Welcoming in the new year in Israel was a very different experience for me – in the UK on January 1, everything is shut, people often sleeping in after the late night and there are barely any cars on the roads – rather like Shabbat in Israel but with extra ‘Kiddush’ wine. My first New Years in Israel, on the other hand, is something that I will look back on, for two reasons: The first being shops are open, there is as much traffic as the day before, people are expected to go to work and the country carries on as though it is any other normal day. The second reason, is that while it was a normal day for Israelis, for the refugee and asylum seeker community it was not. January 1st 2018 was the day that Israel announced its new plan to deport all asylum seekers in Israel which is due to come into effect on March 1st.
As part of the Tikkun Olam program, I volunteer at the Eritrean Women’s Community Center who make it their mission to represent, empower and look after the asylum seekers. Every Wednesday they hold a clinic to help asylum seekers to fill out Refugee Status Determination (RSD) forms which they then take to the Misrad Hapnim (Israeli Ministry of the Interior) to later be called back for an interview and hopefully be granted refugee status. This is a very complicated process and the sad truth is that out of the 40,000 asylum seekers only nine people have received refugee status, not 9% – nine people.
According to the new policy if a person can prove that they are trying to process their RSD application they will not be affected by the new policies for the time being. Roughly 13,000 people have yet to fill in this application form and with the deadline rapidly approaching the pressure is on to get through as many people as possible. On a Wednesday the Eritrean Women’s Community Center can process approximately fourteen applications with the help of 8 volunteers during their two hour RSD clinic. I quickly realized that we needed more time and many more volunteers if we were going to make any kind of impression on this vast number. Inspired by a 24/7 radio fundraiser I had been part of back in the UK, I had the idea to have an all day drive to fill in as many forms as possible. With the help of my friend and fellow Tikkun Olamer Steffi we decided we would make this happen.
Due to language barriers and complexities of the forms, some level of training was essential for any new volunteers. We recruited volunteers for the one day drive via social media groups, the clinic itself, word of mouth and even an announcement at the end of a lecture. By the time the drive started we had recruited and trained 50 volunteers with a large number of extra volunteers turning up on the day. Filling in forms from 8am-10pm was going to be hungry work and I asked local South Tel Aviv businesses to donate food. One person who was not able to donate on behalf of his shop but was deeply moved by the cause, bought 50 shekels worth of cakes (out of his own pocket).
Just filling in an RSD form can save someone from indefinite imprisonment or deportation to their home country and a very ‘uncertain’ future. Put bluntly each one of these forms has the potential to save a person’s life. We set what we thought was a rather ambitious target of 100 forms to be completed and kept a running total on the wall throughout the day. There was an atmosphere of organised chaos with people sitting on anything and everything including a pair on each step of the staircase, laughing kids running around oblivious to their parent’s uncertain future and of course endless supplies of food and caffeine. We even attracted the attentions of journalists and a famous Israeli documentary film maker.
By ten o’clock those of us who were still there did the final count of the day and found that we had managed to fill 102 forms and therefore had helped 102 people. Our only objective was to get through as many people and forms as possible and we had no idea of the ripple effects that the drive would create. Many of the new volunteers that we trained and took part in the drive now want to come to the regular RSD clinic every week, from a small group of high school students who helped, thirty extra are now booked in for formal training next week and we have heard many stories of casual conversations with the uninformed highlighting the terrible conditions and perils of life in Eritrea. A new year with a difference – this was certainly the case for me personally, and through the fantastic efforts of so many volunteers I sincerely hope that we managed to ‘do our bit’ and make a difference to somebody else’s life.
Hannah Gerson is a 22 year old Welsh participant on Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Hannah volunteers at the Eritrean Women’s Center and on Friday January 19, Hannah, together with her fellow Tikkun Olam participants, organized a one day drive to help as many of the asylum seeker population of south Tel Aviv as possible to fill out their Refugee Status Determination forms.