Repairing the Brokenness - Michal Schendar '06

Over the past few years I have been serving as youth coordinator for ASSAF, an aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. The organization works to promote the rights of asylum seekers in their encounters with state authorities. This includes providing psychosocial aid for women, men, youth and children who face a daily struggle to cope with the traumatic experiences they have escaped, and yet enjoy no status or access to basic means of living or social services. There are currently around 41,500 asylum seekers in Israel, mainly from Eritrea or Sudan, who are currently protected from deportation under “group protection”. This means that Israel refrains from deporting them, yet also denies them social rights and work permits, jailing them by the thousands in detention facilities solely for having dared to seek asylum in the Jewish State. This is part of a systematic official policy aimed – as stated by former Interior Minister Eli Yishai – at making their lives miserable in order to force them to leave.

This is the reality faced by the sixty-odd youths I work with, who come to the ASSAF youth clubhouse twice a week to enjoy an island of stability in the face of all the madness outside. Along with the natural difficulties faced by all adolescents, these youths face a life of exclusion, with no status and no clear future. They are always in danger of being imprisoned or deported, all the while remaining in the shadow of their forced emigration, their loss and the traumas they have experienced. The clubhouse is first and foremost a place to feel safe and supported, one where they can just be themselves and speak their minds. And yet it is hard to be yourself when you receive mixed messages about your identity. It is difficult to believe in the future when you have a summons to “Holot” waiting for you after high school. It is hard to love and feel a part of something when you are branded an “infiltrator” or a “cancer”. And it is hard to set your sights high when society teaches you that even if you ace all your exams, you are still more than likely to end up as a dish washer.

In my nature I am not much of an optimist, so “fixing things” is not something I find easy to discuss; indeed, I am doubtful whether these things can be fixed. And yet as long as things are most definitely broken, I refuse to stand idly by, to give up or surrender to despair. To me this is a vital message, and I believe this is true for the youths I work with as well – that even if there are no magical solutions or certainties, there are options other than giving up to despair. And so, any action – no matter how small – is significant. At the clubhouse, trying to fix things means group dinners, enlightening political debates, a young girl who asks for help or a young boy who feels safe and loved enough to express his anger and frustration.

And if we are really thinking of fixing things, then I sincerely hope that one day - in addition to basic rights and clear status for asylum seekers in Israel – our society will view immigration (not Aliya, immigration), whether forced or voluntary, as a gift rather than a threat. I hope that refugees will be accepted as people who have the right to fulfill themselves, to find love, to learn and advance in life – rather than be cast as uniform shadow-people who are expected to be grateful for receiving shelter and food.

 

I don’t know what this clubhouse will fix, and I don’t know whether ASSAF will be able to reverse the government’s policy toward refugees. But I am happy that we are trying, and I feel privileged to have learned about differences, acceptance, refugees and love – all from the sixty youths I work with. They are, as far as I am concerned, nothing but a gift to society.

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