Feature Stories

Community Center in Israel Gives Asylum Seekers New Place to Call Home

By the time Eisa Abaker, 28, left Sudan at age 19, he’d seen things with his own eyes most people will never even read about.

“People were killed, children died, there were massacres, and whole villages were destroyed. I had problems with the government, with their treatment of people. I left Sudan because it was impossible to keep living there.”

Eisa traveled from Darfur to Egypt, where he received refugee status from the UN. But with no permission to work or have a home, starting a new life there was not realistic. Alongside thousands of fellow refugees, he took part in a large protest for change that ended in bloodshed and hundreds of deaths—and the realization that he had to keep moving.

Eisa and two friends set out to cross the Sinai, where they paid Bedouin smugglers to get them to the Israeli border. “By the time we reached this country I had to literally throw my friends over the border because of their injuries,” he recalls.

At the border they met Israeli soldiers, and, as is standard Israeli procedure with any persons who cross the border under such circumstances, were transported to a prison to be detained for a period of time. Eisa notes, however, that he and his friends were well cared for. “They treated us very well. They sewed our injuries, and seeing that we were hungry and thirsty, they fed us and gave us water. We were taken to the hospital and checked by doctors.”

After three months the three refugees were relocated to a kibbutz just outside of Eilat, where many other Sudanese asylum seekers were housed in a compound.

Soon Eisa got a job at a tourist hotel. His days began to have a semblance of stability, but he realized he and the community around him needed more for their new life. That’s when he and a group of fellow asylum seekers founded the Tama Community Center.

The Tama Community Center services the refugee and asylum seeker community in Eilat. With support from the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI) — founded by JDC in 1999 — Tama offers adult education courses, regular meetings to provide critical information on relevant local and national policy issues, and help connecting to other Israeli and international organizations that provide support to asylum seekers.

In addition, through a variety of classes, community programs and personal counseling offerings, the center helps to maintain the health and well-being of its community, and to strengthen resources for members dealing with the challenges of life in Israel as asylum seekers.

The Tama Community Center is sustained primarily by the hard work and tenacity of people like Eisa. Volunteers who share his vision staff the center and community members contribute funds to rent the space, organize and plan all events, and support the nightly activities. “Most of the people here are refugees. They fled war. They had no time for education, and even as children the political situation often interrupted their schooling. For them, education is critical,” Eisa explains.

“As asylum seekers, we don't have access to Israeli universities or colleges, or even vocational training programs. So we have education programs here to teach each other. I want and need education, and I have nowhere else to learn; that’s why this is my place.”

The center provides a variety of courses for personal and professional development. For example, in partnership with CIMI, the center recently offered a computer class that provided 60 people with rudimentary training and basic computer skills.

CIMI’s support of Eisa’s center is in line with its mission to assist the State of Israel in contending with the migration challenges it faces. CIMI maintains that while asylum seekers reside in Israel, Israel has obligations towards them, without adopting a stance on any one individual’s right to remain in the country.

One of the biggest recent challenges CIMI is working on in Israel is the rapid influx of asylum seekers from Africa into the country. According to official government figures, there are an estimated 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, 14,000 of them from Sudan. This vulnerable community has difficulty supporting itself and has limited access to basic services.

CIMI works at the grassroots level in three cities where no other assistance organizations are present to help build bridges with Israelis and make connections with local volunteers and activists; provide information in order to help asylum seekers navigate the various institutions that impact their lives; and support local initiatives, particularly in the realm of education, by the community.

As part of this initiative, CIMI helps Eisa’s center provide asylum seekers in Eilat with education towards personal and professional development.

Eisa says the Tama Center gives asylum seekers a sense of contact with the broader world, enables communication, provides intellectual stimulation and development, and offers essential learning opportunities. For members of the center, the ability to design and support their own community center and run programs to further their own development is the ultimate form of self-empowerment.

“There is more to life than work and sleep; people must have the opportunity to grow and develop, people want to learn and better themselves,” Eisa explains. “This place fills that need.”

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