In Israel, Ethiopian refugee helps others
Yohannes Lemma Bayu provides practical aid for what the government recently called a 'tsunami' of African asylum seekers
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Darfurians, facing what the US has labeled as genocide, enjoy special treatment, as do tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted into Israel and welcomed as new citizens. But other migrants face Israeli fears that they will find low-paying jobs that lower Israelis' pay or opportunities for employment. There's also a concern that, along with hundreds of thousands of foreign workers already living in the country, the migrants will change Israel's Jewish character.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is a relatively new problem for Israel to deal with," he says. "It's very difficult for an untrained Israeli to make the distinction between a bona fide refugee and an economic migrant. We've got to work to make that distinction. People from Darfur have a special status, deservedly so, but not every illegal economic immigrant from Africa can hitch a ride on that status."
Meanwhile, the migrants already in Israel struggle to negotiate daily life. In ARDC's cramped Tel Aviv shelters, they pepper Bayu, known here as Johnny, with questions on getting kids into schools, recovering salaries from rogue employers, and avoiding another round of police raids.
Bayu opened up the first shelter about nine months ago to avert homelessness. Within a week the number of residents tripled from 30 to 100. With some help from the Tel Aviv municipality and human rights groups, Bayu rented out more spaces, with as many as 1,000 tenants.
The main shelter is located in a former prostitute den next to Tel Aviv's dilapidated central bus station. The living conditions are cramped, dark, and grimy, with some 300 people spread over three floors (not including mattresses on stairway landings). Some sleep in the hallways, while small rooms house six bunk beds. Cardboard boxes with donated clothes lie strewn about.
ARDC's project coordinator, Alice Nägele, is helping Bayu scout out a better place. She says Israel lacks laws governing the status of asylum seekers and a procedure for absorbing them while their requests are handled.
After the Israel branch of Physicians for Human Rights closed down a migrant workers clinic saying it couldn't handle the demand last week, a parliamentary committee on migrants called on the government to allocate $12 million for healthcare for the asylum seekers.
Giving the migrants working permits, Bayu says, would allow them to take care of themselves rather than rely on public assistance. In addition to helping refugees navigate Israeli society, he also wants them to become an active part of it. The shelter bulletin boards contain information about medical care, current-events discussions, and Hebrew classes, and Bayu wants the refugees to volunteer with the elderly during the upcoming Jewish holidays.
"We can contribute to the country," he says. "If the government does its part, we'll do ours."