‘I can’t ignore these refugees knocking on our door’

‘I can’t ignore these refugees knocking on our door’

Woman from Englewood leads effort to help Darfurians

A woman who moved to Israel from Englewood in 1980 is spearheading an effort to help Darfurian refugees start new lives in her picturesque northern town of Zichron Ya’acov.

Last June, Sharon Reisfeld learned that students at Ben-Gurion University were banding together on behalf of Africans fleeing genocide, and she became determined to help as well.

Sharon Reisfeld

"As a former social worker, I always had a leaning toward humanitarian causes," said Reisfeld. "As a single parent, I don’t have a lot of time available, but it just spoke to me very deeply. I felt ashamed that our country didn’t have an official policy and it was left to students to take care of the refugees."

How did nearly 3,000 Muslim Africans end up seeking asylum in the Jewish state?

In ‘003, a government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed began waging a genocidal campaign to wipe out tribal farmers in Darfur, the western region of Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions made homeless in clashes between indigenous rebel groups and the militia. Those who fled to other African countries were often detained and/or deported. Many from Darfur, and also from southern Sudan, decided to try Israel instead.

Sharon Reisfeld’s daughter, Na’ama, plays soccer with Darfuran refugees Amar and Mudasser.

Their situation in Israel is complicated. Although the Darfurians (but not the southern Sudanese) are relegated special status as survivors of genocide, they are nationals of an enemy state, and consequently many were placed in kibbutzim and agricultural settlements on "house arrest," while a few hundred were detained in prisons. Israel’s Hotline for Foreign Workers began coordinating with Israeli authorities to ease the situation. The Ben-Gurion students lent a hand to this effort, and it was this gesture that caught Reisfeld’s attention.

Reisfeld, who works in administration at the University of Haifa, and Kobi Rosenblum, a professor there, invited the hotline director to speak about the situation at their local synagogue. They raised money for one of the families staying on a kibbutz, but they weren’t content to stop there. In September, Reisfeld and Rosenblum and a few other residents organized the Committee for the Absorption of Darfurian refugees in Zichron Ya’acov.

"We believe that a strong community such as ours could and should take upon itself this social and moral objective," wrote Reisfeld in an appeal for funds that she sent to friends and relatives.

Around the same time, Israel announced its intention to grant legal residency status to nearly 500 Darfurian refugees. Reisfeld’s group identified two families — and later a third —to bring to the town and provide with housing, jobs, education, and community services.

"We began to meet on a regular basis with the municipality in Zichron to nip in the bud any possible negative reactions and to ascertain their cooperation," Reisfeld said.

By October, the mayor had helped locate a defunct hotel on the outskirts of town that could house the families — not Reisfeld’s ideal, but adequate for the short term. The mayor also arranged for the children to be taken into local schools without charge.

The first two families to arrive had come to Israel via Egypt last July. At the time, both wives were pregnant and were sent to a kibbutz. Both husbands were placed in detention. "Once we were able to establish that address [at the hotel], we were able to release their husbands from prison," Reisfeld said. "By providing an address in a community such as Zichron Ya’acov, we are, in fact, uniting these families."

Since their arrival, the Africans — with five small children between them — have benefited from daily interactions with Reisfeld and other committee members. They have been provided with phone cards, furniture, school supplies, bicycles for transportation, and baby equipment. They also socialize with their benefactors.

"My daughter is 10, and she gets along well with the boys in second grade," said Reisfeld. "They went for ice cream and played soccer together last week."

Reisfeld’s committee of volunteers is constantly available for questions and emergencies — which have included visits to the hospital. For now, the group must use its donated funds to pay for private health insurance until the newcomers’ residency status is fully put in place.

"One of our committee members is from an Arab-Israeli family, and they are very active and help translate. Another teaches the adults Hebrew, and another volunteer drives them where they need to go."

The committee’s next mission is to obtain better living quarters. "We haven’t been able to find regular housing for them, for a combination of reasons," Reisfeld said. "We need to get their residency and rights status settled, and we need to help them to be more viable members of the community. We also want to help them to a more viable professional status, but they haven’t been real serious about their study of Hebrew. The adults all have menial jobs now. They will never get anywhere in the workforce if they don’t have Hebrew."

Reisfeld does not know the families’ long-term ambitions. "They say want to stay here, but we really don’t know in their hearts what their plans are," she said.

In January, the committee heard about a new wave of African immigrants — many from Eritrea — who were living in Tel Aviv shelters. "We were so concerned that we made some calls, and within days we were able to fill a truck with warm clothes and blankets," Reisfeld said.

The Tel Aviv situation, she reported last week, has eased considerably.

"I know that Jewish national causes are a dime a dozen, but on this issue less people are involved because there’s less consensus on it," said Reisfeld, whose family attended Temple Emanu-El in Englewood (the congregation later moved to Closter). Her parents now live in Jerusalem.

"I’m proud of my pluralistic background, and this brings together the deep-seated Jewish ethics I was raised with," said Reisfeld. "It’s hard for me to understand how the world didn’t help Jews when they were looking for refuge during the Holocaust, and I can’t ignore these refugees knocking on our door."

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