For African Migrants in Tel Aviv, Exodus Is More Than Distant Memory

Having crossed Sinai on their own tortuous routes to freedom, Eritrean and Sudanese migrants gathered for their own unique seder. Hardships continue in the Promised Land.

Persecution at the hands of a tyrant, the desperate flight from Egypt, the taxing trek through Sinai and the long-awaited entry into Israel. Habtom Okubu nods as he hears the familiar story − familiar because he has lived it.

Okubu is one of about 100 African migrants, most of them refugees from Eritrea, who gathered in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv on Thursday night for an extraordinary Passover seder in which the story of the flight from Egypt was, for most, not an ancestral tale but a first-hand experience.

“Israelis came out of Egypt, and so did we. We both suffered much along the way,” said Okubu, 30, who fled Eritrea in 2008 and was taking part in his first seder.

It was a surreal scene, with guests seated around long tables under the stars, oblivious to the roar of buses that occasionally drowned out the reading of the haggadah in Arabic, Tigrinya, English and Hebrew.

Some followed the proceedings in the specially-produced Haggadot in the same four languages ‏(in Arabic for the benefit of the Sudanese, in Tigrinya for the Eritreans‏).

As the narrator of the alternative Haggadah read aloud, “Many of you arrived here in Israel hoping to find freedom and rebuild your lives,” Okubu nodded vigorously.

This is the sixth consecutive year that a “refugee seder,” as it was billed, has been held across the street from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, in Levinsky Park, the hub of the city’s African migrant community. The African Refugee Development Center ‏(ARDC‏), a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by refugees and Israeli citizens, organized the event.

The seder is the brainchild of the organization’s program manager, British-born immigrant Nic Schlagman. “I thought what better way to imagine the exodus from Egypt than to share a Passover meal with people who actually did experience flight from Egypt,” says Schlagman, 32, who moved to Israel from London in 2004.

“At first I thought a few of us Israelis would share a small meal with refugees, and then it just snowballed. More and more people wanted to join, a soup kitchen offered to donate food, musicians and DJs volunteered to play music. Now it’s become a large annual event where members of the refugee community, who often feel excluded from the broader society, can sit together with us [Israelis] as equals and celebrate the festival,” says Shlagman, who also wrote most of the text of the alternative Haggadah.

At the typical Israeli seder the much-repeated Passover narrative is often recited by rote. In contrast, it’s hard to remain blase about the stories of the modern-day quest for freedom recounted by some of those gathered at the Levinsky Park ceremony.

There was Mihreteb Okubay, a boyish-looking 31-year-old, who spent seven years in the Eritrean army before fleeing the country. Asked how much longer he would have had to serve in the military, he laughs bitterly: “Till I die.”

Okubay escaped to Sudan, then to Sinai, where he was imprisoned for nine months − hands and feet bound, he demonstrates − until he was able to raise $25,000 from family and friends to pay off his Bedouin captors.

Former civil engineering student Kidane Isaac was plucked out of university, drafted into the Eritrean army, then thrown into prison where he had to break boulders − the closest he would come to his dream of constructing buildings. “Almost everyone gets imprisoned for a few months for no particular reason − just to make you afraid,” says Isaac, a slightly-built, articulate man of 27.

“The pharaoh of the Bible oppressed another people; the president of Eritrea, who belongs to my own tribe, oppresses his own people,” muses Isaac, who arrived in Israel through Sinai in 2010 after two other failed attempts to flee his country − one by walking across the Sahara to Libya in the hope of sailing to Italy. “The goal was to keep running until I found a place to live in peace,” he says.

His siblings, whom he has not seen in years, are scattered across the globe, some still in Eritrea, the rest in Kenya, Ethiopia, India and the United States. “It’s our Exodus,” he says.

Asked about their story, some of the African women at the seder look away, reluctant to share a past that often includes rape.

“Some of the stories I’ve heard of the journey through Sinai make ours look pretty comfortable,” says Schlagman.

“Ours took a lot longer, but what they went through − the trafficking, torture and abuse of women was horrific − and they had no Moses to lead them to a promised land,” continues Schlagman, a descendent of refugees who fled Germany and Lithuania for England. “People helped my family when they first arrived in England. I see the work I do here as completing a circle.”

The event has made ripples beyond Levinsky Park, with congregations in Israel, New York and London adapting elements of the refugee Haggadah to their own seder, notes Schlagman.

One of those is British Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, who contributed an essay to the refugee Haggadah. “We as Jews know what it is like to be marginalized and flee for our lives,” says Wittenberg, who heads the 2,400-member New North London Synagogue.

Dozens of Israelis, most of them volunteers who work with African migrants, were also present at the Levinsky Park seder. But other Israelis from the poor Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood kept away from the event, which organizers hoped might help defuse some of the tension between longtime neighborhood residents and the new African migrants. “We’re not there yet,” admits Schlagman.

“I understand this is a special day for the Jews who were enslaved by the Egyptians,” says Okubu. “Jews remember when they became free. That’s very meaningful for me. But I don’t think most Israelis understand the connection. When you endure hardships you forget them after a while.”

Daniel Tchechik