Thirty-year-old Filmon, an Eritrean asylum seeker who fled his conflict-riddled homeland in 2012 and has been seeking refuge in Israel ever since, has been able to retain his job at a supermarket in the central city of Netanya despite the outbreak of the coronavirus here. He considers himself “very lucky” to be able to work at a time when almost a quarter of the country’s workforce – 24.1 percent, the latest figures indicate – is now jobless as a result of the pandemic.
But having to work at a crowded shop every day while the pathogen continues to claim lives at a mounting rate poses its own hazards. “I am afraid to come to work, and I know that a person who was diagnosed with corona has been to our store. I’m scared to get sick,” Filmon tells the Times of Israel.
It’s not just anxiety that he might contract the virus that makes him lose sleep at night. As an asylum seeker who has not been officially recognized as a refugee by the state, Filmon is aware that he may not receive the tests or emergency medical care that citizens of the country are entitled to. “If I get sick, my boss will tell me to stay at home. But let’s say that happens – the national insurance company isn’t going to reimburse for the days I won’t be working. And if I lose my job and can’t pay my landlord the rent that he is due on time, I’m sure he’ll evict me. I’m terrified of that happening.”
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers from African countries who live in Israel share many of these concerns. While many reports in recent days have highlighted the high rate of contagion among the Jewish state’s ultra-Orthodox population, the headlines had largely overlooked Filmon’s endangered community, which is now facing an unprecedented crisis.
According to data released by the Population and Immigration Authority in March 2018, some 36,000 African asylum seekers currently live in Israel. The first wave of immigration from Africa to Israel began in 2009. The vast majority of them – who hail from Eritrea and Sudan – never gained refugee status, although many had been forced to flee their home countries to avoid war or other humanitarian crises. They live in Israel on temporary visas that are periodically renewed.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and amid fears that vast numbers would seek to reach the only western-style democracy accessible over land from Africa, the government has taken increasingly firm steps to stem the flow of migrants — notably sealing the border with Egypt through which they had been crossing at a rate of several thousand a month at the height of the influx. It has also been holding public and discreet negotiations with other countries in order to deport those already here to third countries. While these talks are currently on hold, the state has made it nearly impossible for members of the community to obtain higher education or get access to subsidized health and welfare services.
Long stuck in this limbo and facing the constant fear of deportation, many of them then lost their jobs in the food and hospitality industries as soon as the pandemic reached Israel last month. Unemployed and trapped indoors, tens of thousands are now at risk of losing their homes and ending up on the streets.
While the government has left asylum seekers to fend for themselves, several nonprofit aid organizations are providing assistance. The Times of Israel spoke to several such groups and to members of the community, who expressed fear for the feature but also resilience.
A terrifying future
One of the main groups assisting asylum seekers in Israel is ASSAF (Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel). Founded in 2007, the NGO provides psycho-social and legal services to members of the community through a variety of ongoing projects.
“The repercussions of the outbreak of the coronavirus are very dramatic when it comes to the asylum seekers’ community,” says Tali Ehrenthal, ASSAF’s CEO. “They suffer from extreme poverty, and were already weak and vulnerable even before this virus broke out. But now we see a sharp increase in the number of community members who are unemployed. Our assessment is that over 50 percent have lost their jobs since the beginning of last month.”
Unlike Israeli citizens who can seek unemployment benefits if they are fired, asylum seekers “are not eligible for unemployment when they are dismissed from their workplaces,” Ehrenthal continues. “Any money that they are supposed to get is put into a deposit fund that they don’t have access to, so they are basically at the mercy of volunteers and aid groups,” she says in reference to the Deposit Law. This legislation came into effect in 2017 and requires employers of asylum seekers to deduct 20 percent of their salaries and deposit the money in an account they will have access to only after they leave Israel.
These are the harsh circumstances faced by Tekleab, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who escaped a life-long army service he had just started and arrived in Israel in 2011. Today he resides in the Tikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv with his wife and toddler daughter. He had worked as a cook in a cafe, but was dismissed three weeks ago when the establishment shut down. “My wife is also out of work at the moment, and we’re scared of this situation,” he says.
“On the one hand, I want to look for a new job because I need the money. But on the other hand, I’m afraid that if I do find a job, I will be exposed to the virus and potentially endanger my family.”
Tekleab says that the uncertainty of his future is “terrifying. I didn’t get my last paycheck, and I don’t know how my family and I will manage. My landlord called me the other day and asked if I will be able to pay rent, and I told her that I wasn’t sure. If this goes on, we will be in deep trouble.”
Cases like Tekleab’s, Ehrenthal warns, will be the majority in a matter of weeks. “If the government doesn’t step in quickly, we will be witnessing a humanitarian disaster,” she adds.
“We believe that in a very short amount of time, many asylum seeker families will be on the streets, begging for money and starving. Already we are getting phone calls from individuals who own apartments that asylum seekers are renting, and they’re telling us: ‘We have to throw these people out.’”
Her organization hands out vouchers for people to buy basic foods and provides financial and mental aid, facilitated by trained social workers and psychologists who volunteer with ASSAF.
“Many [of the migrants] survived torture in Sinai on their way to Israel, and are still suffering from the consequences of the extreme traumas they underwent. The current situation compounds this problematic mental state that they are in. Should there be no immediate change, I foresee a worsening of their mental well-being,” Ehrenthal predicts.
The power of education
Senait, an Eritrean asylum seeker who fled her country and came to Israel at the age of 17 in 2012, has been working as a cleaner in the eight years that she has lived in the country. A mother of three young children, she was forced to stop working when the virus hit.
“I feel very sad and stressed, for all of the world, for people who lost their loved ones. Personally, I am experiencing this crisis too: I worry about my family in Eritrea, I am concerned about being able to feed my children and pay rent,” she tells the Times of Israel.
She finds comfort and distraction in her studies for a GED diploma, which she began in February with the African Refugee Development Center. The educational non-profit was established in Tel Aviv in 2004, and has aided over 14,000 asylum seekers.
“We asylum seekers suffer from a lot of mental issues. Especially women like me who have to care for their children during this period. We don’t have time to invest in things like education, but especially now, I urge the women in my community – try to study if you can. It will change your life.”
Leah Hecht, the director of operations at ARDC, says that the organization has recently moved all of its courses online so the students can continue learning. Among the classes ARDC offers for free are the GED preparation courses, a grammar course and coding courses. The group uses software like Zoom and Google Classroom to carry out the lessons.
“Some people are learning on their phones and most are using hotspots, so the internet connection can be tricky. In spite of all these challenges, the students have decided that they want to continue learning,” Hecht says.
The organization has also expanded its work beyond the virtual lessons, recently starting a food delivery project. Food packages that are donated by the Shapiro Foundation (with several contributions from Israelis) are assembled and delivered by volunteers, and Hecht plans for the deliveries to take place every week.
Through his job, Tesfit realized that many members of his community are at risk of catching the virus because they don’t understand the instructions published by the Health Ministry in Hebrew and in English. Along with other community leaders, Tesfit opened a Facebook group in which he publishes crucial information about the coronavirus in Tigrinya.
“We release information there and do live videos in which we explain the situation and give people updates. It’s important to have these videos because a lot of asylum seekers are not literate in their own languages, so they need to hear the instructions being spoken to them. This helps my community survive.”
Clinging to hope
Another NGO that has been racing against the clock to aid asylum seekers is Hotline. Founded in 1998, the group’s primary focus is to uphold asylum seekers and migrants’ legal rights. It does so by operating a team of legal and paralegal experts, who assist the migrants in their communication with the authorities.
Shira Abbo, a spokeswoman for Hotline, says that the organization extended its hours of operation as of last month. It is now running an emergency telephone line that is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday.
One of the group’s main areas of action since the virus broke out has been an increased struggle on behalf of asylum seekers jailed under administrative detention without trial. “Someone can be in jail for six months for a very light felony, and then they are suddenly transferred to administrative detention. All it takes is a decision by an official from the Population and Immigration Authority, who deems them a danger to society,” she explains.
“At that point, they can be held for a year or even two. So we try to get them released and give them legal representation. It’s become more urgent now, because there is a risk of mass contagion in prisons. In recent weeks we have been able to release seven people, and we are currently representing 10 more in an attempt to set them free,” Abbo says.
Filmon, the 30-year-old Eritrean, is one of the asylum seekers who were jailed in Israel — held at the Holot detention facility for over a year. He wasn’t put behind bars for a criminal offense, but because he arrived in the country illegally. His incarceration took place almost six years after he came here. Filmon says it took him a long time to recover from the experience of being imprisoned after the long journey he had been through to arrive in Israel.
“I went through difficult things, my life has been very hard,” he says. “But as long as I wake up in the morning and see the light of day, it’s something to hold on to. There is hope, I’m still alive.”
Filmon says his daily routine — working at the supermarket, reading, and speaking with his friends during his spare time — provides some solace. “For now I have made myself a sort of home here,” he says.
It remains uncertain whether that home can keep him safe.