According to a study by the UN Refugee Agency, a mind-boggling 65.6 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution by the end of 2016. In their words: “20 people were driven from their homes every minute last year, or one every three seconds—less than the time it takes to read this sentence.”
Facing a statistic like this can be overwhelming and paralyzing. How can we possibly make a dent in the enormity of suffering in the world today? How can we live by the Jewish value of “not standing idly by the blood of your neighbour?”
In Israel alone, there are an estimated 40,000 African asylum seekers. They are fleeing war, genocide, and religious persecution, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. Israel has formally termed these refugees “infiltrators.” Asylum seekers are denied social and economic rights, and new arrivals are placed in jail and detention camps where, according to NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, conditions are overcrowded and detainees have deficient access to health services, translators, and, sometimes, food. Israel grants asylum seekers a visa that only gives them the right not to be deported from Israel until their deportation is possible. They make do with temporary, illegal work, and are generally willing to do so for less than minimum wage. Additionally, a new “Deposit Law” imposes a 20% tax on migrants’ earnings, to be withheld until they leave the country.
In the words of Mutasim Ali, the first Sudanese asylum seeker to be granted refugee status in Israel: “The challenges are great, and the need in the community for support is high, and the possibility to make change—almost impossible.”
But the impossible is becoming possible, even if it is just a drop of change in the enormous bucket of suffering. The strength of the asylum seeker community in Israel is great, and the influx of support and care from the Jewish community in Canada has been incredible. These make us believe that real progress can be made.
New Israel Fund of Canada recently committed to helping ASSAF (the Aid Organization for Refugees in Israel) whose dedicated consultants are suffering a 20% reduction in income as a result of the Deposit Law. These are the individuals on the front line of care for asylum seekers: providing psychosocial assistance to those struggling to overcome the trauma that they have escaped, and who are living in Israel without status or access to basic human rights. The consultants themselves are seeking asylum in Israel.
And Mutasim? In gaining refugee status, he has become a symbol of hope for Israel’s asylum seeking community. After experiencing the decimation of his home village in Darfur, being imprisoned and tortured, fleeing to Israel, enduring imprisonment, and struggling to gain status there, Mutasim is now studying international law and is an articulate and passionate voice for his community—a testament to how every drop in the bucket makes a difference.
We have never been a community that turns away from suffering. And throughout our 30 years of work and challenges in Israel, we have faced those issues together as Canadians committed to equality in Israel, and as Israelis who know that equality can be a tangible reality.
NIFC is proud to host Mutasim in Toronto for our seventh annual Shira Herzog Symposium on September 10. I hope you’ll join us.
Interim Executive Director
New Israel Fund of Canada