Young Israeli advocates for Darfur refugees

Television is known more for inspiring couch-potato behavior than activism.

But when Yasmin Ravid saw the sad, lost faces of mother-and-daughter refugees on an Israeli newscast, she couldn’t sit idly by.

The 23-year-old decided she didn’t want to feel helpless. So she started looking for ways to help. She found the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv. Within days of seeing the television broadcast, she visited a refugee in prison.

For the past five months, Ravid has mostly worked with Darfur refugees just released from prison — taking them to the doctor, buying them a boom box, helping them learn Hebrew and English — in an attempt to restore the humanity they lost in Sudan.

Ravid’s Bay Area roots run deep — her mother, Linda, grew up in San Mateo and her father, Shlomi, spent several years as a shaliach in San Francisco, where he started the Israel Center in 1996. She used to go to Camp Tawonga. She lives in Israel and visits Northern California often, most recently before a backpacking trip in Guatemala (where she is currently).

Darfur refugees don’t get the attention they deserve, Ravid said in an interview during her recent Bay Area visit.

“Because Israel has so much going on, we don’t talk as much about the rest of the world. That’s just how it is,” she said.

Darfur refugees have been coming to Israel after being treated terribly in their home country. After escaping from Sudan, they make their way to Egypt, where they are also treated poorly. They arrive in Israel with high hopes for a peaceful life, but because they come from a country that supports terrorism, the Israeli government considers the refugees to be enemy nationals and puts them in jail.

With support from the hotline and volunteers like Ravid, about half of the refugees have been released from jail and placed on kibbutzes, where they can live and work if they agree to abide by certain restrictions.

The Israeli government has not decided exactly what to do with all the refugees coming from Darfur.

“On the one hand, they’re very grateful to have a place where they can walk down the street without getting beaten. They feel safe, and that’s extremely important,” Ravid said. “But there’s also a lot of frustration because their future is not secure. All they want to do is live.

“Some of them have been told that Jews kill any Muslims who come into their country,” she added. “The fact that they’re willing to take a chance and come to Israel shows how desperate they are for a better future.”

The Hotline for Migrant Workers helps foreign workers, refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel and runs a health clinic in partnership with Physicians for Human Rights.

The hotline first assigned Ravid to go to Masiyahu Prison and bring the Sudanese refugees basic supplies like paper and pens. Soon the hotline was asking her to “vouch” for a 27-year-old refugee who was to be released to work on a kibbutz after nearly two years in prison.

Most of Ravid’s volunteer work found her driving refugees from Kibbutz Yad Hana near Hadera to their medical appointments in Tel Aviv. She bought them medications and often paid her own travel costs.

“I want to make them feel like people again,” she said.

The volunteer work is now a family project. Ravid’s sister Maayan teaches the Sudanese Hebrew and English. Her brother just wrote a research paper about Darfur refugees for a high school course. And her parents have started a grassroots campaign to ensure the government does not send the refugees back to Egypt.

“She inspired us not to sit back but to act, to demonstrate our belief in tikkun olam, to go out of our way to help others,” Linda Ravid said.

Yasmin Ravid is pleased that her family is helping to raise awareness about the Sudanese refugees. She starts school at Ben Gurion University in the fall. She doesn’t know what she’ll study yet, but she does know she wants to continue advocating for peace and human rights.

“It’s important for Israel to take care of this situation correctly,” she said. “It’s such a great opportunity to prove that we’re the democratic and enlightened state we think we are.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.