Three Interviews With Israel's Smallest Minority - Refugees

Israel has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the West. To mark World Refugee Day, Haaretz spoke with three lucky enough to be given refugee status.

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Migrants protest in Tel Aviv, demanding recognition as asylum seekers, January 9, 2014.
Migrants protest in Tel Aviv, demanding recognition as asylum seekers, January 9, 2014. Credit: Moti Milrod
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

Israel has one of the lowest rates of refugee recognition in the world, even though it is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - the key international legal document governing who is a refugee, what are their rights and states’ obligations toward them. Between July 2009 and August 2013, Israel approved 26 asylum applications out of a total of 17,194, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants – a recognition rate of 0.15 percent. This is the lowest rate among Western countries, the organization says. According to a 2013 Knesset report, Israel recognized 202 people as refugees by the end of 2012, dozens of whom have since left to start a new life or join family elsewhere.

Today, 92 percent of Israel’s some 50,000 asylum seekers are from Sudan and Eritrea, according to government figures. Most came to Israel after 2007. Some 2,400 Sudanese and Eritreans are currently in the Holot detention facility, which the state opened in December, and where migrants can be sent for an undetermined period of time under an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration law, and others are held at Saharonim prison in southern Israel. The government is also promoting the “voluntary departure” of African asylum seekers, and some 4,000 have reportedly left the country since December. Israel's treatment of Eritreans and Sudanese, and its asylum-seeker policy in general, have come under fire from human rights groups and African asylum seekers themselves. A recent State Comptroller's report also slammed state policy.

To mark World Refugee Day on Friday, Haaretz spoke to three African refugees about their journey to Israel, and what it has been like to go through the asylum process.

1. Leaving home: Moussa

Moussa Abdoulaye, 33, is from the Central African Republic, a country that has seen little stability since gaining independence from France in 1960, and where fighting has been raging since the ouster of ex-President François Bozizé in 2013. Abdoulaye fled in 2007, first to Chad, then Sudan and then Egypt. He arrived in Israel in 2008, and was granted refugee status in 2010. With the current crisis in CAR all his family have fled, and some have died. He lives and works in the primarily ultra-Orthodox city Bnei Brak, and is vice-chairman of the board of the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv.

Where do Israel's refugees come from?

Why did you leave your country?

“When I finished school in 2006, a period of unrest in my country, I started my own business. I had a coffee shop and a store where I sold different things. At the time, the rebels controlled that area – my city is called Bocaranga. The rebels used to buy everything from my store. They were my customers. So when the government forces took back control of the area, after a few days they came with a list of people they heard were cooperating with the rebels. They said that I was helping them. They arrested me and I was tortured, and from there I escaped.”

Could you tell your family you were going?

“I couldn’t talk to anyone until I got to Egypt. They thought I was dead, and were surprised to hear where I was. After I left, most of my family went to Cameroon, and I went to meet them there in 2010. It was really nice to see them, but everyone was crying. Many of my relatives, even my brothers, have been killed. There have been so many troubles in my country, and the worst is happening now.”

Do you feel at home in Israel?

Moussa Abdoulaye (Tomer Appelbaum)

“Of course not. This is not my home, although I thank the country that has given me protection and given me back my dignity. I’m trying to get admitted to university. We are missing so many things in my country, and anything I could learn – law, psychology or other things – could be helpful there. I have to go back. I cannot keep running all my life, being a refugee and seeking protection.”

2. Getting recognition: Hunde

Hunde Ferede, 31, is an Ethiopian from the Oromo people – the country’s largest ethnic group. He fled Ethiopia with his wife aged 23 after he was imprisoned for involvement in opposition activities. His father was jailed when he fled the country, and is still in jail. After two years in Sudan, he travelled to Israel via Egypt, arriving in 2008, and applied for asylum that year. Although the United Nations recommended his case for approval in 2009, he was only recognized as a refugee this year, getting his papers in April. Beofre he had legal status in Israel he was imprisoned twice, including when his asylum request was still being processed, and spent a total of one year and four months in Israeli prisons. He lives with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in Tel Aviv.

Hunde Ferede (Moti Milrod)

How did you feel when you found out your application for asylum had been approved, after a six-year wait?

“Happy, really. I was very tired. Tired of interviews. Tired of prison. I was very happy when my lawyer told me that the Ministry of Interior had decided to accept me as a refugee.”

Did you believe it would happen after such a long time?

“I didn’t lose hope but I was waiting for the final decision, I was waiting to either win or lose. I was saying to myself ‘I need to be patient,’ but patience has limits. I was tired really, I was waiting, waiting, waiting. I didn’t lose hope, but I didn’t believe I would win, either.”

What did you hear about Israel before you came here?

“I heard very good news: They will accept you and treat you very normally. You can study if you want. You can work freely and they will give you papers. When I came here, I found that everything was upside down. What I heard from people was only talk in the end. I see two different kinds of people in this country. Some, a few, like refugees, they treat them well, sometimes bringing them food and clothes. There are good people I saw. But there are also many people who don’t like us, and some even use violence. I haven’t been beaten up, but I heard about that in this area [south Tel Aviv].”

Now that you have refugee status, what are your plans?

“My plan is only to live normally. Working, living – that’s my plan. It depends also on my rights, on what I am entitled to do here. Maybe I will study something technical, like computer science or mechanics. That is what I like, and if I get the opportunity, I will try to do that.”

3. A life in Israel: Patrick

Patrick Kapuya Tsiuma, 37, came to Israel in 2003 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country at the center of “Africa’s world war,” which lasted five years and involved various armed groups and nine African nations. In Israel he joined his mother, who left two years before him, after the government shut down her human rights organization, where he also worked. He received refugee status in 2004. In 2006, his four siblings joined them, but his father decided to stay in DRC. He is married to Gina, a Malagasy woman, and they live in Tel Aviv with their three children. He is a computer programmer, but now works in online advertising.

Patrick Kapuya Tsiuma (Tomer Appelbaum)

What was it like for you in Israel at first?

“My first job was in a restaurant. I came from a middle-class family and was not made to wash dishes, you know? It was a shock for me. In the first two weeks I told my mother I wanted to go home. She said, ‘You’ll get used to it. I brought you here for a second chance.’ So I stayed and had all kinds of jobs – I worked in a restaurant, I swept the streets, I worked in a garbage company, cleaning. My life was 100 miles from my life in DRC. I come from an educated family, I need to participate in the life of the country, or the city, or the neighborhood. It is difficult when you go nowhere and your voice is not heard.”

What is the biggest difference between Israel and DRC?

“In Israel people live as individuals. In DRC you live with your neighbors, friends and family. Your neighbor’s mother is your mother. Your neighbor’s uncle is your uncle. You always have people around you. I knew almost everybody in the neighborhood I grew up in, so when I came to Israel and I was alone with my mom it was hard.”

What do you think about Israeli attitudes toward African asylum seekers, particularly the recent anti-African asylum-seeker rhetoric?

“Africans are human beings. A lot of young Africans who come here have projects and plans. If you ask an African child ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ they will never tell you ‘I want to clean houses in Israel.’ They will tell you ‘I want to be a doctor,’ or ‘I want to be an engineer.’ Those dreams are still here, and you have to give these people opportunities. There are bad guys [among the African asylum seekers], but the justice system is there to deal with them. You cannot take tens of thousands of people and say, ‘They are Africans, they are rapists and thieves.’ These allegations don’t make sense, and they conjure up bad memories of segregation in America and Apartheid in South Africa.”

Click here for more of Alona Ferber's World Refugee Day coverage.

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