Fugee Fridays is a volunteer humanitarian initiative, founded in 2008 in response to the acute distress of the growing community of African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv. Our purpose is to help address this community’s immediate needs while nurturing their independence, raising awareness of their plight, fostering positive cultural exchange between Israelis and Africans living in Israel and empowering both the refugee community and our volunteers. We organize a number of projects for the benefit of the African community, including food collection from the Carmel Market, language classes, children’s activities and a growing list of community development projects. Everything we do is guided by our belief in simple, elegant problem-solving which connects urgent needs with available and sustainable solutions. We hope that, by setting a personal example, we can inspire others to create similar social action projects that benefit their communities.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Left to fend for themselves

By Danny Gold

“I found her Saturday night, 8 months pregnant and sleeping in the park,” Yotam Sheffy tells me. The woman, an Eritrean refugee, had spent three nights in the park after the prison authorities released her from Ketziot Prison without notifying any of the various organizations assisting the refugee population. She is the newest addition to a cramped shelter run by the organization Yotam works for, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC).

There is no hint of emotion in his voice as he tells me this, no exasperated sigh or sadness to betray his stoic demeanor. After more than a year of working for the ARDC, the sight of helpless African refugees left to fend for themselves in the streets of south Tel Aviv has grown all too familiar for him.

I have spent the past two months investigating the refugee crisis, interviewing volunteers, officials, NGO workers and the refugees themselves for a documentary film. Most of that time has been spent tagging along with Yotam and another ARDC volunteer, Omri Ovnat, at a shelter for Eritrean and Sudanese families in a dilapidated corner of Shapira, a distressed neighborhood in south Tel Aviv.

It is hard for me to overstate the extraordinary work that Omri and Yotam do on a daily basis. Only 21 and 26 years old, respectively, both have undertaken a tremendous amount of responsibility and, more often than not, serve as the only connection many of the refugees have to social services.

Their work goes beyond taking care of immediate needs – they are taking people who have experienced significant trauma and have been left on the street in a strange city with nothing but the clothes on their back, and making sure they gain access to healthcare, education, employment, food and shelter. In short, they are rebuilding lives.

I’ve watched them handle crisis after crisis, helping refugees deal with everything from imprisonment and homelessness to hospital visits, employment opportunities and making sure the children at the shelter are allowed to attend schools. They are tireless in their efforts, frequently running back and forth from meetings to shelters to Levinksy Park to check up on recent arrivals, many of whom have been carelessly left there with nothing. One need only spend a few minutes at the shelter and see the way they interact with the children and their mothers to see the impact of their work. Recently, a young woman who gave birth named her baby after Yotam.

Despite their best efforts, however, the ARDC and the other NGO’s dealing with the African refugee crisis are operating in perpetual crisis mode. Pressed for space, lacking funds, and undermanned, they deal with constantly changing dilemmas, a lack of clear policies, and a purposeful lack of assistance from the government. As the number of refugees steadily increases, and resources and budgets become more stressed, the members of the ARDC will have no choice but to leave a significant amount of refugees to fend for themselves on the streets of South Tel-Aviv. Unless the government acts soon, the problems Omri and Yotam face will grow exponentially.

Daniel Gold is an aspiring filmmaker and writer currently living in New York. He spent 10 weeks this past fall investigating the African refugee crisis. He can be reached at gold.dannyg@gmail.com

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