Israel's African Refugees and Their Fight for Acceptance

'Open Houses' campaign enables Israelis to see the human face of a community that wide swathes of the public, egged on by politicians, currently view as 'infiltrators.'

The city of Eilat is colored red, part of the "protecting our home" campaign spearheaded by its mayor, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, assisted by public relations professional Motti Morel. Some 1,500 red flags are flying around the town.

Halevi explained that "red symbolizes a warning against the future conquest of Eilat by infiltrators." And he added, "I want anyone who rents his house to infiltrators to feel uncomfortable when he looks at his neighbors and sees the red flags, which express collective solidarity with this struggle."

Sudanese refugees
Olivier Fitoussi

The city has allocated public funds to support the campaign. Stickers declaring "I, too, protect our home" have been distributed, billboards have been posted around the town, and flyers have been put in residents' mailboxes. "A community of refugees has started to form here," the mayor warned at a press conference.

But what is really known about the community of refugees that is taking shape within the Israeli reality? What is known about their identity? About their culture?

In response to the wave of fear, hatred and racism that has recently been directed against the refugee population, Hotline for Migrant Workers has launched an "open houses" campaign. Its goal is to resist the unbridled incitement. Refugees invite Israelis to their homes to hear the refugees' stories and get a sense of their culture.

The campaign also offers tours of various sites that reveal aspects of the refugees' cultures: a trip to the Levinsky Park library for Israel's foreign communities, which facilitates encounters and exchanges of books; a stroll around Levinsky Park, which serves as an asylum for refugees in Israel; attendance at a mass in a church located in Tel Aviv's old central bus station; meetings with groups of young people like those in the "Darfur Star Band," who are determined to preserve the Darfuri musical culture; and hospitality at houses where members of the refugee community live.

The highlights of these tours are members of the refugee community themselves, whose personal stories provide a unique glimpse of the daily experiences and difficulties they face, as well as stories of successful integration. There is, for instance, Nadek Michael, 28, who operates a prosperous hairdressing salon with her husband, and also Ahmed Babkur, a refugee from Darfur, whose studies were cut short by the unrest and violence in his home country, yet who is now struggling to resume his education while working at a hotel in Tel Aviv.

This campaign will enable the refugees to make their voices heard directly by the Israeli public, instead of only through a media, political and public discourse that in the worst case relates to them in a racist, stereotypical manner and in the best case in a patronizing one, as passive victims rather than as people with their own dreams, desires and aspirations.

People who take part in these tours will gain an understanding of the refugees' strength of spirit, as well as of the trauma of war in their home countries. Participants will also see the historical connection that, as refugees, they feel with Israel and the Jewish people, as well as their knowledge of our culture and language.

The "open houses" campaign will paint a complex picture of identity and fate. This is a laudable project which enables Israelis to see the human face of a community that wide swathes of the public, egged on by politicians, currently view as "infiltrators."

Much of the public views the refugees as strangers and is happy for them to remain as such: people with no name, status, identity or culture. "Open houses" enables these two populations to open up to one another, create a personal dialogue and break down barriers - a moment before the blue and white flag turns red.