Samara Carroll, second from the left, with Dawit Demoz, right, and members of his host family – Sunita and her daughter Persia. (photo from Samara Carroll)
Soon after Samara Carroll returned from a yearlong program in Israel, she took action to help African asylum seekers in Israel come to Canada.
Carroll grew up in Winnipeg, went to Talmud Torah and then to Gray Academy. She was involved in many aspects of the Jewish community growing up, including with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, leading trips to Israel, and attending Camp Massad for 17 years (for two of which she was the camp director).
In 2012, Carroll was accepted to be the first Canadian participant of the New Israel Fund Social Justice Fellowship. “This fellowship gives you the opportunity to choose an Israeli nonprofit and work there for a year,” Carroll told the Independent.
“I chose ASSAF – Aid Organization for Asylum Seekers and Refugees – located in south Tel Aviv. I worked as a community organizer, activist and counselor, supporting families who had fled, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, and were dealing with the trauma related to their past experiences and the ongoing challenges of being in Israeli society.”
During her time at ASSAF, Carroll heard hundreds of gut-wrenching stories, but also learned many things from the asylum seekers with whom she worked.
“The Israeli government does not have a proper process to assess whether or not someone is an asylum seeker,” said Carroll. “So, instead of creating a system, they have created policies that make life extremely difficult for asylum seekers…. They do not have basic access to healthcare, proper housing, employment or education. And, they face significant racism, directly from the Israeli government. They have been referred to as a ‘cancer.’
“The Netanyahu government claims that the asylum seekers have come to Israel for employment opportunities, but you only have to hear one story from an asylum seeker about their experience facing genocide and dictatorship in their country of origin – leaving behind everything they knew, being smuggled, human trafficked and tortured by smugglers in Sinai and then arriving in a foreign country – to understand that they are fleeing desperate situations.
“When you ask many asylum seekers where they’d want to be, they say ‘back home,’ but they cannot go back home,” Carroll said, summing up her belief using a quote from writer Warsan Shire: “You have to understand no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
After her year in Israel, Carroll decided to pursue a master of social work degree at the University of Toronto. About six months after she had arrived in Toronto, she was approached by Dawit Demoz, an Eritrean asylum-seeking man who was an activist in Israel, about giving asylum seekers more rights in Israel.
“He approached me, asking if I would sponsor him to Canada,” explained Carroll. “He felt that, although he loved the community he had established in Israel – his Israeli friends, the food and the culture – the policies of the Israeli government were just getting worse and he knew he had to try to leave the country if he ever wanted freedom.
“I agreed to sponsor him and did so through a SAH (Sponsorship Agreement Holder). The sponsorship process is detailed, but is very manageable and I believe more people would be open to sponsoring asylum seekers if they understood this.”
Demoz arrived in Toronto in March 2016. “He says this is the first time in his life he has felt free,” said Carroll. “He studies psychology at York University, works as an interpreter for a refugee organization, led canoe trips through Algonquin Park as a counselor last summer, and worked as a counselor at the Heart to Heart Program through Camp Shomria. He also plays soccer on a team, hosts Eritrean dinners for his many Jewish friends, and enjoys life.
“Five of our friends have submitted a Group of Five sponsorship to bring his mother [who he hasn’t seen in 10 years] to join him in Toronto,” said Carroll.
Following her example, Carroll’s parents, Sharon Chisvin and Marshall Carroll, have sponsored an Eritrean couple with the support of a local church-based sponsorship agreement agency, Jewish Child and Family Service Winnipeg and donations from friends, family and community members. The couple – Tsege and Kidane – arrived in Winnipeg in May 2016.
“They are generous, wonderful people and have created a strong community for themselves in Winnipeg, and they also support other newly arrived asylum seekers,” said Carroll. “While it is clear that you can positively shape someone’s life who has never experienced freedom before, you do not know how much they will positively impact your life.”
According to Carroll, the situation for asylum seekers in Israel has worsened since 2016. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has signed an order to deport asylum seekers from Israel to third-party countries, such as Uganda and Rwanda, she said. “This is a human rights violation, as we do not know what is waiting for them in these new countries – countries they have no connection to. Men who have already been deported there have been given no status or rights.”
For her part, Chisvin has started working with Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel (CHAI), which she described as “a grassroots group formed in Toronto in response to Netanyahu’s deportation order. It is primarily made up of Toronto Jewish activists who feel deeply that Israel’s intent to deport 38,000 African asylum seekers to third countries – and to certain suffering – is a strict violation of Jewish values, history and memory. This sentiment has been shared by 20,000 Israelis who protested against the deportation in Tel Aviv [recently], myriad Israeli rabbis, teachers, psychiatrists, El Al pilots and authors, as well as Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz, the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] and many other individuals and agencies.”
In Toronto, there is growing group of support for CHAI, and Chisvin is working to create a similar group in Winnipeg and beyond. Its goals, she explained, include raising awareness within the Jewish community about the deportation; encouraging people to ask the Israeli government to rescind its deportation order and implement a humane strategy for refugees and asylum seekers; appealing to the Canadian government to pressure the Israeli government to rescind the deportation order and work together on a solution; and encouraging people to commit to private refugee sponsorships.
“I have been assisted in my efforts, helped by a handful of people here in Winnipeg, who are helping me raise awareness in the community about the issue – urging others to speak up and fundraise for the refugees I have, and am in the process of sponsoring,” said Chisvin.
Further to that, Chisvin is in the early stages of organizing a community event to raise awareness about the issue and to explain how and why Canadian Jews should be moved by the plight of African asylum seekers who are at risk of being deported or indefinitely detained, and how and why they should commit to help sponsor some of them to Canada as refugees.
“The best solution, of course, is for Israel to rescind its deportation order, properly process the refugee claims of the asylum seekers, grant them refugee status, and all the rights inherent in that status,” said Chisvin. “But, if Israel doesn’t rescind the order, it is incumbent on Canadian Jews to lobby their government to increase the number of African asylum seekers it brings to Canada and to commit to privately sponsor African asylum seekers to Canada.”
There are many other ways to become involved, including supporting sponsors with money to help settle asylum seekers, provide housing and employment opportunities – as well as just being open and generous with newcomers. For more information, email [email protected] or visit facebook.com/canadianshelpingasylumseekersinisrael or letushelpil.org/canada.html.
“Israel needs to deal with the asylum seeker situation in their country and not force out people who have already experienced unspeakable trauma to a third country that will again violate their human rights,” said Carroll. “Our message and the message of many Jewish communities now is, ‘Do not deport. Let us help.’”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.