A recognition of the mental health needs of African refugees in Israel

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A few weeks ago, I attended a staff meeting of a new clinic in Israel to care for the mental health needs of refugees from Eretria and Sudan. They live primarily in south Tel Aviv, and many endured severe hardships and even torture as they made their way to Israel during the past few years. The conditions under which most of these refugees have lived since arriving in Israel have also been difficult. Lacking credentials and explicit permission to work, they compete for low-paying jobs with the area’s Israeli residents, and most have experienced discrimination and social isolation since their arrival.

The new mental health clinic, known as “Gesher” (or “Bridge”), is scheduled to receive clients three times a week for several hours in the late afternoon and evening. It is a program of the Ministry of Health’s Jaffa/Tel Aviv Community Mental Health Center. The idea was proposed by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is providing partial funding for the first year.


The clinic came to fruition through the efforts of the mental health center’s administrative director, Tehila Jouchovitzky. The clinic’s newly assembled clinical staff is headed by Ido Lurie, a psychiatrist who previously worked on refugee issues through the U.N. The staff includes 15 paid and volunteer therapists from the mental health center and other local mental health clinics, as well as a number of interpreters/translators from the local refugee community.

Most of the refugees are single young adults who were able to withstand the rigors of the journey to Israel. A number of children have also been born to the refugees since their arrival in Israel. The number of clients seeking treatment has increased from week to week. Once the program is fully operational, it is anticipated that 20 to 30 clients per week will receive services.

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Treatment is intended to focus on individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a consequence of their experiences in their native countries and what they encountered in making their way to Israel.

One potential area of difficulty is finding interpreters to serve in the clinic. Refugees from Sudan are able to communicate in Arabic, which presents less of a problem because the center has Arabic-speaking staff members. But the majority of refugees are from Eretria, and speak Tigrinya or Tigrit. Finding interpreters in these languages is considerably more difficult.


Further, the Israeli government’s controversial policy of relocating the refugees to two temporary detention camps in the Negev desert presents another potential challenge for the clinic staff.

Although the clinic’s role is clearly and strictly defined as providing treatment and support for the refugees’ mental health problems, there is concern that some of the refugees may request that the clinic assist them in their quest for political asylum.

The staff meeting that I attended and the emergence of this important new program have particular significance for me, as I had been a clinical social worker at the mental health center in 1971-74, and had been an integral part of the center’s early history.

Begun as a pilot project of the Israel Ministry of Health and the Joint Distribution Committee, the center was the first community mental health center in Israel, founded on the model of CMHCs that had developed in the United States during the 1960s. Jaffa had been chosen as the location for this pilot project because its ethnically diverse immigrant population included many large, “multiproblem” families, often living in poverty and faced with challenges such substandard housing and lack of employment.

It seems fitting that the mental health center has once again marshalled its resources to assist this latest group of immigrants. The opening of the clinic clearly demonstrates the strong commitment of the center’s administrative leadership and its staff to the principles and ideals upon which the center was founded. I was very glad that my visit to Israel coincided with the opening of this clinic, and I was proud to witness the beginning of an important outreach effort for this underserved population.

Judith Teich is a behavioral research scientist with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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