The first thing that caught my eye as I entered the Kuchinate African Refugee Women’s Collective store was the yellow fringed purse sitting on a display shelf. Although there were other pretty baskets, cloth dolls, and crocheted rugs on the shelves, there was something about that purse. Then I heard the sounds of the Eritrean music playing in the background and noticed the aroma of the traditional injira stews simmering in a pot at the back of the workshop.
Women from the Tel Aviv African refugee community members of the collective brought in their crochet and sewing work from the last week as other members of the collective checked them for quality control. For some of the women — many of whom are single mothers and survivors of the horrendous Sinai Dessert torture and human trafficking camps — this work is the only income they have, especially after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they or their husbands were laid off from other jobs.
Yerosalem Araya, 30, the new shipping manager who designed the purse, proudly posed for a photograph with it.
What a change this was from the first time Debbie Hill and I interviewed and photographed Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane, who co-founded the collective with South African-born trauma specialist Diddy Kahn, in 2012. We sat outside under a tree, in the dusty lawn in front of the African Refugee Development Center’s women’s shelter for African refugee women where she volunteered in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Many of the women refugees had become pregnant through rape at the Sinai Bedouin torture camps; some had already given birth and were suffering from extreme PTSD and had nowhere to go.
Toddlers ran to catch up to Sister Azeeza, as she is better known by all, but the women peered at us cautiously, almost even suspiciously, from their windows and the doorsteps of their rooms. Some women laid in their beds, wrapped in a blanket facing the wall. Though no words were exchanged with the women, there was a heavy rawness to the encounter.
Over the years I have stayed in touch with Sister Azeeza, who was pivotal in recording testimony about the torture camps and publicizing their existence. Since she is also from Eritrea, and a religious sister, she has become like a mother to the women and has remained their main confidant and source of spiritual support.
Kutchinate has developed from the tiny one-room workshop to a bustling three-room collective which provides psycho-social counseling and social meetings for 200 refugee women and employment for 90 women who make their signature crocheted baskets as well as bags, purses, dolls of color, book covers, and now more recently, African cloth face masks. Until the COVID-19 pandemic brought things to a halt, the women participated in art and photography exhibits, led craft and food workshops for visitors, and sold their products at pop-up stores.
This time, not only were many of the women willing to be interviewed, but several even came up to me to talk about their lives and their work at Kuchinate. I saw women who had been able to take some semblance of control over their lives and have become store managers, quality control managers, product control managers and even a director of social assistance for the collective, helping other refugee women.
This time, we were honored to also be welcomed into the homes of a few of the women, allowing us a brief, intimate glimpse into their private lives. Though part of their lives included a traumatic period, it is not what has defined them thanks to the assistance they receive from Kuchinate, though their daily struggle to overcome the effects of that period are still very real.
In my over two decades work as a journalist, I have interviewed many different people and recounted their stories. When some of the women I interviewed for the ONE article on Kuchinate told me their journey to Israel had been “very difficult” there was no need to press for details. Indeed, when some did give me details of their own accord, I did not include it in the story. That is not what this article is about.
This story is about how members of one of Israel’s most vulnerable communities — living on the fringes of Israeli society where they are not always accepted and still suffering from the after-effects of their experiences which have been compounded during the pandemic — have been empowered by their coming together as a group to take control of their lives. It is about how they have shown resilience in the face of great adversity.
And that beautiful yellow purse? I bought it from the artisan who designed and made it: Yerosalem Araya.
Read more about women Crafting a New Life in the Autumn edition of ONE.