TEL AVIV — Lilah Jaffee came to Israel for some hands-on humanitarian experience and found it as a volunteer at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC).
”When I came to Israel, I didn’t even know there was an African refugee problem. I thought I’d be helping asylum seekers get refugee status, but that’s not the case,” Jaffee told The CJN. “What I thought I was getting into and what I do are completely different. But this has been the most amazing internship for me.”
Jaffee, 25, who has an MA in international affairs from Carleton University, is in Tel Aviv on MASA’s Career Israel program. The initiative offers young people from around the world the opportunity to enrol in an internship in Israel.
The ARDC is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by refugees and Israeli citizens to assist and support refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. There are approximately 60,000 African migrants in Israel.
When Jaffee started her four-month internship, she was working to help refugees leave Israel and resettle in Canada or Australia on the basis of humanitarian sponsorship.
Not all the Africans she has met, she said, are interested in staying in Israel. Many see Tel Aviv as a way station to better promised lands.
“But midway through my internship, we realized that Australia hadn’t accepted anyone and Canada had only accepted seven people from Israel. It seemed like all our work was not paying off,” she said.
Now, she is trying to help asylum seekers reunite with their families in Europe or North America. She said one case she was working on involves a man from Sudan who says his wife was resettled by the United Nations in the United States.
“The stories we hear are how they feel unwanted, that they feel they deserve rights that they aren’t getting. Overall, there’s a lot of anger and frustration and disappointment at how their lives have turned out. It’s hard not to sympathize with them,” Jaffee said.
And though she could have stayed in Canada to work with refugees, Jaffee says she chose to come to Israel because her Birthright trip here in 2008 left her wanting to return.
So, she signed up to intern at the ARDC. The centre’s office is located in Tel Aviv’s Old Bus Station, at the heart of the migrant workers’ community.
Jaffee’s internship has afforded her a taste of both Tel Avivs – that of the migrants and that of other residents. A 20-minute bus ride from the ARDC office takes Jaffee to her rented apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, which is a walk away from the beach, bars, theatres, designer stores, cafés and restaurants.
“I love Tel Aviv. I think it’s one of my favourite cities,” she said. “I live right in the middle of everything.”
And while she is quick to praise Israel for its outgoing lifestyle, when she returns to the offices of ARDC, she is equally as swift to object to Israel’s course of action toward the African migrants.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently ordered his ministers to accelerate efforts to deport citizens of South Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Ethiopia who are living in Israel illegally. He said that while it’s not possible to expel refugees whose lives would be at risk in their home countries, holding facilities for them must be built in the Negev as quickly as possible.
“Israel is not doing a good job. No country has had a perfect record for dealing with refugees, but Israel needs to do better. It needs to figure out a policy,” said Jaffee, who hopes to continue working with refugees upon her return to Canada.
Asked about Canada’s infamous “none is too many” policy during World War II, Europe’s tendency to turn away African boat people before they even touch land and the Egyptians shooting migrants along their border, Jaffee said that the Israel Defence Forces has been “really receptive and good to them. I think there is a magnifying glass on Israel. But still Israel needs to do better.”