This post was written by Sarah Schmidt, a participant on a recent American University-Yahel Insight program. This piece also appears in the Richland Source opinion section here.
Students worked with African refugees in Arad, an Israeli town in the south of Israel. For more reflections from participants, you can read the program’s blog here.
The American Civil Rights Movement is a distant memory even for our senior citizens. The passion, drive, and unity of a nation collectively fighting for equality and human rights has been muted by the drive for success, the distraction of daily monotony, and the overall privilege that we both take advantage of and fail to acknowledge or even notice. America is the epitome of freedom and opportunity, the standard for equality, and the cornerstone of justice, yet turns a blind eye to some of the most desperate of situations. We have the luxury of ignorance.
I spent the last two weeks in Israel living among, learning from, and conversing with a community of African refugees who journeyed from Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea, seeking refuge and stability. Their journey can only be explained as courageous. The culmination of our American University student alternative break trip was during the last two days in Arad where we witnessed the unity and empowerment during meetings organized for and by African refugees. I believe this is the unity and empowerment that makes change possible. Following the meeting, where numbers were exponentially higher than anticipated, I reflected on the concept of power and empowerment. Power is an incredible source—for good and for evil. Throughout history, power struggles have taken countless lives, but it is important to remember that change also comes from empowerment, which is a part of the concept of power. I think we witnessed empowerment at the community meeting.
The gathering was called to make sense of the wave of arrests provoked by policy changes and targeted at the African asylum seekers as Israel continues to discourage migration. As the large, open room began to fill up, more and more men and women continued to flow in, like a bottle of water beginning to spill over. There was an overview of the policy changes, possible affects on the community, and a plan for action, all of which was translated into four languages, a testament to the diversity of the gathering, which included individuals from Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Israel, America and Ethiopia. The solidarity in the room was tangible.
Fear may have been the motivation behind the unusual number of people, but we can all be reminded of Nelson Mandela’s iconic words: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” While there is a horrific and malevolent force suppressing and oppressing a group to a point where they are left without a home, without a refuge, and without freedom, it doesn’t leave them without hope. It’s incredibly humbling to experience and witness something like that. I walked away with the realization that this is how change happens. I could feel it in my core—we are on the cusp of action, at the beginning of change. I was immediately reminded of the influential social movements of recent history, and I left filled with hope.
Hope promptly changed to frustration and even anger the following day when I was interviewing members of the community in a mapping effort to attempt to track the situation of the community members. Young men still in their teenage years, stripped of their innocence and childhood, sat across from me and expressed their refusal to return to their home country because of the reality of prison and likely death awaiting them. Women with their infants and toddlers spoke about separation from their husbands because of fear of death, their own journey filled with imprisonment, trepidation, and uncertainty. And men separated from their families, without the right to work, denied their status as refugees, and living in a country where the language and culture is foreign, simply to guard their life. Who was I to even be in their presence? There is nothing in my story that makes me worthy to be among such strength. As Darfur, the Sudanese civil war, and Eritrean dictatorship left the media spotlight months and years ago, with it also went the world’s attention. The reality remains that the lives of these individuals still continue and their plight only worsens as they search for asylum and refuge, leaving their homes and loved ones behind. Although our own Civil Rights Movement escaped the spotlight many years ago, I would hope that the words of Martin Luther King Jr. still ring true: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”. We may have the luxury of ignorance living in a privileged society, but it does not mean we are incapable of compassion.
Admittedly, sincere compassion and understanding is incredibly difficult when the issue is a world away, but awareness can bring unity and unity empowerment. It is not Israel’s responsibility to provide for this community, nor is it America’s, it is the worlds responsibility to prevent these issues in the first place. With access to information and resources there is no excuse for the world to turn away from displaced groups. Each person can be part of a collective voice in the call for equality and basic human rights for our world. Without those values embedded in our fight for humanity, we will remain stagnant in our ignorance.