It took Yohannes Bayu five years of court battles and a 23-day hunger strike to gain asylum in Israel. As a Christian from Ethiopia and an active opponent of its despotic government, he fled to Israel in 1997 on a tourist visa. He now directs the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv, which assists African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel — as many as 6,000 — who came to Israel fleeing war, persecution, or poverty in African countries, and pose a legal, ethical, and humanitarian dilemma for the Jewish state. Currently on a two-month trip to the United States, he will speak at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield on Thursday, Feb. 11. He spoke to NJJN by phone from Baltimore on Feb. 1.
NJJN: Why did you leave Ethiopia ?
Bayu: I left Ethiopia because of my political involvement in the opposition. I was detained, tortured, and not allowed to work. At any time in the middle of the night, the government people can come and take you. They do whatever they want.
NJJN: Why did you go to Israel?
Bayu: Because I believed it was the best place for me to be safe. I know what happened to the Jewish people in the history of the Holocaust.
Ethiopian Christians have a very strong bond with Israel, especially Jerusalem.
NJJN: What has been your experience there?
Bayu: I applied for asylum, and after four years the United Nations High Commission for Refugees requested the Israeli government to give me the necessary documents for me to live and be protected there. The Israeli government refused to do that. That created a lot of problems for me, so I went on a 23-day hunger strike. After 23 days, the Israeli government granted my request.
NJJN: What was it like to be on a hunger strike?
Bayu: It was horrible. Not eating at all, just drinking water once a day. I lost a lot of weight.
NJJN: What is your status now?
Bayu: I have a temporary resident’s permit in Israel. I have to renew it every two years and I am in the process of requesting that now.
NJJN: Do you ever get hassled by the Israeli government?
Bayu: Generally, no. But because of my work — I am trying to raise the issue of refugees in Israel — I have some problems with the immigration police. They try to harass you sometimes. They can come to your house and do whatever they want to you. The same as in Ethiopia.
NJJN: How should Israel deal with all of the immigrants from Africa who are not Jewish?
Bayu: The state is losing a lot by not having any proper procedure on refugees. People are detained in prison for many years. It is millions and millions of taxpayers’ money being spent for nothing.
Israel does not really define who is a refugee and who is not, and that would make the situation so much easier. People cannot go back to their own countries as a result of persecution. They need to identify who is coming for religion and who is coming for other reasons. When the Jewish people went everywhere, the same thing happened to them.
NJJN: What is the African Refugee Development Center?
Bayu: It is an organization to defend the rights of refugees in Israel. We have projects for humanitarian assistance. We have shelters. We have an education center.
NJJN: Do you have a relationship with the Ethiopian-Jewish community in Israel?
Bayu: Yes, but they have their own problems. Our problem is about identity, just having the proper protection when it comes to asylum seekers. Their situation is more about integration and culture.
NJJN: What message will you deliver to your audience in New Jersey?
Bayu: To tell them what is going on so they can get to know the real problem and pressure the [Israeli] government to treat the problems of refugees in a proper way. This is an international problem also.
NJJN: Some people might say Israel has too many other problems — Hamas and Hizbullah, terrorism, attacks from the international community — to deal with the issue of refugees.
Bayu: This is an opportunity for Israel to show a good side of its society. Refugees fought for Israel in the war against Hizbullah. We have refugees who volunteered for the IDF in the war against Hizbullah. We have volunteers who clean houses for the Holocaust survivors.
I think by treating these people in a proper way, Israel would be gaining, not losing, in image and in international respect.