Female African Asylum Seekers Use Crochet Skills to Hook a Future in Israel

Women migrants are one of the weakest of segments in Israeli society, but the Kuchinate enterprise in Tel Aviv seeks to empower them. Just call it a close-knit community.

Vered Lee
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Three members of Kuchinate outside their pop-up shop in Tel Aviv.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Vered Lee

In the pop-up shop at the Brown TLV Urban Boutique Hotel in Tel Aviv, Almaz (not her real name) is showing off some impressive baskets and rugs crocheted together using traditional African techniques, which she and her friends from the Kuchinate – African Refugee Women’s Collective created.

Customers feel the products in their hands, are impressed by the strong colors and ask curiously about the knitting techniques.

Almaz obliges them by pulling recycled fabric from a round pile and crocheting it with graceful speed, using her knitting needle. The conversation gradually drifts to her identity. She tells the Israeli inquirers she is a 34-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker with five children.

She fills in the missing holes in her story when we meet at the project’s workshop in Kiryat Hamelacha. Around noon, there are seven asylum seekers crocheting at the south Tel Aviv space. Their children play and run around among them.

“I never meant to come here of my own accord,” says Almaz, who is a victim of human trafficking along with her family. “I have an epileptic child who suffers from a serious disability.”

She recalls leaving Eritrea with her husband and children, to receive medical treatment from a specialist in Sudan. “When we arrived in Sudan, Sudanese solders kidnapped us and threatened us with their weapons,” she relates. “They sold us to Bedouin smugglers, who demanded an $8,000 ransom for our release.”

A basket being made at the Kuchinate workshop in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Almaz and her family were brought to Sinai, tortured and beaten for half a year.

“We were trapped in a nightmare,” she says with a heavy heart. “We didn’t have any money to pay them.”

Almaz and her husband only raised the ransom after enduring a long period of torture, and then the Bedouin brought them to the Israeli border. On the day she arrived in Israel, Almaz met Azezet Kidane, an Eritrean nun and nurse who received the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Heroes Award in 2012.

Emotional and spiritual support

Kidane, also known as Sister Aziza, volunteers with and has helped develop the Kuchinate project, which was started by African Refugees Therapy Services. She says the work gives Almaz and the other women emotional and spiritual support.

“They’re in an embracing female atmosphere and gradually healing from the trauma and difficulties of survival,” Sister Aziza says, adding, “They share experiences and help each other escape their difficult reality by creating something from their African culture, which enables them to integrate into the local labor market.”

Diddy Mymin Kahn. Believes crocheting places the meeting of female asylum seekers with Israeli society on a more equal footing.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Sister Aziza elaborates on Kuchinate’s product line, saying the weaving technique is African but the fabric used in Israel is different.

“While in Africa women crochet storage baskets from straw and tree branches, in Israel they use recycled fabrics,” she explains. “Crocheting provides a connection between Israeli society and African culture. They’re reminded of the home they left behind and stay in touch with their native culture, and use material that links them to this new place, which is their new home.”

Kuchinate – which means crocheting with one knitting needle in Tigrinya (the most commonly-spoken language in Eritrea) – was the initiative of Diddy Mymin Kahn, a clinical psychologist who researched the impact of rape and sexual abuse on Eritrean asylum seekers. Mymin Kahn spent five years working as a psychological and social coordinator for the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Center.

“At first they didn’t speak,” she recalls. “They would sleep many hours of the day, drag themselves through it, drink coffee and make braids. When I started to delve into their world, I discovered many of them had suffered torture and abuse in Sinai. I began to realize the extent of the tragedy of what happened in the torture camps, and the impact the journey had had on them.”

Mymin Kahn started asking what the women had done in Eritrea, and found that most knew how to crochet. “I thought they needed a vocation that would be in a safe, female environment; that would have a therapeutic element; would provide them with a decent living; and be in sync with their needs and abilities,” she explains.

Crocheting places the meeting of female asylum seekers with Israeli society on a more equal footing, Mymin Kahn believes. “People interested in Kuchinate products ask them, admiringly, how they do it. They ask to learn the technique and are naturally curiosity about their culture,” she says. “It’s an honorable meeting for a population that is usually transparent to Israelis, one that’s directed toward cleaning jobs, and the only dialogue there regards their cleaning jobs. Suddenly, people respect them. It empowers the women, allows them to be seen and strengthens their personal confidence and status.”

Azezet Kidane, aka Sister Aziza.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Entrepreneurial ideas

Mymin Kahn says that, initially, the women crocheted skullcaps and key chains to order. Restaurateur Puaa Ladijensky, the late owner of the Puaa café in the Jaffa flea market, supplied the women with entrepreneurial ideas, inspiration and an economic horizon.

“She looked at the products the women made during the project’s first stage,” recalls Mymin Kahn, “and felt it wouldn’t provide an economic solution for them. She hooked them up with an Israeli woman from the north who uses an African method to crochet baskets from recycled fabrics. The women were experts in the secrets of the method, and started working on their new product line, including baskets and large rugs.”

When the Tel Aviv nonprofit’s small office began to fill with sacks of recycled fabrics, baskets and crocheting women, and domestic sales succeeded, Mymin Kahn decided to forge a new path and founded ARTS – African Refugee Therapeutic Services: its flagship project is Kuchinate. In addition, Mymin Kahn and Sister Aziza provide bicultural therapeutic treatment for female African asylum seekers.

They recently launched the pop-up shop at the Brown boutique hotel, selling all the project’s products there (the hotel owner donated the space). Through overseas donations raised by Aziza, the women were able to move to their spacious workshop, in which they make their products, sell them, teach crocheting and offer a tour that introduces visitors to African culture and art. The visit also includes a tour of the Central Bus Station, learning the African crocheting method, cooking traditional food and hearing the women’s refugee stories.

Kuchinate employs some 20 female asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Women are a minority among refugees in Israel, and are considered a weak population among refugees – who themselves are an especially weak group within Israeli society, say Sister Aziza and Mymin Kahn.

More independent

Both women say the traditional family unit is shaken up after female refugees arrive in Israel. Women asylum seekers come from a patriarchal society and are chained to a tradition in which they need permission from their husband or community to do anything. In Israel, they financially support the family and become more independent, and the man – losing his status as the sole breadwinner and as head of the family – has a hard time adjusting to this reality, they say.

The Kuchinate pop-up shop in Tel Aviv.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Against this backdrop, the amount of tension and friction increase dramatically, as do cases of divorce and domestic violence. A large percentage of the women find themselves becoming single parents in Israel, and are forced to support their family, provide shelter, work and survive in a complex economic reality, say the two women. They are also susceptible to deep despair and existential pressure. In addition, the immigration policy and treatment of asylum seekers in Israel forces women to live in uncertainty, be fearful and vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation, they add.

Their situation in the Israeli labor market is very bad, stress Sister Aziza and Mymin Kahn. “There are many cases of exploitation by the Israeli employer,” says Mymin Kahn. “In addition, they earn marginal salaries, well below minimum wage, and suffer from sexual harassment.”

“Our dream,” she concludes, “is that the work in the Kuchinate project will be their only job, that their earnings will suffice for sustenance, and they won’t need to work anywhere else.”

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