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Surviving Without a Country in the Promised Land

People brave perils to reach Israel

Asmeret, a 26-year-old Orthodox Christian, has journeyed far in four short years. From her homeland in the Horn of Africa, in a land that won its independence shortly after her birth, she trekked west, eventually reaching Khartoum, Sudan. She then traveled north to the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. And finally, through great perils and sacrifices, she arrived in Israel.

Under the yawning shadow of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station — a seven-story structure famously seen as an eyesore — migrant workers, asylum seekers and others from abroad struggle to eke out an existence, often after risking their very lives to reach Israel.

A petite, shy woman with short, red-tinted hair and a warm smile, Asmeret speaks English and Hebrew in addition to her mother tongue of Tigrinya. Although her linguistic skills have aided her difficult transition, they could not spare her the indignity and pain facing so many vulnerable people caught in human trafficking.

Before leaving home, Asmeret had worked in an office internship, but received no salary. For support she relied upon her father, who served in the army. When he contracted malaria and died at age 46, she was left with nothing. It was then she decided to leave in search of a better life.

In Khartoum, she spent a year cleaning houses. One family provided her with a roof, but she was not treated well, she says. Her family, aware of her difficult lot, eventually sent word of a man in Israel who would pay for smugglers to take her to Sinai, on one condition: she must agree to marry him.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, people who use such methods face a constellation of risks – including arrest, deportation, extortion, kidnapping, rape, torture and murder. Despite these dangers, she traveled on the back of a pickup truck alongside Bedouins to Sinai, and walked across the border to Israel. There, she spent two months in a camp for asylum seekers.

Once in Tel Aviv, Asmeret married the 29-year-old man who had paid for her trip. “But he was not a good man,” she says. “He was jealous and he beat me.”

For three years she stayed with him. In that time, he never worked and took for himself whatever money she made.

She eventually gave birth to a daughter. But her situation deteriorated; she endured heart problems, a miscarriage and an increasingly violent husband, who one day came to her work in Haifa with a knife and threatened to kill her.

The police took Asmeret to a women’s shelter, where she spent the next six months with her daughter.

“In the women’s shelter, the social worker was very supportive,” she says. “They gave me a four-month program on how to care for my child.”

Soon, she began looking for day care for her daughter so she could eventually return to work. This, too, presented a challenge.

“In Israel, there is very good care of children from 3 to 18, but nothing before the age of 3; everything is private and extremely expensive,” says the Rev. David Neuhaus, S.J., the Latin patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, in a recent interview with the Franciscan Media Center.

This has led to the practice of “warehousing,” where migrants’ children younger than 3 years of age are placed under the supervision of one untrained babysitter — in some cases resulting in deaths, with causes ranging from lack of feeding to raging fevers to suffocation.

It is an utterly neglectful environment, says Father Neuhaus, who through the St. James Vicariate seeks to build bridges within Israeli society, promoting peace and justice.

Together with CNEWA and a number of mostly European Catholic donors, Father Neuhaus has founded a few child care centers to serve Israel’s marginalized communities, especially asylum seekers and migrant workers.

At one of these institutions, Our Lady Woman of Valor Pastoral Center, Asmeret employs the skills she learned in the child care program — feeding, playing with and caring for babies.

Today, she lives in a rented room with her daughter, a friend and her friend’s daughter.

Seeking asylum in Israel is difficult, she says. And money is tight and living conditions, cramped. “Ten people use one bathroom.” But, she adds, “my faith has helped me.”

The young woman attends the eucharistic liturgy offered at the center every Friday and Saturday.

Despite the challenges of life on the margins of Israeli society, immigrants such as Asmeret still carry hope in their eyes — through faith, perseverance and the efforts of those who fight to help them secure a better life.

Among Israel’s immigrant population, asylum seekers are distinguished from migrant laborers. The former arrive chiefly from Africa, with stories of having fled oppression and war in hopes of finding safety and a new life. Migrant workers reach Israel from many nations — some from Sri Lanka and India; some from Latin America, South America and Eastern Europe; and others from Lebanon. But the majority hails from the Philippines — a group consisting mostly of single mothers.

For all their varied traits and origins, many of these migrant workers are Catholics.

According to the vicariate, there are some 60,000 Catholic migrant workers in Israel — more than twice the average number in the 1990’s — most of whom live in Tel Aviv alongside tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

Father Neuhaus says asylum seekers in Israel number around 45,000; approximately 35,000 people come from the Horn of Africa, many of whom are Orthodox Christians, and about 8,000 people from Sudan, most of whom are Muslim.

However, the best available estimates are complicated by “nationality swapping,” according to European Union border agency Frontex. The organization noted, in spring 2015, “Ethiopians are often advised by human smugglers to claim Eritrean nationality … to avoid possible return to Ethiopia.”

A 2014 Danish Immigration Services report also drew attention to this issue, suggesting preferential treatment for Eritrean asylum seekers may contribute to the trend.

Those fleeing the Horn of Africa generally travel through Sudan to Sinai and into Israel, says Father Neuhaus, as this is an easier and less dangerous route than traveling by boat on the Mediterranean to Europe.

Kiflom, 40, is another who took this route to Israel. Beneath a face framed by long, dark sideburns, a gold chain bears a cross beneath his shirt, a symbol of his Christian faith and identity.

Kiflom speaks Arabic, English, Hebrew and Tigrinya. He is married with three children.

His eldest son, 14, remains in the Horn of Africa, and keeps asking to join his father. With his wife, who works in the daycare center of the vicariate, Kiflom has two other children — a son, who is 4 years old, and a daughter who is 2 years old.

“I opposed the government and they tortured me. I was imprisoned for three years. Detectives came in and put cables around my legs and beat me,” he recounted, cringing.

“My mother wanted to visit me in prison and I said no,” he says, as he worried this might put other family members at risk.

“I had to sign an apology form to the government to be set free,” he says.

“For three months after, I hid in the trees. At night, I went back to see my family. It was not my choice to leave my family; I had to save my life. It was very difficult for me to leave,” says Kiflom.

“I ran to Sudan on foot, two hours to the border.”

There, family members who had sought refuge in Italy sent him enough money to pay smugglers to get to Sinai by car.

“At the border with Israel they told me I owed another $2,200. The smugglers had phone cards and told me to call my relatives. I did,” he says. They held him hostage until the money came.

Finally, Kiflom crossed the border and requested asylum. “The Israeli soldiers cut my clothes off, put me in a car and sent me to the camp,” he says.

Once in Tel Aviv, he cleaned in hotels and applied for refugee status. Through the St. James Vicariate of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he gradually found his moorings — he and his family now live in a building adjacent to a recently renovated daycare center, where his wife teaches and his children are enrolled.

“God be blessed. I saved my life.”

Anna is 14 years old and sports a black knit hat with big white letters — YOLO. When she bought it she had no idea of their meaning: You only live once.

“But, I really like it,” Anna says of both the sentiment and the aesthetic. “My dream is to be a fashion designer.”

Anna was born in Tel Aviv. Her mother, from the Philippines, moved first to Saudi Arabia to work as a caregiver. After a divorce, she moved to Israel, where she has lived now for 20 years.

Anna’s mother works three days a week as a caregiver and sells Filipino food in a kiosk in a mall on other days. She sends money back home to her elderly parents.

Many Filipinos, largely single mothers, are caregivers to Israel’s elderly, sick and disabled.

Anna, who speaks several languages, including English and Hebrew, attends school with 23 students — four Africans, three Russians, one German, two Israelis and the rest, Filipinos.

Anna lives with her mother, aunt and cousins in three rooms.

“I don’t like to leave my house, my mother, even for a week. I feel loved and comfortable beside her. I like her cooking,” she says.

Anna’s days are full. At Our Lady Woman of Valor, she attends catechism class in Hebrew with Father Neuhaus, learning the Gospel and the church’s history. She receives tutoring after school in English and math. On Saturday, she goes to a Scouts program and Mass at night with her mother in Jaffa. On Sundays, she attends the church youth program with a group of other teens.

Administering this youth program is Katrin Straub, 35, the in-house social worker at Our Lady Woman of Valor.

“We do handicraft workshops, picnics, cinema visits and lessons in crocheting baskets from the Eritrean women in the group,” Ms. Straub says.

“I really love this community and the diversity of the job. We work together to improve society,” she adds, connecting the program to the broader scope of her support work.

“Mental health issues often arise through the stress of migration. We’ve had suicide attempts, panic attacks and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Although she does not provide therapy herself, she directs and encourages immigrants to seek help, providing resources and working to destigmatize mental health issues.

“It is very powerful and positive to be in such a good supportive environment,” she says.

Ms. Straub began work in May 2015 at the Tel Aviv center, helping this Hebrew-speaking immigrant community spiritually and emotionally. She speaks German, English and Hebrew.

“I do a lot of bridge-building — between priests and sisters and Israeli society, between Israeli society and NGOs, between parents and children.” A German Catholic married to an Israeli Jewish architect, she has become an embodiment of interreligious and cultural encounter.

Father Neuhaus says the biggest challenge is that teenagers, such as Anna, assimilate early and easily into secular Israeli Jewish society as they enter high school or complete army service.

“Within a generation we could lose all of our children to assimilation,” says Father Neuhaus. To those fully immersed in a secular Jewish environment, he adds, belonging to a church can seem almost irrational.

Efforts such as the vicariate’s youth group and summer camp seek to counter this by providing young people with a strong grounding of faith early in their lives. In addition, Our Lady Woman of Valor provides religious education with Hebrew texts from first Communion through confirmation, after-school programs, prayer groups and catechism classes for adults and children — all part of serving this Hebrew-speaking Catholic community.

While Anna has been socialized via the language, values and customs of Israel on one hand, and on the other hand formed as a Catholic of Filipino origin, she struggles with the larger issue of her own identity — complicated further by adolescence.

“This is not my country. It’s like I don’t have a country; I was born here but I don’t feel I belong,” Anna says.

“The Philippines is not my country. I don’t have roots. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t think I can change it,” she adds.

“Israelis say ‘Filipinos go home’; in another school, teachers say it, too.” Neighbors, she says, at one time sent a letter to her school, urging them not to take on African, Russian and Filipino students.

Asmeret echoes Anna’s concerns.

“Israel makes refugee life as hard as possible,” she says. “Everyone is on edge. The community feels threatened and we are just trying to survive.”

The young mother says she wants to leave and start over somewhere in Europe. She hopes to pursue an education, perhaps in early childhood education, to build a future for herself and her daughter.

For Kiflom, his hopes remain rooted in Israel, and his dream — to find his place and national identity — is still a work in progress. “I am a person with a family with no country. My vision is to get a country and serve my country. [Then] people will say, ‘This is my son.’ ”

Formerly with the Associated Press, Diane Handal covers the Middle East for ONE.

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