From Asylum-seeker to Community Leader

As racial tensions mount, Ethiopian refugee Yohannes Bayu warns of a dangerous anti-African sentiment in Israel, and stresses the need for a constructive solution.

Tucked away in Tel Aviv's central bus station, the offices of the African Refugee Development Center are difficult to find. This is partly because of the bus station's labyrinthine design, acknowledges the organization's founder, Yohannes Bayu. But it is also because the center prefers to keep a low profile - in order to protect itself.

The organization, founded in 2004, "to protect and empower refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel," has faced antagonism in the past for aiding African refugees. It has even had difficulty renting office space, because landlords don't want trouble.

These sentiments appear to be part of a larger trend - one that Bayu says the Israeli public was violently reminded of last week following an apparent attack against asylum-seekers in south Tel Aviv, home to some 40,000 labor migrants and over 20,000 asylum-seekers, according to city officials. On Thursday, a coordinated firebomb attack was carried out against a kindergarten and two apartments used by African refugees and asylum-seekers in south Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood. Clashes between anti-racism protesters and local residents erupted the following day.

Bayu - a native of Ethiopia who sought asylum in Israel 15 years ago and was granted refugee status only five years later after staging a 23-day hunger strike - says he was shocked last week by the violence. Yet he notes that he is aware of similar, smaller-scale incidents that have taken place in the recent past.

The African Refugee Development Center's shelter in the Shapira neighborhood, south Tel Aviv.
Tamir Ben Kalifa

"Refugees have been attacked in the streets. A burning tire was thrown in the house of a refugee," says Bayu, who describes the current situation as "dangerous."

"This attack will not be the last," he says. "I am afraid that worse will happen in the area."

Yohannes Bayu, founder of the African Refugee Development Center.

Lack of security in the Shapira neighborhood is a concern for the organization, which runs two shelters housing between 35 and 50 women and children at a time, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea. There are currently no security guards or cameras in place, and staff is only stationed on site through late evening. The organization does not have the budget for 24-hour security, says Bayu.

He acknowledges accusations voiced by some residents after the attack, who assert that their African neighbors engage in theft and rape.

One Shapira resident, 24-year-old Ovadia Sasson, was quoted in Haaretz last week as saying, "You have to understand that these refugees sit in our streets, raping and robbing, and no one writes about that, or takes to the streets over it."

Bayu responds that these are "extremely exaggerated and absurd" allegations.

"It is not a problematic community," concurs Michal Zimry, a social worker with the African Refugee Development Center. "It is a big community, which is poor and in need. In every large community, there are problematic people," she says, also agreeing that "hatred of foreigners" is growing.

Zimry, who has worked for three years at the center's two shelters, says that while close neighbors are for the most part tolerant, both shelter residents and staff have faced abuse from Israelis in the greater neighborhood. On the day she spoke with Anglo File, Zimry said, a local Israeli woman who looked to be in her 50s shouted at children from the shelter, who were playing with volunteers in a local park, to "go back to their countries."

Bayu claims it is the attitude of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government that is "advocating hatred" of African asylum-seekers, and that the situation "changed dramatically" when Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted citizenship to hundreds of Darfurian refugees in 2007, "There was a positive media message, and it was accepted very well by society," says Bayu. "What you see in the street is the result of the government placing refugees as a burden on society," he asserts.

Galia Sabar, chairwoman of the Africa Studies department at Tel Aviv University, agrees. "They are a great scapegoat," Sabar says, adding that local animosity has grown out of the fact that "Israelis in Shapira and Hatikvah [neighborhoods] were from the start poorer and more deprived."

"But that had nothing to do with Africans," she contends. "It was there years prior to that."

With 20 years of experience in issues of African immigration, she says this is the first time she has heard xenophobic sentiments voiced so loudly in Israel.

"It was quieter, on the margins, but now we hear it loud and clear," she says, adding, "To put all the problems of Israel on some 50,000 or 100,000 asylum-seekers is really ridiculous.

"When you hear some of the declarations by Netanyahu himself, and especially some right-wing politicians from Shas and other parties, there is a strong basis for what Yohannes [Bayu] is saying," says Sabar.

The Tel Aviv municipality also has been expressing similar sentiments, she says, a result of Mayor Ron Huldai's apparent perception that he has little support in handling "complex challenges posed by the influx of asylum-seekers." The government is unfairly diverting attention toward this vulnerable group, she says.

Chairman of the African Workers Union, Nigeria native Fred Ehioghae sought asylum 17 years ago. He says the current wave of accusations against Africans in Israel started only a few years ago, with the influx of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers and migrants in 2007 and 2008. "When I first came here there were no accusations," he says, adding, "We are all African, but the Sudanese and Eritreans do not listen to us. These accusations affect all Africans."

Bayu, on the other hand, insists the solution lies not in singling out certain nationalities, but in cooperation among Africans living in Israel to lobby the government to find a solution. He also advocates for dialogue with local residents in neighborhoods where asylum-seekers and labor migrants live.

"I understand the anger around the neighborhood, but they are victimizing the victims," he says. "The refugees are ready for dialogue."