There are tens of thousands of African refugees living in Israel, Muslims and Christians from countries such as South Sudan, Darfur and Eritrea. Most live in the Tel Aviv area, and others live and work in Arad, Eilat, Jerusalem and other towns. There are about 2,000 who live in the Jerusalem area.
These asylum seekers were forced to leave their homes and their countries due to persecution, civil wars, genocide and other horrors. Those who reach Israel face harsh realities: no regulated status, no work permits and limited access to vital health and welfare services, legal aid or housing. As a result, these people live in the worst conditions, work in the worst conditions, and, outside of Tel Aviv, until very recently, no one was helping them. Since the JICC’s mandate is to empower all Jerusalem groups – including asylum seekers – to work with service providers and resolve inter-cultural conflict, in 2013 the JICC decided to enter this arena. We, together with the Jerusalem Municipality, hired a part-time professional – by then the only worker dedicated to helping African asylum seekers outside the Tel Aviv area – to begin to respond to this community’s vast array of needs. Nowadays, there are more paid professionals in other cities as well, and the staff in Jerusalem has expanded.
Since the modest start, amazing strides have been made. A whole network of services – from health care, to education, to employment, to social and welfare rights – has been developed, together with a wide range of partners, from the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem African Community Center (JACC), the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI) and many more. All work in tandem with our coordinator and the Municipality, to help to improve the quality of life of African asylum seekers in Jerusalem.
Strides have been made in many areas:
The municipal hotline, which works together with the JICC, dealt with over 100 individual requests for assistance, some 20 of them that needed extended care.
We’ve been working with the Meuchedet Health Services, which provides health care to most of the asylum seekers in Jerusalem. This has included vaccination drives for children and translation of forms to Tigrinya (the language spoken by asylum seekers from Eritrea, the most populous group), and ongoing work with the help of our Cultural Competency desk. There has also been joint work with the local well-baby clinic.
We are part of an early childhood forum, which also includes the Jerusalem Education Authority (JEA), municipal welfare department, community representatives and other organizations, which seek to discuss the needs of the community and explore responses. We helped to translate school and kindergarten registration forms into Tigrinya, provided translation services during parent teacher conferences in the kindergartens. Together with the JEA, we held special registration days for public kindergartens with translators on hand, which included translating the registration forms, in the late afternoons and evenings, when the working parents were off work. Until now, registration was either via the municipality’s web site (which is in Hebrew only), or physically, at the municipality building, which is also in Hebrew. Some children were registered and did attend municipal frameworks, but there were too many incidents where young children were left alone while their parents were at work.
In addition, this past year dozens of children were given didactic evaluations, thanks to funding from the Jerusalem Foundation. The evaluations will enable the children to receive extra assistance, and help the teachers to integrate the children better into their classes.
- A parenting program operated by the municipal welfare department, targeting parents and children, aiming to strengthen parenting skills.
- The Transitions program, operated in cooperation with local NGO’s and municipal agencies, strives to ensure that the children are ready for first grade. In 2016 it was expanded to include children entering public kindergartens.
A number of initiatives aimed at integrating the community better into the general Jerusalem community. These programs are in cooperation with the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI) and the Lev Ha’Ir Community Council, which provides programming for all populations in the city center. Activities included:
- Meetings between Israelis and asylum seekers
- Story hour for Israelis as well as asylum seekers, featuring a story about about children of asylum seekers.