Yohannes Bayu, founder of the African Refugees Development Center. His own experiences as a refugee fueled his decision to help others.For Yohannes Bayu, founder of the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC), time is always of the essence. To talk to him, it is necessary to follow him along in his work routine, which involves constant attention to the African refugees with whom he works. His car is packed with garbage bags full of donated clothing, and it is impossible for him to park his car in south Tel Aviv without immediately attracting a crowd of refugees who pelt him with urgent questions.

It was Bayu who founded the refugee shelters in south Tel Aviv for refugees from Darfur, Eritrea and Sudan. His own experience as a refugee fueled his decision to help others. In 1997, he arrived in Israel on a tourist visa after fleeing his government in Ethiopia. It took five years and a Supreme Court Order before Bayu could win political asylum.

But even before his experience as a refugee, Bayu was no stranger to non-profit work, having worked for an NGO in HIV/AIDS counseling in Ethiopia.

Feeling genocide and persecution

In the past year, Israel has been inundated with refugees from Africa. Refugees from Darfur have enjoyed better treatment in Israel than almost anywhere else in the world, because the Darfurian genocide made their plight unquestionably dire. But refugees from Sudan and Eritrea are fleeing persecution that is less publicized than the Darfurian genocide, and consequently the government has delayed granting many of them the legal status of refugees.

Bayu’s foray into creating the shelters began suddenly on a winter night in the past year, when 1,000 African refugees were released into the streets of south Tel Aviv, with nowhere to take refuge. The ARDC quickly organized an emergency shelter of one room with no amenities, which Bayu still recalls as a harrowing experience for the refugees. The dilapidated conditions of the current shelters, he tells ISRAEL21c, are “like a palace” compared to the original shelter.

By now the ARDC has established four shelters in south Tel Aviv: one for men, one for families with children, one for minors, and most recently a shelter for single parents and pregnant women. Until a few months ago, the pregnant women were living in the men’s shelter, with no front door, and Bayu was concerned for their safety.

Several groups of volunteers work with the ARDC to help the refugees: there is a medical team, social workers, and a legal clinic run by Anat Ben-Dor of Tel Aviv University, who is attempting to obtain legal status for the refugees.

Soft-spoken, bespectacled and clad in a blue button-down shirt, Bayu could pass for a professor. His steely resolve emerged when he found a strange man smoking in the corridor of the men’s shelter (which at the time also housed pregnant women), abruptly ordering him to leave. An altercation ensued, and finally the smoker staggered out, thought not before barking one last expletive in Bayu’s direction. Afterward, Bayu wearily explained that drug addicts often take advantage of the shelter’s corridor, since there is no way to keep people from coming in.

I love you teacher

The family shelter is a small house deep in a residential area, converted into a home for 50 people – parents and many small children. The children roam exuberantly outside and play with donated toys. One tiny room that resembles a bomb shelter has been converted into a classroom, where volunteers teach the older children Hebrew. The walls are entirely papered with children’s drawings, with one very prominent poster that reads “I love you teacher” in staggered letters.

The children don’t seem to have absorbed their parents’ mood, which is grim. One mother is mourning the loss of her 22-year-old son, who was shot by Egyptians while crossing the border into Israel. Her son was carrying his two-year-old brother, and the bullet that killed the adult son wounded the baby.

But in just the next room to this tragic tableau, a mother had given birth to a baby just 11 days before. She had fled across the border with her husband and children while she was five months pregnant.

Bayu is daily overwhelmed with hundreds of concerns, which include obtaining medical care for refugees who have no status in the country and affording the rent for the shelters. The men’s shelter alone, a rickety building in a crime-ridden area, costs $6,000 per month.

Instead of asking for charity, however, Bayu wants to emphasize that the refugees are capable of working and being productive residents of the country. This past summer, he took a group of refugees to Sderot to do volunteer work there, and afterwards to perform for the town’s residents with African music and dancing. “We want to show that they are not a burden to society – rather they are a contributing part of society,” Bayu tells ISRAEL21c.

But until the refugees can obtain work permits, they are dependent on the shelters. Even in cases when refugees do receive work permits, there are many instances of employers who vanish without paying, confident that they can get away with it. This makes it difficult for refugees to become independent, though it is slowly happening in some cases.

With so many people depending on him, Bayu is constantly on call. “In the middle of the night, if people get sick, they call us,” he says. “One thousand people are calling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

That day, Bayu was preoccupied with a particular issue: a group of Darfurian teenagers had been released from prison into the streets a few days before, and no one knew yet where they were. Looking tired as he began the long drive back to his home in Jerusalem, Bayu comments, “We’re hoping that they’ll call us.”