Women Asylum Seekers Find Refuge From Men

They fled their homeland only to face a new threat in Israel: domestic violence. Now some are fighting back, from a small center in Tel Aviv.

A little after 6 P.M., when the last of the toddlers has been picked up from the nursery school operated by Sanait Kidana, a 30-year-old Eritrean refugee, the site is transformed into a unique center. Once a week, some 10 Eritrean refugee women gather in the apartment near Tel Aviv's old central bus station. The youngest is 22; the oldest is 34. Some of them hold sleeping infants close, others keep a watchful eye on the toddlers racing around the room. All work in sanitation and have been in Israel about three years. Against a setting of infant cribs and a worn rocking horse, they are trying to generate a quiet revolution: to counter domestic violence and better the lives of the women of the Eritrean community in Israel.

This is not a random group. About a year ago, all the women here attended a human rights course run by Amnesty International. The group leader was Sanait Kidana who had first undergone training. At the end of the course, she says, "We dreamt about a safe place for women where they could speak and act freely. We wanted 'a room of our own' for Eritrean women."

Kidana, nursery school teacher by morning and women's leader by evening, raised funds from the Eritrean community in London and in June this year opened the Eritrean Women's Center. The center is located in a two-room apartment, which - starting in the early morning hours and ending at 6 P.M. - serves as the nursery school providing Kidana and two other women with a livelihood, as well as an effective way of reaching out to more women in the community. In the evenings the cribs are pushed to the side, replaced by plastic chairs for the women. They come here to study Hebrew and English and learn about human rights, get support and advice, formulate programs promoting birth control and, above all, fight domestic violence.

"I founded the center because I couldn't listen to any more stories about murdered women, domestic violence, threats and harassment," says Kidana. "No official Israeli institution keeps records but we are overwhelmed by women coming to us for help. I estimate that 70 percent of the women in the Eritrean community suffer from violence - from being locked up at home to economic, sexual, verbal and physical violence. My goal is to provide Eritrean women with community and family backing - something they lack in Israel - and create a safety net for them.

Who will be killed next?

"Every time an Eritrean woman is murdered by her partner, many other women start worrying they're next, that it could happen to them too." This is no exaggeration: In the last two years six Eritrean women were murdered by their partners or relatives. In a community of 5,500-7,250 (estimates of various refugee aid organizations ), this is a shocking number.

Kidana was born in a small town in Eritrea to a family of seven siblings. She's afraid of naming her city of birth lest the authorities persecute the members of her family still living there. Her family was wealthy. "My mother didn't have to work and we had servants," she recalls. Her father worked for an organization helping displaced people during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. One day, she says, "When I was 7, my father didn't come home from work. We waited for him to come home for dinner. But he never came. Not the next day either. He disappeared. The authorities disappeared him."

Speaking of her father is difficult. Kidana gets up and walks around her nursery school until she's composed herself again. "That moment, everything changed. We moved to a one-room apartment. We lived in poverty and suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of the government. One time, my mother and siblings came home to find the apartment had been ransacked. They took furniture and personal objects and left a mess. A week later we moved again. We were frightened." Only nine years later did the family receive an official letter stating that the father had died. "We never saw his body. No one really knows what happened to him or if the letter is even credible," she says. "But this is common in Eritrea. People disappear, are jailed, die, while the family knows nothing."

A veteran feminist

Kidana attended university in Eritrea and completed her undergraduate studies in biology. "My mother worked very hard and taught us to strive for education," she says. "My father's diplomas hung on the walls of our home and my dream was to follow in his footsteps." At the university, Kidana found herself in a minority. Of the 1,500 students, only 150 were women. "I was an active feminist during my university days," she says, clearly savoring the memory.

At university, she founded a group of about 20 students (only three of whom were women ) to combat the phenomenon of female genital mutilation. She is herself a victim of the practice and says, "It is very common in Eritrea. I'd say about 80 percent of women are circumcised. It's a violent act designed to control women and their sexuality. It endangers women's health and causes tremendous suffering. We created a UNICEF-sponsored program and volunteered to speak about it in schools."

Female circumcision is illegal in Eritrea, but according to Kidana this law is one of many promising human rights laws that are not actually enforced. "Instead of developing the population and striving to nurture a country, the government is building prisons," she says.

Because Kidana excelled at her studies, she was allowed to complete her degree before being drafted into the army. After being drafted, she was sent to a remote village to teach in the high school there. "I did this for three years, cut off from my family and friends," she says. "At a certain point, I started asking my supervisors how much longer I was going to be working there. I wanted to know what my future held. From their perspective, I was asking too many questions, and this was taken as a sign of rebellion. I was blacklisted and the authorities started to keep track of my actions. When I saw that political persecution was starting in the village, that people were being dragged off to jail, I knew what was in store for me, and I chose to flee."

Escape from Eritrea

Three of her siblings also fled, to England and Sweden. According to her, "Israel wasn't my destination. I wandered for a full year, at first in Ethiopia, then in Kenya, and later in Uganda and Sudan, but I didn't find a real place of refuge anywhere." Then, three years ago, she fled from Sudan to Egypt and from there, after five days in the Sinai Peninsula, crossed the border into Israel. Since then, Kidana got married and gave birth to a boy, Aaron, aged 13 months. She lives near the old central bus station and shares the two-room apartment with her small family and six other housemates.

Before founding the Eritrean Women's Center, Kidana worked in sanitation. After work she would volunteer with Amnesty Israel as a group leader. "As a cleaning woman I was sexually harassed at work," she says. "When I refused the advances of a security guard, he told my employers that I was always late and slandered me in other ways. They believed me, but I decided to quit and devote myself to my community and myself."

Sexual harassment of immigrant women at work is hardly rare. The same is true of violence. Tamar Schwartz, the director of the Aid and Information Center for Migrant Workers and Refugees operated by the Tel Aviv municipality, says: "We don't have exact data but most of the women in the community experience violence. Every year, we refer dozens of Eritrean women to shelters for battered women. This community doesn't complain a lot and it's hard reaching out."

The North Korea of Africa

In terms of the Eritrean regime, "Eritrea is the North Korea of Africa, a place where it's risky to think independently. But, absurdly, the risk to Eritrean women in Israel is even greater."

The fact that violence against women is so high is partly the result of the immigrant experience. "In Eritrea, women have a support network made up of family and friends. When differences of opinion between husband and wife arise, there are people around who can mediate, and there are social conventions to which the men are bound. In Israel none of this exists. The society's norms crumble and women are left without protection. They don't complain, both out of shame and fear. A woman who is about to be deported will think twice before contacting the police to complain about her husband. Those who dare complain come under huge pressures from the family and the community."

Violence against women is common in immigrant communities, in part because of the difficulties of coping with the social upheavals engendered by the immigrant experience. Kidana says not everyone appreciates women working outside the home. Another phenomenon, unique to African immigrants to Israel, is post-traumatic stress due to torture many of them suffered in Sinai. According to Kidana, "They aren't treated for PTSD and in some cases this is translated into violence against those who are weaker than them. That's always the woman."

The essential difference between Israel and the other OECD countries with regard to Eritrean women immigrants is that there they get work permits and have access to health and welfare services, which gives them and the entire community a bit of security. In Israel this is non-existent. The community is very weak and the first victims are the women. But the conditions in Israel - anti-immigration laws and the lack of hope for a stable future in the country - haven't managed to quell Kidana's feminist fervor. "I can't ignore the women's suffering," she says. "The struggle for our rights depends only on us."

"Kidana's courage in criticizing her own community, her initiative and dedication to women, are evidence of an extraordinary woman," says Sarah Robinson, coordinator for refugee rights at Amnesty Israel who is helping establish the Eritrean Women's center.

How does she view the future? "At the personal level, I want my son to have a better life than mine. Socially, I'd like to see the end of violence against women and murder of women," she says.

By 10 P.M., Aaron has fallen asleep in Kidana's arms. Her face betrays her fatigue. Her husband comes to walk her home where she'll put the sleeping baby in his crib but first, she says, "I have to work my magic and turn the women's center back into a nursery school." She stacks the plastic chairs in a corner and puts the cribs back where they belong.

Daniel Bar-On