October 7 Attacks Displaced More Than Just Israeli Jews

An Eritrean mother and child awaits for assistance in Israel

An Eritrean mother and her young daughter wait for assistance provided by HIAS to a displaced Eritrean community in Nitsana, Israel, on October 26, 2023. (Sammy Voit for HIAS)

The following essay was written by Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of Olam; and Tanyah Murkes, CEO of SID-Israel and was published in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on November 29. HIAS Israel Country Director Sivan Carmel and leaders from other humanitarian organizations co-signed the essay. Learn more about HIAS’ emergency response to the October 7 attacks in Israel.

When Solomon and his family were forced to flee their home in Sderot after the Hamas attack on Oct.7, they were directed by the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, known as ASSAF, to a shelter in Tel Aviv for people whose lives had been upended by the violence. But when they arrived, they were abruptly denied entry. Unbeknownst to ASSAF, the shelter owners wished to serve only Jewish Israelis, not asylum-seekers like Solomon who hailed from Sudan or Eritrea and have been living in Israel sometimes for decades.

Solomon (not his real name) is among the estimated 30,000 or so asylum-seekers in Israel from Africa, who fled genocide, slavery or political unrest in their countries of origin. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 1,200-1,500 of these African asylum seekers have been forced to leave their homes in southern Israel as a result of the Hamas attack.

Because asylum seekers cannot obtain Israeli ID cards, many of those displaced following Oct. 7 had previously lived in apartments without having signed formal contracts recognized by the state. They were, therefore, not officially evacuated by Israeli municipalities nor were they guaranteed shelter. When they have found temporary homes on their own, the apartments often lack a “safe room” and are 10 minutes or more away from the closest bomb shelter, not nearly enough time to reach safety before the rockets begin to rain down.

According to the UNHCR, 1,200-1,500 of these African asylum seekers have been forced to leave their homes in southern Israel as a result of the Hamas attack. 

The discrimination Solomon and countless others experience as they seek new homes in the aftermath of Oct. 7 reinforces a dismal reality: Those who are already on the margins of Israeli society experience additional hardships during a time of war. This is not only the case for refugees and asylum-seekers, but also for tens of thousands of migrant workers, primarily in agriculture, construction and home healthcare. While the legal status of these workers is different from that of asylum-seekers, they too experience discrimination and injustice.

Shelter is just one of many challenges these populations are currently facing. Many are struggling with food insecurity, job losses, language barriers that prevent them from receiving essential services, and a near-total absence of economic and social safety nets. There has also been an extreme deterioration in mental health within these communities, especially among refugees, who report that they are reliving past traumas triggered by the current violence.

Indeed, between Oct. 7 and Nov. 15, the NGOs ASSAF and HIAS saw a significant rise in requests for assistance from refugees, compared to the previous year, with ASSAF reporting a 153% increase in calls.

Although no Israeli politician has publicly stated that these populations should be excluded from government aid, official evacuation plans and the wartime economic plan do not explicitly reference them, despite calls from NGOs for clear recognition.

While so many refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers are often made to feel like outsiders, a vast number of them proudly see themselves as a core part of Israeli society. And while they are neither Jewish nor Israeli citizens, their lives are deeply intertwined with ours. They work in our fields, hotels and restaurants; they are caregivers for our elderly and people with disabilities; and, tragically, some 100 of them were among those injured, killed and kidnapped during Hamas’ deadly attack. Since then, like so many Israelis, they have demonstrated solidarity and resilience that represent the best of our society.

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Sustaining Life Amid the Devastation

We, Israeli leaders of organizations working with vulnerable populations in Israel and around the world, have witnessed a remarkable spirit of volunteerism and collective responsibility in these communities over the past few weeks. In the wake of the Hamas attack, dozens of people have contacted many of our organizations to ask how they could support emergency efforts.

When a Nepalese man who was severely injured on Oct. 7 was transferred to a Jerusalem hospital, a micro-community of local Nepalese caregivers and Israelis rallied by his bedside to ensure he received the emotional and cultural support he needed. He had arrived in Israel only 21 days prior to the so-called “black Sabbath,” and was completely alone in a strange land. It is largely due to the kindness of this micro-community that he can now see a future for himself, despite his new reality.

But the kindness of migrant workers and refugees is not limited to caring for their own. Hundreds of African refugees have volunteered regularly at the Civilian Command Center at the Expo Complex in Tel Aviv, organizing and packaging meals and donations for evacuees from southern Israel and Israeli soldiers. Another group of Eritrean refugees, who were themselves evacuated from Ashkelon as a result of the war, have joined the tens of thousands of Israelis who are volunteering to harvest food and support Israeli farmers suffering a shortage of workers.

As Israel continues to recover and chart a new path forward, we urge Jewish leaders abroad to join Israelis who are calling for asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers to receive the care and support they deserve. This means both advocating that the Israeli government distribute aid equitably, so that they too receive the assistance they need, as well as keeping these communities in mind when collecting and allocating philanthropic dollars for those impacted by the massacre. This includes not only those who were killed, kidnapped, or injured, but also those who lost homes, jobs, and are suffering from trauma.

As Hillel famously wrote, we must be for ourselves, but not only for ourselves. Now, more than ever, we must show empathy for the strangers among us — refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers — as we, in Israel and the global Jewish community, recover from a shared trauma. When we honor our shared humanity, our entire society will be stronger.

This essay is co-signed by Sivan Carmel, Country Director, HIAS Israel; Tali Ehrenthal, Executive Director, ASSAF-Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel; Anat Herrmann-Aharoni, Executive Director, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, and Or Mor-Yosef, CEO, African Refugee Development Center.

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