On June 20, people around the world mark World Refugee Day with the theme “Everyone has the right to seek safety– whoever they are, wherever they come from and whenever they are forced to flee.” “Throughout this challenging time, we have… seen a connectedness that transcends borders,” Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees said ahead of World Refugee Day. “Ordinary people have stepped up to help.”
This was especially true for the outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees who arrived in Israel at the outbreak of the conflict in late February. Answering the call to help others, dozens of existing and new organizations rushed to provide these new refugees with clothing, activities, and emotional support.
But far from the spotlight of the daily news cycle, a community of Eritrean asylum seekers in the center of Israel are among those who have risen to the challenge to serve their community in times of need, by running a residential apartment for up to 7 Eritrean men with mental health needs who might otherwise be living on the street.
“In the beginning, we were having bible study at our church, and in the bible, they say you should do good deeds,” said Mulua Zaweda, 26, an Eritrean asylum seeker who is among the leaders of the apartment. “We said to each other, let’s stop just talking about it, and really do it.”
The group started in 2016, with everyone in the bible study putting in NIS 25 each Friday. First, they helped single Eritrean mothers with food and other expenses. Another time they gave support to an Eritrean asylum seeker who was recently diagnosed with cancer. “Anyone who needed help, we’d go and help them,” said Zaweda, who has been in Israel for 10 years. “Each month, we’d do a big purchase – toilet paper, diapers, wet wipes, or the big 25 kilo bags of teff flour [a staple in the Eritrean diet]. We can’t solve all the problems with one or two thousand shekels, but what do those people feel? They realize that there are people who are caring about them, so it really affects how they feel.”
When the group found a homeless Eritrean man living on the streets and decided to rent him an apartment, they discovered a new direction. The vast majority of Israel’s 29,000 asylum seekers – before 2022 – are from Eritrea and Sudan and came to Israel over land by passing through Sinai. In Sinai, many asylum seekers were kidnapped and held in torture camps for days or weeks until their relatives in Israel paid enormous ransom sums.
Approximately 7,000 asylum seekers in Israel were victims of severe abuse in Sinai, according to Sister Azezet Kidane, an Eritrean nun who documented the vicious acts which took place in these torture camps while volunteering as a nurse at the clinic of Physicians for Human Rights in Tel Aviv.
The lingering effects of these camps, as well as the trauma and stress of being an asylum seeker in Israel with precarious legal status, has caused serious mental health problems with some members of the community. “They threw us away, and that gives us trauma,” said Zaweda. “They throw you into an intersection in Israel and you don’t know the language or anything – that’s a trauma.”
But because asylum seekers often are not able to obtain the same level of health care as Israeli citizens, they are often excluded from services like residential mental health programs. But Zaweda and others realized that if they were able to provide a safe haven for those experiencing severe mental distress, they’d be able to help those people heal and, in some cases, get back on their own feet.
“In the beginning, we were having bible study at our church, and in the bible, they say you should do good deeds. We said to each other, let’s stop just talking about it, and really do it.”
About 40 people in the bible study group each donated NIS 2,000 to get the organization off the ground, including finding an apartment, paying the deposit, and filling it with furniture and accessories. They called the organization “Amlakh Masalah,” which means “God is with us” in Tigrinya. In Hebrew and English, they call the organization Emmanuel, which also means “God is With Us.”
“People who are homeless or have mental health issues don’t have a way to ask for help,” said Zaweda. And because many asylum seekers are in Israel alone, without families, they don’t have the traditional social networks that could support them in times of distress.
Each month, everyone in the group donates between NIS 100 to 250 to pay for the rent and food of six or seven residents of an apartment in Petah Tikvah. There is also a counselor that lives with them and helps make sure the men get to their doctor’s appointments and organize social activities.
There isn’t any time limit for the men living in the apartment, and Zaweda said they often encourage men who feel healthy enough to leave to stay for a few more months, find a job and build up savings so they can more easily resume their lives. Zaweda said there have been a few success stories of men who moved out and are now working. One is even talking about contributing to fund himself, as a way to thank the community who helped him during his darkest time.
“We’re all making minimum salary, how much could it be, maybe NIS 7000 per month? There are a lot of women in the group and their salaries are even lower, maybe NIS 3,000 or NIS 4,000 per month,” said Zaweda, who works at a supermarket. “But we are doing what we can now to think of the other,” he said. “What I have, they should have, what is good for me, should be good for them.”