I met Jordi on my first day at Lighthouse Foundation when she was tasked with my office induction. Working together in Lighthouse’s tiny marketing and fundraising team over the next couple of years, we shared many drives to work, walks to the local sandwich shop and agonising personal training sessions. When Jordi moved to Oxfam Australia, I soon followed. Jordi’s infectious energy and enthusiasm are one of a kind. Endlessly curious and selfless to the nth degree, I was not at all surprised to learn that she was spending her long service leave volunteering. It was such a delight to reconnect with Jordi over skype recently. I came away from our chat energised, grateful that our paths crossed eight years ago and very tempted to visit her in Israel!
“I was sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, waiting for a friend, and began talking to the waiter, Tesfalem. He ended up joining me for a drink and told me all about his journey from Eritrea to Israel. My friend didn’t turn up but instead, I learned about the crisis of Eritrean refugees in this country.
Since independence in 1993, Eritrea has been under a harsh dictatorship. As a result, Tesfalem was conscripted into the army indefinitely. He then endured imprisonment for requesting an increased drinking water ration before escaping to Sudan, being kidnapped for ransom, witnessing the murder of his friend and then being chained to his dead body and being sold to smugglers in Egypt. He spent six horrific months in a torture camp before escaping to Israel.
Tragically, many Eritrean refugees have similar stories.
Tesfalem managed to create a life for himself here in Israel, despite his world being turned upside down again and again and again. Tragically, his future is now in question as the government is planning to deport or imprison Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, except for those who have open asylum applications.
I was so moved by his story, I began volunteering with an organisation doing refugee status determination work. There is a huge waitlist of asylum seekers wanting to submit applications for asylum but not enough people to help with writing them, so this seemed like a really practical and tangible way to help.
The opportunity fell in my lap during my long service leave from Oxfam. I happened to sublet an apartment in the area of South Tel Aviv, where refugees are concentrated. There is a window of time for action due to plans for a refugee deportation policy.
It’s emotionally intense work because most people that walk through our doors suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. So, on the one hand you want to ensure their application is effective by asking for details about what they’ve been through. But, on the other hand, when someone is opening up about personal and traumatic experiences and becoming emotional, your gut reaction is to console them and tell them they don’t need to talk about it. Balancing that line is one of the hardest things. These people are baring their hearts, their stories and their trauma.
The refugee issue is a tough one. Israel is not alone in a sad trend of the way countries are tackling the issue. We don’t need to look further than our own backyard – Australia’s policies are far from anything to be proud of.
There are more refugees now than any other time in recorded history, and half of them are children. This points to a dire need to not only ensure we have good systems in place to protect those who are displaced, but also measures to address the causes leading to displacement in the first place.
Of course, this is a lot easier said than done.
This is part of the reason I am so passionate about my work with Oxfam – our approach is aimed at addressing the root causes of inequality and poverty. In my opinion, it’s very easy to do development badly. Historically, charities took on a welfare role – if someone is hungry, you give them food. In my lifetime, there has been a transition to a sustainable welfare model; the ‘teach a man to fish’ approach. This however assumes that there is a ‘white man’ being the teacher, it assumes the man has rights or access to a pond in the first place and assumes the water is not contaminated.
At Oxfam, we are trying to push for more of a transition beyond this mode of operating. We aim to transform the structures and power dynamics that tend to be at the root cause of poverty. Instead of entering communities, providing assistance and then leaving, Oxfam is building the capacity of local civil society and creating linkages with governments so they can be held to account on issues of importance to communities.
I’ve had the great privilege of travelling to some of Oxfam’s projects. In Zambia’s urban slums, for example, Oxfam has a program that tackles the spread of disease caused by the sheer concentration of people living in an area with poor water and sanitation. In fact, eighty percent of the world’s diseases are caused by dirty water and poor sanitation and more people die each day from dirty water than violence and war. Rather than simply installing water pumps and then leaving, we are working with governments and communities to improve water and sanitation service delivery, share knowledge of safe hygiene practices and establish forums for civil society to directly engage with local councils on service standards.
Another example is a program in the mineral rich countries of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. Foreign mining has increased the GDP of these countries but unfortunately the wealth is not trickling down to communities to reduce the high poverty levels. Our program has involved setting up guidelines with government and communities to ensure there are mechanisms in place for companies to consult with both councils and communities prior to mining. This ensures that mining revenues are distributed fairly and communities are not uprooted without consent and compensation.
Whether it’s these experiences with Oxfam or my experience here in Israel, I feel so lucky to have direct insights into worlds and beautiful ways of living that are very different to my own. It forces me to question aspects of our society and leads me to continuously question my own behaviours.
I sometimes feel like I have won the birth lottery. I was born in a democratic country in a time of peace with every opportunity available to me and a family that have given me the love and freedom to pursue any direction I wish.
My one hope is that as globalisation makes our world smaller and we become more connected, this in turn expands the realms of our empathy and the way we approach the ‘other’.”