Radio Erena: 28 March 2021
2020 has been a difficult year, with the loss of health, life, and livelihoods for people around the world. But the data shows clearly that one group has been hit harder than any other, on a global scale: refugees and asylum seekers.
In Israel, more than 80% of the country’s 30,000 African asylum seekers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. For the Eritrean community, the dire need of their friends and neighbors seemed insurmountable. But undeterred by the massive scale of need, community organizers rose to meet the challenges head-on.
Of course, a knowledge of the Eritrean community’s history of self-organizing in Israel makes it no surprise they would jump to fill the need. Founded in 2011 to assist victims of human trafficking, the Eritrean Women’s Community Center is just one example of this self-empowerment. Located in the heart of South Tel Aviv, it is a place for both women and the wider Eritrean community to come support one another in rebuilding the strength of the community which was broken when they were forcibly displaced from their homes, and to access information, services and emotional support in their native language.
Over the years the EWCC has provided a platform for members of the Eritrean community to take the lead in organizing for their rights. In 2012, when children were dying of injury and neglect in unregulated daycare centers, the EWCC built a nursery where women could bring their children during work hours to feel they were safe and protected. In 2013, the center worked with male community leaders to develop an outreach campaign to combat domestic violence and support healthy relationships. In 2014, when the Israeli government began mass arbitrary detention of single asylum-seeking men, the EWCC joined the community in mobilizing the largest refugee-organized protest movement in Israeli history, to defend their brothers, friends, and neighbors. In 2016, the EWCC focused on long-term enrichment classes and workshops and began a partnership with ARDC and Microfy to create the first-ever vocational courses tailored specifically to the needs of refugee women in the community – especially single mothers. And in 2018, when Israel announced massive deportations, the organization mobilized volunteers from the Eritrean, Israeli and international communities to help submit more than 1,000 refugee status applications to help protect people from deportation.
So, when the pandemic struck, it was the Eritrean community again that rose to the occasion. In March 2020, the EWCC halted all regular services including classes and administrative assistance and made the massive shift to life-sustaining food aid. The shift was necessary since asylum seekers could not access the same government support that citizens and other residents could. For the past decade, the Israeli government has consistently failed to assess asylum seekers’ applications for refugee status, and this lack of durable legal status means they cannot access basic public services such as welfare and unemployment benefits. The situation quickly spiraled into a crisis, with the number of families requesting food aid from the center and its partners jumping from a couple dozen in March to over 600 families in April.
For the first month of the response, this food distribution was a joint effort between all the major organizations working in Tel Aviv. But, after the first lockdown, the complexity of the scaled-up logistics and restricted movement forced many NGOs to scale down their efforts, leaving the EWCC and its partner organization Elifelet to carry the torch.
The EWCC rapidly expanded the project, and soon became the largest food distribution facility for the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv, handing out an average of two tons of food to between 200-500 families each week since the pandemic began. Distributing pasta, lentils, flour, sugar, cooking oil, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and even fresh vegetables along with second-hand donations of clothes and toys, this aid has kept families’ heads above water at a time when they are struggling to survive. And with food security so closely linked to mental health and coping, as well as lowered risk for domestic violence, the effect of this support has spread well beyond the dinner table.
The Director of the EWCC, Samerat Tekele, explains the importance of this project. “In Tel Aviv, we are one of the few places they can go for food distributions. For our community, getting this service is a matter of survival.” Because she and the rest of the center’s staff – and many of the volunteers as well – are asylum seekers themselves, they see firsthand the effect food insecurity has on their friends and neighbors. “Until the coronavirus is over, we will work hard to make sure no family is left without their basic food needs met.”
Genet (name changed to protect her identity) is one of the mothers who visit the center regularly. She explains the significance it has had in her life. “I am a single mom with 3 kids…. The Eritrean Women Community [Center] helped me buy food and even I [got] education for [how to use] computers. I feel safe here and I think [it feels] like my home.”
Eritrean women in Israel traveled through the Sinai desert in Egypt in order to reach the border with Israel between 2008 and 2012. This journey was notoriously dangerous as many refugees would be held hostage by traffickers for extended periods of time and tortured by their captors until they were released in exchange for large sums of money. Many women would be raped, and the majority of individuals experienced violence, torture, and a severe lack of basic needs along the way.
There are approximately 7,000 Eritrean refugee women in Israel. About 3,000 of them reportedly experienced sexual assault and torture in the Sinai desert, though the true unreported numbers are likely much higher. All Eritrean women in Israel lack access to basic services including healthcare and welfare.
The EWCC works to further community-based support structures for refugee women in Israel, offering a variety of direct services to help women struggling with past and current trauma. In addition to food aid, the center’s individual support services offer one-on-one assistance for vulnerable women with a special focus on single mothers, and a range of classes and workshops provide additional enrichment. They also host community events to foster mutual solidarity and support on topics ranging from childcare to women’s health to domestic abuse and provide a space where women can come together in a supportive environment to talk about their struggles and offer support and advice.
For more information on how you can support the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Israel, visit the website at www.eritreanwomenscenter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Andrea Gagne