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Crafting a New Life

An innovative program in Israel offers prospects to women seeking asylum from Africa

Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Israel, closing businesses, shops and schools, Tagra Bahata, 27, has fallen into an easy routine.

Ms. Bahata, an Eritrean refugee who has lived in Israel since 2009, has set up her sewing machine in the small courtyard of her south Tel Aviv apartment and spends her mornings sewing face masks using bright African prints. Her daughter, Salem, 5, plays underfoot as her son, Samat, 10, busies himself inside doing the usual pre-teen, lazy summer day things: watching television or just lying around on the bed.

Once a week, Ms. Bahata takes all her cloth masks to Kuchinate, the African refugee women’s collective of which she is a member, to turn in her work. Before COVID-19, Ms. Bahata made Kuchinate’s signature crocheted baskets that were sold at their store, and with the money she earned from the sales combined with the salary she made as a cleaner in a busy Tel Aviv hotel, she was even able to splurge on an occasional luxury for her children, such as the television. But with no international tourists coming in, the hotels cut down on workers and now her only income is from the masks sold by Kuchinate.

Ms. Bahata was just 17 when she made the perilous journey from her homeland across Sudan, the Sinai Desert, and into Israel seeking a better life. It took her a few months to make the journey. She only describes it as “very difficult.” Born into war, she barely finished second grade; now, she says, she is studying along with her children. There is a big white board on her kitchen wall with English letters, and tacked up on another wall she has a chart with the letters of her native Tigrinya tongue.

Despite the difficulties, she is thankful for what she has and feels fortunate to be working.

“I have children, but it is only me. I am alone. I have to pay for everything. With the coronavirus everything grew harder,” she says in Hebrew. “It became harder to pay everything. My children are little; if they see me crying, that is not good. All the time I pray to God. I thank God for the work I have making masks.”

“I like to see when people buy the things I have made.”

Cofounded in 2011 by Comboni Missionary Sister Azezet Kidane — known to everyone as simply “Sister Azeeza” — and South African-born Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, a veteran clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in humanitarian aid and intervention, the Kuchinate collective provides a source of income and psychosocial support for Israel’s most vulnerable population of African women asylum seekers.

Mainly from Eritrea, but also from other African countries, including Sudan and Nigeria, 40 percent of the women in the collective are single mothers. Some were forced to leave children behind, and some 60 percent are survivors of human trafficking, torture and rape in the Sinai Desert torture camps, where they were held captive for ransom by traffickers.

Dr. Kahn and Sister Azeeza, who is from Eritrea but served with the Comboni community in Sudan, soon realized the standard form of one-on-one Western therapy where people spoke to strangers about themselves was not suited for the women survivors. Together with a small group of other volunteers they developed the format of Kuchinate — which means “crochet” in Tigrinya.

Connecting women to their culture, Kuchinate uses a variation of the traditional African craft of basket-making as a form of therapy, explained Dr. Kahn. The women gather together, share a meal, and work on the baskets, with the repetitive movements of the crochet needle becoming like a meditation. The easy conversation that flows from their meeting makes it easier for the women to talk.

A woman models a mask she made, her smile visible in her eyes.
Tagra Bahata stands outside her apartment in Tel Aviv while wearing a mask of her own design. (photo: Debbie Hill)

The collective has 200 active members who also receive psychosocial assistance, with 90 women working on salary. Its work has become even more critical during the COVID-19 outbreak as the danger and instability has compounded the women’s fears and brought many of their horrific memories back to the surface, says Dr. Kahn.

As unrecognized asylum seekers, they are not eligible for any of the unemployment benefits the Israeli government provides its unemployed citizens.

There are some 30,000 African asylum seekers living in Israel, most having fled from Eritrea and Sudan. According to the Israeli nongovernmental organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an estimated 7,000 of those are survivors of Sinai torture camps, but only a small percentage have been recognized by Israel as victims of human trafficking. By Israeli law a victim of human trafficking is defined as someone who was forced to work without pay for an extended period of time by smugglers. Those asylum seekers who are recognized as survivors have the right to psychological, social and medical treatment for one year. Those who are not, as with other asylum seekers, do not have access to any such specialized professional treatment, leaving this vulnerable segment of the population in a continuous state of untreated trauma.

Although there are a few humanitarian aid groups who work with asylum seekers in Israel, Kuchinate is the only one providing psychosocial treatment specifically to women survivors of torture and trafficking.

“These women are survivors of torture and they are carrying 60 kilos of baggage on their backs. COVID-19 just added another 70 kilos; it is a very heavy burden to bear,” says Dr. Kahn. “The women have felt very desperate and are in a state of fear — fear for survival, fear of change, fear of losing their jobs. There is a lack of hope for the future. It is very stressful.”

Their main goal, says Sister Azeeza, has been to help empower the women and make them self-sufficient. From its humble beginnings selling small handmade items at craft fairs, the collective was really flourishing before the outbreak of COVID-19, she says. Kuchinate had become a mainstay on the tourist map in Tel Aviv for both local and international visitors. The women took part in museum art and photo exhibitions, pop-up shops and home sales. They found support and a sense of kinship with each other — coming in to work together, eating together and joining together for counseling.

“It was like God knew what the women [would] need and he opened a gate for them.”

“People were coming in, buying baskets, listening to [the women’s] stories, coming to eat. We were not worried. We had many sources of income. Sometimes we had two to four groups a day,” says the Comboni missionary. “Now we have a long waiting list [of women needing help.] Many need psychosocial help. We help according to need, but now it is impossible to feed or pay rent for all.”

Though often resented — and sometimes even feared — in the neighborhoods in which they lived, and vulnerable to government censure, at Kuchinate they felt seen, heard and appreciated, adds Dr. Kahn.

“When people buy your products, eat your food, compliment you, they give you value, respect and dignity,” she said.

As Israel went into full lockdown in early March, the collective had to change the way they worked immediately, says Dr. Kahn. While the group meetings were one of the foundations of Kuchinate, the women could no longer come in and they were isolated in their homes, many living in cramped apartments and in stressful situations.

“From the beginning we really had to pivot. We are trying to be creative. We were mapping the needs of our women on the telephone, speaking to all the women on a regular basis. We gave out raw material for the baskets by home delivery so women could continue working at home and get a salary. We delivered food.”

A woman sits before a sewing machine, holding her 1-year-old son while her 10-year-old daughter stands beside.
Ms. Gebrihiwet pauses from sewing to sit with her son, Hiyab, 1, and daughter Arsama, 10. (photo: Debbie Hill)

What helped the collective get through those first frightening months was the help of their many volunteers and the financial donations from Catholic groups, such as Manos Unidas, which provided food vouchers, and CNEWA, which provided funds to help women pay their rents for the months when there were no sales. A grant from Alight further allowed them to buy an electric bike and hire one of the men from the community to deliver the materials. The Jewish Good People Fund also stepped up to provide funding at that critical juncture.

But, adds Sister Azeeza, looking back now, it was as if there had been a stroke of providence just before the country went into lockdown: The collective received a donation of sewing machines from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of the women were well on their way to learning how to use them, and she and Dr. Kahn had returned from a meeting in England laden with a large supply of African material meant to be used for the new cloth bags and book covers they were planning to add to their product line.

With the lockdown they quickly adapted their production to include face masks. They also expanded into making dolls for the children of the asylum-seeker community, as well as modern handbags.

“It was like God knew what the women [would] need and he opened a gate for them,” she says. Sister Azeeza also provided spiritual support for the women during the lockdown, praying over the phone with them and sending messages of hope on their WhatsApp groups.

“All the time I pray to God. I thank God for the work I have making masks.”

They are now focusing more on their online sales and although people are buying fewer baskets, sales of the masks are doing very well, says Dr. Kahn. The dolls are sold on their online store as a way people can make a donation to the children of the asylum-seeker community, or they can purchase a doll for themselves.

The masks have also proven to be a source of encouragement for the women, as they are able to see people actually wearing them in the streets.

“I see people wearing the masks we made, and I understand I have done something. It looks nice and it makes me feel good,” says Berhana Gebrihiwet, 33, who recently remarried after her first husband left her, and lives with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and a year-old son in a two-room apartment in Tel Aviv.

She spent a year in a Libyan jail as she tried to escape from Eritrea, and gave birth to her daughter, Arsema, in prison. She eventually made it through the Sinai Desert to Israel with her baby in 2011. It was, she said in a refrain heard from many of the women, “very difficult.”

Mourning the now 13-year-old son whom she was forced to leave behind in Eritrea, Mrs. Gebrihiwet hopes to someday be reunited with him. Prayers from a booklet prepared by Sister Azeeza have helped her pass the more difficult moments, she says.

Lockdown restrictions were eased in May, and a schedule was worked out for the women to be able to drop off their stock at Kuchinate and pick up new material.

On a warm Tuesday morning in August, manager Eden Gebre, 30, one of the members of the cooperative who has been in Israel for eight years, checks the baskets for quality control, while other women cut up vegetables and cook lentils for their communal lunch.

The managers not only help keep the collective running smoothly, but also serve as role models for other women going through more difficult moments.

“There are a lot of people with problems, big or small. Some succeed more than others; others can’t continue, their lives are very difficult,” says Mrs. Gebre, a mother of three, who recently underwent a liver transplant and was unable to work during lockdown. Her husband suffers from asthma and is not working now, leaving her to support the family. She spent six months in an Egyptian jail where she was shot and beaten before she finally made it to Israel.

A nun and a doctor chat with a woman in their office, all seated.
Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn and Sister Azezet Kidane speak to an asylum seeker from Sudan in their office at the women’s collective. (photo: Debbie Hill)

“All the time I say we have to think we are not little. Here in Israel everyone can work; we just need to take responsibility for our lives. I want them to advance. I say, ‘Look at me, I am not young now; I have children. The most important thing is your health and if you believe you can do it and are strong, you can do it,’ ” she says.

Some women slip into an office to speak privately with Sister Azeeza and Dr. Kahn, who have formed a warm friendship over the years of close collaboration. The two work together almost seamlessly to help the women not only to evolve themselves, but also to empower others.

“I feel good about myself and have learned a lot of things, like how to forget about [my own problems] and worry about other people [who are worse off],” said Selam Gonets, 26, the community manager for Kuchinate.

Mrs. Gonets has three children and just returned to work at Kuchinate after her husband recently came out of quarantine at a COVID-19 quarantine hotel provided by the Israeli government. During that time she had been unable to work because she needed to take care of her young children. Now her husband has been laid off from his job at a restaurant and she is the sole breadwinner of the family.

Working at Kuchinate has given her a sense of purpose, she said. “I love to help when I can. [The women] come [to talk to me] and I listen to what they have in their hearts. This is my work, but I also want to give. I can also give help.”

Mrs. Gonets sits on a low bench next to the group of women gathered on the sofas as she rhythmically shakes a pan of roasting coffee beans above burning coals, preparing her drink in the coffee ceremony traditional to the Horn of Africa. As the beans toast and begin to emit their warm fragrance, she has one of the other women pass around a straw tray with popcorn. Soon, she follows, walking among the group with the pan as the women wave their hands in front of their faces to breathe in the aromatic smoke rising from the beans.

Short and energetic, Mrs. Gonets smiles often. She is well versed in sharing her story, but she lets it be known she will share only the details she wants.

“These women are survivors of torture and they are carrying 60 kilos of baggage on their backs.”

She had never had any intention of leaving Eritrea, she said. She was in 11th grade and a good student, and had planned to continue on to college to be a social worker. But then one of her good friends fled the country, and Mrs. Gonets was thrown in jail for two weeks as an accomplice until her father could have her released. At that point, she knew she would also have to leave.

“I had never left home and I cried. It is more difficult for a girl,” she says. She was so naïve and unprepared that she left wearing nice clothes and open-toed shoes, she recalls.

She went to Sudan, where she had an aunt in a refugee camp, then made her way to join her brother in Israel against his wishes. It took her one month to make the crossing and toward the end of the journey there was no water. A truck she was riding on packed with almost 100 people overturned and she was injured. Thanks to her slight stature she was able to convince some of the people to help her.

“They wanted to leave me. I was very little. Men helped me. Someone carried me on their back until we reached Sinai. … I will never forget it. It was so difficult. Finally we came to [the Israeli border] and the soldiers received us well there,” she said.

“I knew so little, I thought everyone in Israel was Christian. I thought right away I would go to Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Then suddenly we saw the reality. You see people don’t like you because you are black. I still feel the stress and I pray. Then I met Sister Azeeza and she gives me strength.”

Mrs. Gonets adds that she still dreams of studying social work.

As the women prepare for their general meeting, Sister Azeeza leads the women in prayer, reciting Psalm 24 in Tigrinya.

The sister was pivotal in exposing the existence of the Sinai torture camps as a volunteer with the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. She began recording testimony in 2009 from men and women refugees coming in to their free medical clinic requesting treatment for strange and horrible wounds. Some were pregnant.

For the women of the collective she is their confidante, their mother and their best friend.

Two 5-year-olds hold dolls as they sit together on a comfy couch.
Hiyab Asmerom, 5, and Asima Taklah, 5, hold dolls made by the women of the Tel Aviv collective. (photo: Debbie Hill)

“At Kuchinate I feel calm. Here, Sister Azeeza and Diddy are like my mother. I don’t tell anyone my problems, only Sister Azeeza. What is in my heart, I tell her. It is like a family here, now I have support,” said Yerosalem Araya, 30, the new shipping manager and a single mother to a 5-year-old son.

She used to work as a cleaner at shopping malls, but was laid off. Her husband, who was in the United States, divorced her after three years of initially requesting a visa for her and their son to join him.

“During the coronavirus [lockdown] it was very difficult being alone. Kuchinate brought food to my home.”

Ms. Araya graduated from a Catholic high school and spent two years in jail without seeing her family because she refused to join the Eritrean army. When she was released, she fled to Sudan, then to the Sinai Desert to reach Israel, first with a group of people and then on her own.

“It was very difficult. Very difficult,” she says, wiping tears away with a tissue. “When I saw a car of Israeli soldiers driving by the border I couldn’t even speak. I waved my hands. I didn’t care who it was. They brought me water.”

Displayed on one of the front counters at the Kuchinate store is a yellow-fringed handbag that Araya helped design. In Eritrea she loved doing crafts and her mother and sister taught her how to make baskets, she says.

“Cleaning [houses] was depressing. Here I sometimes get new ideas and I can work it into my creation. I like to see when people buy the things I have made,” she says. “I want to do something good for my son. I want to give him a good life.”

“I am making something beautiful for the world.”

In the late afternoon, as the other women have begun to gather their things and leave, Achveret Abraham, 33, arrives from her cleaning job. She wears a sheer scarf draped over her hair and looks tired. She is one of the first members of Kuchinate, having spent three years at the refugee women’s shelter where Sister Azeeza volunteered, which became the base for the collective.

Quiet and unassuming, Ms. Abraham arrived in Israel a decade ago, escaping the violence and constant fear through the Sinai Desert. She was forced to leave behind a son, now 16 years old, whom she hopes to see again one day, and has two daughters in Israel: a 10-year-old with special needs and a 7-year-old.

Her life in Israel is still a struggle, and she has found support in Kuchinate, Sister Azeeza, and her prayers.

And the artist who has emerged from within her tells her stories through the stunning baskets she produces. Ms. Abraham works on into the quiet nights after she finishes her cleaning jobs and her girls are asleep, and her baskets have been featured in magazines and displayed at several museums in Israel, Sweden and New York.

“I never thought I would have something in a museum. It is not easy work. I think hard about what to do, what colors to use. Sometimes my girls tell me what they think. They tell their teachers about my work.

“I feel good; I feel happy to make something beautiful, so whoever buys from me will have something beautiful,” she says. “I am making something beautiful for the world.”

Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem covering social and religious issues in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. She is a correspondent for the Catholic News Service and her work has appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, Living Lutheran and The Jerusalem Report, among others.

a woman wraps a handbag purchased by another woman at a store.
Tigsit Kofole wraps a basket made by African asylum seekers for a customer in Kuchinate’s store. (photo: Debbie Hill)

The CNEWA Connection

Even as Israel’s native Arab and Armenian Christians confront ethnic and religious discrimination, Christian migrants from Africa, especially Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, flock there seeking a measure of stability and opportunity.

The Hebrew-speaking vicariate of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the men and women religious who administer the Catholic community’s shrines and religious houses, are engaged actively in ministering to the many needs of these migrants.

Join CNEWA to support these inspired initiatives in the Holy Land. Call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).

About the Author: Judith Sudilovsky

Jerusalem-based contributors Judith Sudilovsky and Debbie Hill cover events in the region.

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