Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From MSNBC's "WorldBlog"

African refugees try to 'preserve life itself'
Posted: Saturday, December 19, 2009 10:52 AM
Filed Under: Tel Aviv, Israel
By Martin Fletcher, NBC News Correspondent

TEL AVIV – You read about African refugees all the time in newspaper headlines: students jailed in Eritrea, maimed in Somalia, beaten in Sudan, but who pays attention? It’s so far away.

They pop up again in news reports along the route – rotting for years in refugee camps from which they finally escape, seeking work in Egypt where they are attacked, crossing the Sinai desert where Bedouin abuse the men and rape the girls. Some die at the very last moment, shot dead by Egyptian soldiers on Israel’s border. And finally the young survivors reach their last hope for refuge, the end of the line: the Holy Land.

Israel would throw them out, if it could. But thanks to the law and social pressure, around 20,000 Africans, mostly young men aged between 20 and 30, get a last chance when they arrive here.

And slowly life is improving for them. They’ve moved on from a 150 jammed into one large room in south Tel Aviv to 10 in a small room, living off charity and odd jobs. Individuals help them and aid groups try to provide legal advice and teach them English, Hebrew and math.

Now six of them are back in the news, and this time they do get my attention. Zumharat, Ephraim and Yakilu from Eritrea, Muhalidin and Adam from Sudan, Daher from Somalia, were recently profiled in a story for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and could be seen forcing a smile for a photographer. Somehow they are putting themselves through college at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a private Israeli university.

Zumharat got his chance while cleaning table at IDC’s cafeteria. "A business lecturer sat down for coffee," he said, "and asked me why I was working instead of studying." That brief encounter with a sympathetic man made Zumharat take stock: why indeed?

He registered to study communications. The school pays half his tuition, and he works 12 hours a day to pay the rest, as well as rent, food and transport. It was the same for all of the students – evenings and nights cleaning houses, sweeping floors, washing dishes and days studying. I thought to myself, it’s all I can do to get my son to tidy his bedroom.

"We hate being dependent on other people," Ephraim said. "We came here because of genocide, or political instability, or to escape a totalitarian regime. We didn’t come here in search of a better life, but to preserve life itself."

Today two of them are helped by Israelis who have pooled resources to pay their tuition. But otherwise, the rest of the group are on their own: survivors thirsting for education and a future, yearning for home, making the best of a lousy lot.

Each dreams of finding the scattered remnants of their families; each wants to return home as proud graduates and help rebuild his shattered nation.

Their horizon is limited to three months though, which is the length of their renewable visas. Israel, afraid that thousands more refugees will arrive, doesn’t want to encourage them.

But Israel shouldn’t worry, promises Muhalidin, we don’t want to stay: "Every one of us dreams of returning home," he said, smiling wanly. "Advanced education is one of the best things Israel can do for us. An education will give us the promise of a better future, it will give us hope."

They’re only six out of thousands. Their stories may inspire other refugees to try to go to school. Israel is still deciding whether to let them stay or not, but while they are here has decided to treat them decently.

And inadequate as it may seem, the little that Israel is doing for these young North Africans is much more than the North African countries through which they passed: they didn’t help at all.

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