From Israel to the United States: Kayla Zecher’s Summer Experience at HIRC

By Kayla Zecher

As I finished up my final week at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, a few things came to mind. And more things come to mind as I anticipate my return home to Israel, where I will continue to study law and work with the refugee community.

It has been wonderful reacquainting myself with US asylum law – a system that those of us working on these issues in Israel strive to emulate. I mean, not the enormous backlog for family reunification applicants, or for that matter, the ardent xenophobia that is so prevalent in certain US states. But for the most part, it is encouraging to get acquainted with a system in which asylum seekers are given more than two options: getting deported and facing death or life imprisonment in their country of origin, or remaining in the host country with absolutely no basic rights. This is the situation in Israel.

I have been working for the past four years with the refugee community in Israel. I have seen South Sudanese refugees deported, even those successfully enrolled in an Israeli university, despite confirmation that earlier deportees have already disappeared and were allegedly killed upon return. I have witnessed racist riots in the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv where the migrant community is the largest, and heard the community of asylum seekers referred to as “black infiltrators” and the “cancer that ails Israel.” I have met Eritrean women who were kidnapped on their way to find work in Sudan, trafficked through the torture camps in the Sinai, then dropped off in Israel where, with no basic rights, attention, or work available to them, they have been coerced into the sex industry.


Refugee demonstration in Israel. 

Against this backdrop, I have also seen countless volunteers and NGO staff work tirelessly alongside the refugee community to improve the situation. I have seen members of the refugee community rise up and begin empowering and standing up for other members of their community – helping to protect refugee women from domestic violence, providing shelters for homeless women and children, and developing numerous education opportunities.

This summer has provided me with perspective – a perspective that is very easy to lose in tiny Israel while working in immigration issues. The US only adopted international refugee law into its domestic law in the 1980s, and only began implementing it in the 1990s. And its advocates are still working tirelessly to put gender-based persecution and domestic violence cases on every US asylum officer’s map as legitimate basis for asylum.This perspective was one I gained from conversations with the experienced, brilliant, and dedicated staff at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic; it was sharpened during an impromptu meeting with a Guatemalan activist who relayed, in a small conference room, his heart wrenching experience. In very fast Spanish (of which I speak none), he related details of the trial of Efrain Rios Montt last year. Next to him sat a refugee from Guatemala, a survivor of the genocide who had received asylum in the US with the help from the Greater Boston Legal Services and HIRC. As he spoke, it became clear to me that the US was not accepting desperate Guatemalan and El Salvadorian refugees between the years 1981 through 1983 because the government essentially supported the regimes as part of their anti-communist policies during the Cold War. The US was accepting a pitiful 3% of the asylum requests, while other countries were accepting close to 80%. The parallel to Israel today and the US thirty years ago was very stark. In Israel, we accept around 0.17% of Eritrean refugees, while in the UK, for example, they accept about 86%. Israel has diplomatic relations with Eritrea. Outside of the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv, weekly demonstrations are held by hundreds of Eritreans protesting the dictatorship. America’s policy was eventually changed by small groups of people who did right: churches and synagogues harbored refugees, because it was the right thing to do, despite their government’s position.


Blogger Kayla Zecher, a student at the College of Law and Business, in front of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at HLS.

I believe this is similar to where we in Israel are today. And, although I do not have hope that soon we will be having conversations about how many non-citizen college students may receive citizenship upon completing their studies, as with the DREAM Act in the US, I will continue fighting for basic medical care for asylum seekers and I will continue to believe that one day this will be our conversation in Israel. The churches and synagogues that lent a hand to Guatemalan refugees in the 1980s were doing what was right, and they could not have known for certain that what they were doing would help lay the foundation for a more just refugee policy in the US.

The large family that is the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic was inspiring and it was such an honor to work with them this summer. The image that will stay with me back in Israel will be from the Asylum Acceptance Annual Office party: the happiness of numerous families chatting with their attorneys who argued their successful asylum requests. I will take this picture back with me to Israel, hoping that one day I will meet someone who fled terrible conditions in their home country and was welcomed in Israel with permanent residence status, and I hope that what we are doing today in Israel will have contributed to that process.

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