Post-seder with an Eritrean asylum seeker in South Tel Aviv

Several weeks ago, amid conversation with friends, the issue of the impending deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel was raised. It quickly became clear to me that I knew very little about this matter, and so I decided to learn more.

I learned that there are currently approximately 37,800 asylum seekers in Israel. About 72% of them are from Eritrea, while 20% arrived from Sudan. The former escaped a nation sometimes labeled as ‘Africa’s North Korea’. Under the rule of a dictator, President Isaias Afwerki, Eritreans are subjected to a compulsory military service. This national duty, however, is commonly perceived as providing legitimate cover for the practice of modern-day slavery. Perhaps more well-known to western audiences is the ethnic violence that has caused many Sudanese to flee their homeland. Sadly, the Israeli government has maintained a problematic policy towards Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers alike. Between 2009 and 2017, 15,400 requests for asylum were submitted by these groups to the Israeli Ministry of Interior. Of these, 6,500 applications were denied. Perhaps even more disturbing is that 8,500 have yet to receive a reply. In total, only 11 individuals have been granted asylum status. With the overwhelming majority of these asylum seekers left unprotected by the law, the Israeli government has the green light to carry out its expulsion of these vulnerable subjects to Rwanda and Uganda. (Note: Information borrowed from Alon Tal’s “A myth-busting Passover primer on asylum seekers,” Times of Israel).

Deeply moved by the plight of these asylum seekers, I wanted to hear their stories firsthand. Immediately following Passover seder, I decided to pay a late-night visit to south Tel Aviv, a neighborhood comprised of significant Eritrean and Sudanese populations. Dressed in a button–down shirt and slacks, I rode my bike around the area, with the hope of coming across an Eritrean or Sudanese. Fortunately, I met Samuel.

Samuel, an asylum seeker from south Tel Aviv.

After completing high school in Eritrea, Samuel — like many of his fellow countrymen — was obliged to an indefinite period of unpaid labor (slavery) for a military commander. Distraught by this damned arrangement, the then eighteen year old Samuel, alongside two companions, voiced their frustrations to military authorities. Their superiors responded to these complaints by arresting his two friends and threatening Samuel with imprisonment should he continue to challenge their decisions. Frightened by these threats, Samuel decided that he had no choice but to leave his family behind and flee his beloved Eritrea, a very dangerous undertaking. Crossing the Eritrea-Sudan border, Samuel’s only feasible escape route, entailed the risk of being shot to death by Eritrean soldiers. Miraculously, Samuel safely crossed into Sudan. Shortly thereafter, however, events took a turn for the worse; Samuel was kidnapped by local tribesmen, who would subsequently sell the Eritrean defector to Egyptian Bedouins. Under these new masters, Samuel witnessed a fellow Eritrean escapee killed after he was unable to gather enough funds for a ransom. Faced with the same predicament, Samuel paid his kidnappers to take him to the border with Israel, where he safely crossed into the Jewish state by foot.

Eight years later, Samuel says he is very happy in Israel. Once literally running for his survival, Samuel now has a meaningful and stable life in south Tel Aviv. He is married, father to a one year old son, fluent in Hebrew, and works as a kitchen assistant for celebrity chef Yisrael Aharoni. Nonetheless, Samuel — denied asylum status by the Israeli government — lives with the perpetual fear that he will be deported.

Many proponents of the deportation claim that these asylum seekers endanger Israeli society. My encounter with Samuel, however, leads me to believe that this allegation is false. Far from posing a threat, this population, by and large, positively contributes to Israeli society. In addition to working menial jobs, many asylum seekers like Samuel are wonderful individuals who embody exemplary traits that are worthy of emulation — among them respect, kindness, and perseverance amid adversity. On another note, the Israeli government’s handling of this issue raises two main questions: First, while Israel also hosts non-African illegal migrants, why is this imminent deportation limited to include only African asylum seekers? Second, how is the government able to finance this deportation (considering its failure to allocate the funds to facilitate the less costly immigration of the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry)? I fear that the answers to these questions may be based on racist attitudes.

Returning from my post-seder excursion to south Tel Aviv, another Eritrean man wished me a Hag Pesach Sameach (“Happy Passover”). In hindsight, I wonder if this man knew the meaning of Passover, a holiday commemorating the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. Ironically, Samuel — like the Jewish people — escaped slavery by traversing the Egyptian desert in order to eventually arrive to Israel, a land of freedom. Safe in the Jewish state, politicians are now manipulating the Israeli public to heartlessly refuse refuge to these decent and deserving people. This move bears the harsh consequences of drastically altering and even risking African asylum seekers’ lives. If not for the sake of humanity, then in the spirit of Passover, let’s not turn our backs on wonderful people like Samuel.

About the Author
Ben Eitan Rathauser is a student at Tel Aviv University and a research assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
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