When Israelis hear that Sudanese asylum seeker Taj Haroun was a university student, he watches their demeanor towards him change. “Whenever I first approach someone, there’s the connotation that we are all criminals. But when you say, ‘I’m studying at Tel Aviv University,’ it changes the way they look at you,” said Haroun.
Haroun is the first director of the African Student Organization, a new support network for asylum seekers studying at Israeli universities that was launched last week. According to the organization’s count, there are 19 African asylum seekers studying at various institutions of higher learning in Israel, though the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya is the most popular because the language of instruction is English. Eleven of the African students are studying at the IDC in Herzliya (two students who completed high school in Israel are studying at the IDC in Hebrew).
Haroun, 29, got his bachelor’s degree in government at the IDC and a master’s in political science from Tel Aviv University.
According to estimates, there are approximately 40,000 African migrants in Israel. They arrived in Israel in large numbers from 2006 to 2012, until Israel built a wall on the border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The vast majority of African migrants who want to claim refugee status are from Eritrea and Sudan.
Israel has refused to recognize the migrants as refugees in 99% of the refugee status petitions. The migrants are given temporary visas, which they must renew every one to three months, and are sometimes threatened with detention in Holot or coerced to agree to “willful deportation” to Uganda or Rwanda. But the students at the African Student Organization want to tell a different story about Africans in Israel.
“We are identified as people who are not capable of being integrated into society, but it’s because we don’t have the same level of information,” said Abou Sako, a refugee from the Ivory Coast who is studying government and diplomacy at IDC and has been in Israel for 13 years.
“We have goals, we have ideas of ways to make changes,” he added. “We are not only capable to study, we have the opportunity to be ambassadors between Israel and back home. I can be a bridge between the Ivory Coast and Israel. Israel has the greatest technology in agriculture and Africa needs that. We can be the people who implement it, but the government doesn’t give us the opportunity. We’re symbolized as rapists.”
Nina, 26, came to Israel at age 11 with her family from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She just finished a degree at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo, which she did without the support of the student organization. “It was hard for me to connect to Israelis,” said Nina, who declined to give her last name. “This [organization] will give African students the opportunity to meet each other and help each other. Maybe people don’t have the information how to get into university.”
Mutasim Ali, the first and only Sudanese in Israel to receive refugee status, said he had been trying to study ever since he got to Israel in 2008. “The most important thing is that it means we are not just asylum seekers, we’re planning for the future,” said Ali, who is studying law at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan. He also has a bachelor’s degree in geology from university in Sudan. “We want to show the Israeli public that we’re people with dreams and doing everything we can to advance those dreams.”
The non-profit organization Israel at Heart pays the tuition and some living costs for 10 current African students. They also paid tuition for five who have already graduated. Israel at Heart started in 2002 by bringing Israeli — especially Ethiopian-Israeli — college students to America for speaking tours to help Americans understand more about Israel. In 2005, they began sponsoring half of the tuition for Ethiopian-Israeli students, and now have 45 students who have graduated through the program.
In 2010, the IDC approached Joey Low, who is on the IDC board, and told him about a group of African students that wanted to study at the school. “They told me that there were a couple of guys working in the cafeteria and people saw them looking at the textbooks,” said Low. “People asked them what they were doing and they said, ‘we used to study when we lived at home and we miss it.’ They told me their stories, and it really reminded me of my parents leaving from Germany and Vienna [before World War II].”
The first refugee student at IDC was a dishwasher from Eritrea who started studying in 2008, before Israel at Heart got involved on a formal level.
“It’s an amazing group of people,” Low continued. “Many Israelis are refugees themselves or their parents are, and they would be upset to learn the extent of how these refugees are treated. The students have to go every two months to get a visa, they send them to Holot [a detention center in the desert for illegal migrants], they threaten to deport them. It’s a terrible life. They’re scared, and it’s an embarrassment to Israel.”
One of the students studying at the IDC was deported, and Israel at Heart is now paying his tuition at a university in Uganda.
Currently Israel at Heart only pays tuition for asylum seekers studying at the IDC. “We have students from 86 different countries, including ones who come directly from Eritrea, South Sudan, Darfur, Somalia and some countries where refugees come from,” said Jonathan Davis, the head of Raphael Recanati International School at IDC and vice president for External Relations. “The African [refugee] students integrate nicely with rest of students, and the rest of students try to assist them with all kinds of other things.” About a third of the student body comes from outside of Israel.
The newly launched African Student Organization is aimed at offering guidance and support to students studying at all institutions of higher learning. Israel at Heart is also supporting the student organization, including financing office space at WeWork in South Tel Aviv.
Haroun, the director of the ASO, said as they organization grows they are also hoping to assist African students who are not asylum seekers. Some of the children of African migrants, who were born or grew up most of their lives in Israel, want to continue their studies just as their Israeli friends plan to do after the army. The organization’s goal is to provide support for up to 500 students in college and university.
Ali added that an additional seven African students plan to attend university or college next year, though some are still on the waiting list.
“We want to show the Israeli community we are able to change, we are more useful than how they perceive us,” he said. “We are not a burden to Israeli society, we can help create opportunities between our countries.”
But Haroun noted that attending university is just the one hurdle. Despite obtaining two degrees, Haroun does not have refugee status, meaning he still has a temporary visa that he must renew every two months. It allows him to work menial jobs, but established companies are reluctant to hire him because his status is so temporary and the employment status is unclear.
“I appreciate the fact I managed to get [the degrees] but it’s frustrating to not be able to work and I don’t know when I will be able to use it,” he said. Haroun wants to work in an education non-profit or diplomacy think tank, or even start his own organization. But without permanent status, he is working part-time at a friend’s money exchange booth while volunteering in different community initiatives.
“It’s a continuous circle of not knowing, the fear of deportation and imprisonment,” he said. “But if we manage to give people knowledge, one day, when we are out of this situation they can be very useful.”