The neighborhoods surrounding Tel Aviv’s old central bus station are littered with broken dreams, false promises and aching poverty. But one person here, at least, is living her dream.
It is to these Israeli streets that tens of thousands of African refugees have flocked, grateful to be alive but struggling to make ends meet. In one of the alleys, a broken gate signals to me that I’ve arrived. Here, in a two-bedroomed apartment, 30-year-old Faida Bakaji Tshuma is a ray of hope in a place where hope itself seems a luxury.
Six years ago Tshuma arrived in Israel with her family, political refugees from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her parents were being threatened with prison, or worse, for their political activities and Jerusalem’s arms were open to those seeking asylum. Tshuma had just finished her university studies and the world seemed promising.
“I was very happy. It was like a dream. I was full of ambition. I thought to myself, ‘this is my chance to build my future in Israel’,” she reflects.
But the greater happiness she expected in this longed-for place evaded her when she found herself in a cramped apartment with seven other family members all surviving on piecemeal jobs.
“It was a big disappointment, but there was nothing we could do, so we stayed in this condition for two years. It was a vicious circle. I didn’t have money to learn Hebrew and, without Hebrew, I couldn’t apply for a Master’s degree, not that I would’ve been able to pay for my studies anyway. The only option was to work as a cleaner in people’s homes,” she says.
There are about 50,000 refugees in Israel, with thousands more arriving every year—mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Congo. But these numbers are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands who die, or are killed, en route.
“It’s not easy. And even when we get here, it’s just as difficult. One day I just slumped into a depression and decided to stop everything,” Tshuma remembers. “I didn’t answer my phone for three days. I knew something had to change. I thought, ‘what can I do? What can I do to get out of this condition, out of this poverty?’ The problem was that I had no savings that could help me do something else.”
And yet the answer was staring her in the face.
“Because I didn’t have a job, my sister and brother asked if I could babysit their children while they were at work. I agreed because I like kids. In the morning, we would paint, sing and dance and afterwards they would eat and sleep. I spent three days doing this when I suddenly realized I could open a nursery school, provide this service to other families and turn it into a profitable business.”
But she needed funds, so Tshuma approached Microfy, a microfinance organization.
“Being a refugee is like being an entrepreneur because you take your life into your hands and it’s up to you to make it work,” says Microfy’s founder and director Andrea Kruchik Krell.
“The business risks to these refugees are huge and more often than not, those who open a business have it closed down by the authorities because they don’t have the legal status to own a company in Israel. But just like the rest of the population, about 10% of them are entrepreneurs—refugees with great ideas who are good at doing business but need to be given a chance,” says Krell.
In addition to providing loans, Microfy organizes intensive training in business management and mentors refugees.
“If they don’t show commitment and if they talk about importing diamonds from Congo, they won’t get funding,” points out Krell. “But Faida knew what she wanted and was determined and willing to make an effort to learn.”
In the past four years, the nursery school has grown to 40 children, all of them from refugee or foreign workers’ families. A typical day starts at seven and ends 12 hours later when parents finish their often irregular, often menial labor.
Mimi is a shy, tiny woman, who gave birth to her daughter, Nohami, in Sudan while she and her husband were fleeing Eritrea. They spent a year in an Israeli prison after being arrested for trying to sneak into the country from Egypt. She supports her daughter with the money she earns from cleaning apartments. Her husband is in Switzerland where he is trying to arrange papers to take the family there.
“I don’t know what I’d do if this place didn’t exist. I know no-one in Israel and there’s no other place I can leave my daughter, knowing she’s in a safe environment and being well taken care of,” she says
Fura is another single mom who has two children at the nursery school—her youngest is six months old. She, too, says life is difficult in Israel and knowing her children are being looked after during the day while she searches for work gives her peace of mind.
“The children are still too young for us to see what kind of trauma they’ve experienced,” says Tshuma. “But I see the difficulty in the conditions of their lives; they don’t spend time with their parents as they’re here all day and go home just to sleep. The other day, one of the four-year-olds asked me why his mom couldn’t come to pick him up early and take him to the park to play. It’s so sad.”
The nursery school provides a safe environment in which the children can grow and learn. Tshuma has since trained in early childhood education and with the help of volunteers has a daily schedule she follows that includes educational games, art and music. She talks to the children in English, French and Hebrew and often the meal she gives them is the only food they eat all day. Her work won her a Microfinance International Award for successfully using a Microfy loan to start her own business.
“I run this place with a lot of understanding. Often a parent will come to me and say they’re so sorry but they haven’t been able to find work this month and can’t pay fees. Sometimes I take money from my own pocket to buy books, a nice chair, a CD,” she says.
“Nothing in this life is easy, you need to fight, to stand up and do it. The value of a person is what’s inside. Many of the refugees have so much to contribute but don’t get the opportunity to do so. I wanted to be an exception and challenge myself. I wanted to help people and give back. I didn’t want to just have any nursery school where kids were dropped off and picked up—I want this place to be something different.”