He employs a staff of 12 Israelis, is the son of a high-ranking government official and wears brand-name sweaters. Meet Yohannes Bayu, refugee.
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“I’m one of the lucky ones,” says the Jerusalem resident, who is one of an estimated 170 people who have, in the course of six decades, been officially recognized by Israel as refugees.
A Christian from Ethiopia, Bayu, 39, came to Israel after fleeing his native land in 1997, long before thousands of other Africans began walking across the Egyptian desert to make their way to the Jewish state.
In contrast, Bayu’s flight was more direct – he arrived via economy class and entered the country not by clambering over a border fence, but with a tourist visa.
“I could have gone anywhere in the world,” says Bayu, whose job at an NGO in Addis Ababa allowed him to travel to many countries. “But I decided there was nowhere else for me but Israel. In high school I learned how Israel had taken in many refugees after the Holocaust, so I assumed that a country with that kind of experience would be especially sensitive to refugees.”
Bayu’s transition from a privileged member of the Ethiopian elite to a refugee fleeing for his life began in 1991 with the overthrow of the Mengistu government. His father, a high-ranking official in the toppled government, fled to Kenya. A few nights later, Bayu, his mother and older brother were roused in the middle of the night by soldiers who took over their house and forced them, at gunpoint, into the street. “We left with just the clothes we were wearing,” Bayu says. Over the next few years, he was continually harassed. “Once they sent me to prison where I was tortured and beaten for 10 days,” he recalls. “People were being killed, detained or just disappearing. I knew that if I stayed I would not remain alive.”
That’s when Bayu, who had carefully read the 1951 UN convention on refugees, chose to come to Israel, convinced that the Jewish state would offer a warm welcome to refugees like him. He arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport in November 1997, and applied for political asylum at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office the same day.
Four years later, Bayu found himself working as a night guard at a construction site in Jerusalem, still waiting for an answer. He wasn't even eligible for health insurance. "I felt all alone in the world – I couldn't even see a doctor," he says. The stalemate lasted until 2002, when he finally received a letter from the UNHCR recognizing him as a refugee. “It was one of the happiest moments I had in Israel,” he says with a smile. With that document, Bayu marched triumphantly to the Israeli Ministry of Interior the next day to request a residency permit based on his new status. He was met with a shrug, and sent on repeated shuttles between offices, until a year passed and nothing had changed. After so much hope, he says, "I felt devastated."
Only after he and 15 other African refugees in the same position launched a hunger strike in Jerusalem – in front of the UNHCR office and the nearby Prime Minister’s Office – did anything happen. “It took 23 days without eating – and a High Court petition,” says Bayu, “but the government finally agreed to grant us (temporary) residency permits.
“It was during the hunger strike that I decided that some day I would form an organization for refugees so that others would not have to go through what I went through," says Bayu, sitting in the Tel Aviv office of the African Refugee Development Center, which he founded in 2004 and which now employs a staff of 12 Israelis as well as numerous volunteers. The organization, funded by donations from individuals and various bodies including the Tel Aviv municipality and the U.S. Embassy in Israel, tries to ensure access to basic social services for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. Among other things, it runs the only shelter for African migrants in the country.
Bayu says he now understands Israeli ambivalence toward refugees. “The only refugees they know are Palestinian ones, and that’s a taboo subject that scares them,” Bayu says of Israelis. He also gets why Israelis are fearful about the large influx of Africans –over 60,000 now live in the country, the vast majority of them having fled persecution in Eritrea and Sudan. But he says that Israel would be better off treating them humanely rather than ignoring or demonizing them. “Dumping people in the streets of Tel Aviv with no assistance does not help the refugees or the broader public,” he argues.
Today, after 15 years in Israel, Bayu has found a professional and personal niche – he lives in Jerusalem with his partner, a woman from Lichtenstein. But life here is still not easy for him. “My brother in the United States is very well off, comfortable and accepted there,” he sighs, sounding for a minute like those disgruntled Israelis envious of their rich uncles in America. Like them, Bayu has his gripes, but isn’t packing his bags. “I feel like what I do here is important,” he says, adding one caveat that distinguishes him from those other Israelis. “I can’t imagine relocating again unless it is to go home – to Ethiopia.”