Israel’s Silent Refugee Crisis

Today, nearly 60 million peoples have been forced to leave their homes as a result of conflict and disaster. This is the largest number of displaced persons in the history of mankind. Israel, like many other countries in the world, struggles to manage the influx of the displaced. In the past 5 years, over 50,000 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, migrant workers, and asylum seekers have entered Israel seeking asylum from conflict. As the country struggles to accommodate these people, public and political opinion has become increasingly divided on the subject.

Since my arrival to Israel in 2013, I have seen and experienced this firsthand as a teacher with the nonprofit organization The Schoolhouse: Adult Education for Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrant Populations. The Schoolhouse offers a unique model for promoting adult education, skills and personal development specifically for the refugee and migrant population. This organization offers not only education, but a special community of those who wish to learn and improve. When I started teaching computer classes, many of my students had never touched a computer before. Now, I teach a digital media computer course once a week, at their request, after years of progress.

Today, two of my students, Asmerom and Adam revealed that they were summoned to join some 2,000 other refugees who are being arbitrarily detained in the Holot Detention Center.

Holot was built in the desolate Negev desert of Israel, an hour away from the nearest town, and designed to hold up to 3,360 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers. The facility is managed by the Israeli Prison System, and many are calling it an “Open Prison”: inmates are allowed to keep a few personal items and sign out for a few hours at a time but must adhere to a strict check in policy, are unable to work, and have no release date. Essentially, they are in limbo until further notice. Holot is also known for poor living conditions, inadequate health care, bare minimum amounts of food, and one room with one toilet for every 10 people. Scare tactics are used inside, meant to make the inmates miserable and convince them to voluntarily return to their countries.

Needless to say, Holot is highly contested by Israeli human rights organizations. Israel is a country founded by refugees and many are horrified at the actions of those who established Holot. In August 2015, after facing much pressure from legal rights groups, the Supreme Court of Israel reduced maximum detention sentences from 20 months to 12 months. However, while this allowed for the release of 1,200 detainees, the release simply meant that new space was made for more refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers who had not previously been detained.

My students at The Schoolhouse have come to Israel for a variety of reasons. Some are fleeing violent military conflict in their home countries and may have experienced torture, imprisonment, and trauma. Others are fleeing economic oppression and poverty. Life in Israel is not ideal for my students, but it offers a temporary solution until their homeland is safe enough to return.

However, hardship is not something that we focus on during our classes. The Schoolhouse provides a safe space where these stateless people can forget about their hardships and develop their practical skills. For Asmerom and Adam, these lessons provide opportunities for economic advancement and growing their skill sets— and an opportunity to move forward despite past experiences.

Working with these students, I’ve learned that Asmerom and Adam are not just refugees or asylum seekers. They are not just Eritrean or Sudanese. They are not “infiltrators,” as many Israelis want to believe.

These young men are an inspiration. They are motivated, they are hungry for knowledge. They are hard workers, they are disciplined, respectful, kind and thoughtful. They are sweet, and polite. They always smile, say hello, shake my hand, and ask how I am doing. They tell me each week how excited they are to learn. They are no older than I am, but much wiser. They are model citizens, people who are eager to learn and be productive members of society.

They are not delinquents. They are not criminals. They do not belong in prison.

I have known them for over two years. They were my first batch of students, new to the classroom at the same time that I was. They returned each week, semester after semester. They called me teacher, but more often than not they were the teachers. They taught me so much in our very short time together. The fact that these kind young men have had their lives, their youth, their education hijacked from them by a failed system, is a moral outrage.

That this is how people are treated when they have the courage, strength, and resources to eject themselves from a bad situation, in hopes of a better life, is absolutely shocking.

“How do you feel,” I ask them feebly. What can you really say to someone who is about to pack up his entire life within a week to head over to a tin prison just at the beginning of winter? Asmerom shakes his head with a smile and says, “Oh, well you know — I think that us Eritreans will have an easier time because we were already in prison before [in Eritrea]. But that was 4 years ago, and you know, as humans, we adapt. And now it will be harder to go back to the prison life after living [with freedoms] like this.”

Asmerom, originally from Eritrea, receiving a certificate upon completion of a computer course in December of last year. Now he is incarcerated in the Holot open prison.

Asmerom, originally from Eritrea, receiving a certificate upon completion of a computer course in December of last year. Now he is incarcerated in the Holot open prison.

What can we do? The refugee situation has become a global crisis, only now being highlighted by the mainstream media. People all over the world are calling for governments to shut out refugees. People are calling to send them back to where they came from, to ignore them, to let someone else “deal with them.”

We cannot ignore humans in need. We cannot dump them on someone else, and we can not treat them as a “problem” that must be solved by someone else.

We must immerse ourselves in their humanity. We must listen to their personal narratives. We must read their stories. We must hear their pleas for safety and acknowledge their pain. We must continue to become educated, and educate others. We must use our power and influence to influence others.

We must write, and we must share these stories.

*Due to the amount of Schoolhouse students who have been summoned to Holot, and the incredible will to continue their education, former students began to teach English to their fellow inmates. At this time, courses have been established at Holot with the help of Nitzana Youth Village, UNHCR and the Student Education Committee at Holot. Read about these courses here.


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