Blogging from the Refugee Seder

April 7, 2009 by

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The day started early, it was the morning of the Refugee Seder, the best days start early. I said my morning prayers with meaning, feeling life energy coursing through my veins. The day was to be an important day. There is nothing I enjoy more than playing a small part in something so great, an event which meant so much to so many people, an event which had combined the energy and talents of more than a dozen of Israel’s finest NGOs and volunteer organisations.

Nic and I met for a coffee down in the centre of Jaffa. I am brimming with pride and it has not yet even turned eight o’clock in the morning. I am with family, with the Noam family. Noam is the Masorti Youth Movement in the UK; it is a movement in which many of my friends now living in Israel grew up. Nic Schlagman and Rachel Sklan are both graduates of the movement and are the founders of Israel Activists one of the front organisations who ran the Refugee Seder. Today many of the volunteers crossing Israel to support the Seder will be from this Noam family.

As we arrive in Lewinsky Park we are greeted as guests, for this space is home to many of South Tel Aviv’s homeless refugee community. I remember when I first came back to Israel after a long time away: passing by the Park on a bus and wondering who all these people were sleeping in a park. I was not alone on that bus and I now wonder how many people; tourists and Israelis pass by that park every day and every night, the community with no home. South Tel Aviv has a reputation; it as a place through which so many thousands travel by bus never their feet treading the streets seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of this refugee world. Today the community will be present in south Tel Aviv. We are welcomed to the park and slowly as the day get brighter the volunteers start to flood into the park.

Those first hours of the day would have been enough, Dayenu, perfect in their own right: standing at the centre of the park and seeing scores of volunteers teeming towards us, was a sight enough to make the day worthwhile. Volunteers from Hashomer Hatzair, Noam, Netzer Olami and from the refugee community all came with smiles and real commitment. The work began in earnest: tables and chairs where unpacked and laid out, sound equipment was wired up, checked and began entertaining the faithfully gathered volunteers, banners were pinned and a group of thirty began building the pyramids. Three pyramids in total were built under the careful eye of Akiva Lawson of Israel Activists. There was a real poetry to witnessing refugee and teenage youth activists building pyramids together as one in their collective freedom.

As the last flyer was placed on the publicity tables my nervous excitement for the day started to dissipate. The stage was set, the Seder was ready and the crowds were arriving. I knew from my exchanges with so many people in the weeks running up to the event that the Seder had been well publicised but until you see the crowds arrive all is unknown, all is supposition.

The next few hours would be a blur, a mix of delight, stress, intrigue, interest and hard work. I am a person who gets stuck in and gets my hands dirty and that meant that the event passed by quickly; like most of my colleagues I was on my feet from start to finish.

The mix of people that I saw was incredible, Congolese, Eritrean Darfuri refugees, side by side with Israelis, side by side with Americans, Australians and British volunteers. So much communication between people, so many minds meeting in one space; perhaps it was not even the verbal conversation that mattered but the powerful message that rang out from the Seder table: ‘this night is different from all other nights, normally we sit divided, separated by fear and lack of understanding, tonight we sit side by side in unity with common spirit and vision for our futures’. The Amnesty International slogan for this event was ‘because we were strangers’. The photo petition that ran along side the Seder calls on Israelis and Diaspora Jews to stand up and be counted and photographed acknowledging that the history of the Jewish people is intimately tied to our experience of displacement and refugeehood. We too were strangers in the land of Egypt, our Torah teaches us to show kindness and hospitality for the strangers that live in our communities.

The event really moved many in the audience. Many who I spoke to had never interacted with refugees before and had little vision of what life was like for those displaced by war and suffering who sought refuge in Israel. The story ran so elegantly along side the words that were spoken on the stage. The middle matza was broken and the bread of poverty held up for all to see. We were close now to the festive meal, for some it would be the only square meal they would eat that day – what a message to send out to all those who will celebrate Passover next week with meals of such plenty.

The music started up again as people tucked into food. The musical part of the Seder was truly carnival-like, bringing all the guests to their feet. The party had really now begun.

At the end of the Seder I had a few moments to catch up with Ilan Lonai Weiner one of the event organisers from Amnesty International, he spoke with clarity: “Refugees are an asset to the communities in which they live, their energy and creativity is unmatched and their diverse contribution to the political arena is crucial to Israel and to Jews all around the world. This event demonstrated the importance of having refugees in our communities and marks the beginning of the change that will come for the refugee community in Israel”.

Refugee guests at the Seder were among a fraction of the 17,000 refugees who currently live in Israel. Israel does not keep to its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The majority of refugees entering Israel spend significant amounts of time in prison before being permitted to enter; many will only receive temporary work permits, if they receive licence to work at all, many have been moved on from one part of the country to the next as visa stipulations continuously change. Refugees live in fear of erratic policy changes by local and central government authorities and with constant uncertainty about their future. More than seven hundred people attended the Seder on Friday and in one voice called for the Israeli Government to do more for the refugee population in Israel.

Having watched so many volunteers at work during this event I asked Nic Sclagman how the day had gone for Israel Activists, his response: ‘Israel Activists has shown its volunteers what can be achieved through plain hard work and the dedication of volunteers and activists. The Seder was a powerful event; people from different NGOs who often work in isolated teams have come together to celebrate with the greater community, sharing their experience, eating and dancing together. To turn Lewinsky Park into such a warm and inviting space was in itself a success showing all residents of Tel Aviv all are welcome in all of Tel Aviv-Yafo’.

On Wednesday night at the close of the Seder, Jewish people across the world will call out in unity “Next year in Jerusalem”. As we cry out in hope let us all vision the type of land that we wish to build in Israel. Let us vision a land of freedom, a land of welcome for Jews as well as those who seek refuge in Israel.

 

For more ideas about how to bring the Refugee Seder to your Seder check out the Refugee Hagada at: www.btfila.org/5769/plitim09.pdf 

Call for a clear and consistent policy for refugees and asylum seekers from the Israeli Government. To get involved email: refugeeaction@amnesty.org.il

Israel Activists engage young volunteers with dynamic and exciting projects in Tel Aviv – Yafo, for more information email: israelactivists@gmail.com

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