry I did too little, too late. I text him because I need a dose of his steadfast optimism.

Effie responds to my messages with characteristic words of encouragement… and pictures of knee-high, Montreal snow. He is grateful for his new Canadian home, but misses Israel: the warmth of its people and its sun, our laid-back style, our intimate hospitality.

Effie came to Israel in 2010 in his late teens. His father had been killed in the war with Ethiopia in 1999. His mother had stayed behind in Eritrea. He made the trek from Eritrea to Ethiopia, Ethiopia to Sudan, Sudan to Sinai and finally to Israel on his own. Unbeknownst to him, his sister had arrived in Israel a short while before. They reunited in Jerusalem.

As Effie meticulously recounts the stops on his journey during the process of helping me write this article, I gain new appreciation for the Book of Numbers’ painstaking description of the waystations of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land: “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses, and pitched in Sukkot … And they journeyed from Sukkot, and pitched in Etam …” To outsiders, this is but a meaningless string of names. To those who lived through the experience, each place is fraught with memory and meaning.

Effie’s mannerisms and slang are nearly indistinguishable from those of a native Israeli. Several years back, I arranged for him to tell his story to a group of young Jews spending the year studying in Israel. The Masa Israel students were surprised to discover that Effie’s Hebrew fluency and understanding of Israeli politics and culture far surpassed their own, despite years of Jewish day school and summer camp.

Effie is a people person. When we’d walk together in the Machane Yehuda market, many a storekeeper, shopper and beggar would call him by name and give him a friendly slap on the back.

His natural charisma, coupled with hard work and determination, paid off. In Israel, Effie enrolled in college. When he left for Canada, it was mid-semester and he had already completed over a year and a half of advanced studies — academic credits he hopes to transfer, so that he can fulfill his dream of becoming an industrial designer. He has worked numerous jobs, most notably in a popular restaurant franchise, where he started as a dish-washer, but was soon promoted to run its day-to-day operations and train new franchisees. Whenever my husband and I would stop by, he’d treat us to drinks on the house.

Despite a demanding schedule of classes and work — and the shadow of regular visa renewals — Effie somehow found the time to give back to his surroundings. He volunteered as a medical translator, making Israel’s healthcare system accessible to fellow Africans, and co-founded the Jerusalem African Refugee Center, a community-based non-profit that provides much-needed psycho-social, educational and social support for African refugees in Jerusalem. He planted community gardens and built Purim carnivals for impoverished Jewish neighborhoods as part of a fellowship in exchange for subsidized tuition.

Effie was one of the lucky ones. Through a combination of talent and good fortune, Effie was able to make the most of his years in Israel and establish a safe and more permanent home elsewhere.

Not everyone is so fortunate. The fate of thousands of people hangs in the balance. They are scared and face a harrowing choice between indefinite detention and forced deportation to undisclosed third countries. It is not at all clear whether they will have access to any formal protection mechanisms or livelihood if they choose to leave.

Israel can do better. Much better.

We can radically improve the asylum system, so that people’s claims are checked in a timely and fair manner in line with international standards. We can ensure that refugees and asylum seekers only return to their home countries, or third countries, when they can do so voluntarily and in safety and dignity. And, we can put a human face on this issue, which is what I’ve attempted to do here.

It’s been a year since Effie left and I miss him. Thankfully, he is fine. The question is: Will we be?

About the Author
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a collaborative venture and joint platform for promoting global Jewish service. Prior to OLAM, Dyonna served as Director of Education and Service Learning at The Jewish Agency; Executive Director of Bema'aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change NGO; and co-founder of Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals. A frequent lecturer, she was named "one of Israel's 50 most inspiring women" by Nashim magazine in 2015.
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