No Country for Refugees

They wanted to change Israelis' perceptions of asylum seekers, and decided the best way to do it was through a newspaper. Meet the editorial staff of 'The Refugee Voice,' published in four languages, including Hebrew.

Kidane and Tesfay, 25 and 26, respectively, who fled from Eritrea, are very concerned about their image in the Israeli media. They regularly surf the websites of The Jerusalem Post and Ynet (in its English-language version ) and avidly peruse readers' comments on the sites. It's scary, they say. "I don't read the articles, only the readers' comments," Kidane says. "When I see that everyone is against us, and for no reason, I feel terrible. It hurts. After all, I am not trespassing - the whole world knows my situation. People here have to learn what the situation is."

Like Kidane and Tesfay, the vast majority of asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea. According to a report drawn up by Amnesty International, human rights are violated in Eritrea on a daily basis; opponents of the government and academics are cruelly persecuted. In addition, the authorities pursue a policy of abduction and coercive mobilization of young people into the army for indefinite periods that can last for decades - until they either escape or die. Anyone who resists the forced draft, speaks out against the regime or belongs to one of the persecuted groups in the country is subjected to brutal torture.

Staff of 'The Refugee Voice', Reli Avrahami
Reli Avrahami

"Data about Eritrean asylum seekers show that in the international community more than 80 percent of them are granted refugee status," says Oded Diner, the campaigns and activism director of the Israeli branch of Amnesty Israel. "It's reasonable to assume that the same situation exists in Israel. In other words, I don't believe that all the Eritrean liars reached Israel and all the truthful ones went elsewhere."

However, in Israel, because there is no authority that deals concretely with requests of asylum seekers, very few of the Eritreans have been accorded refugee status, with the basic human rights and the coveted residency permit that this status affords.

This is the background to Kidane and Tesfay's intensive occupation with their media image: the disparity, which they find intolerable, between reality and the way it is perceived in Israel. They decided to channel their despair into the creation of the country's first refugee newspaper, "The Refugee Voice," whose first issue appeared this month. The paper is a joint production of African refugees and Israeli volunteers, who together do all the interviews, research, writing, editing and photography. Editorial decisions are made on a partnership basis; the content focuses on issues of concern to the refugees.

"We need to fight for our freedom, our life, our future," Kidane says. "After many years in which no one heard us, in which people talked about us but not with us, at last we will have a voice, and the voice is this newspaper."

Internal disputes

Taking part in the editorial meeting that wrapped up the first issue, held in the offices of the African Refugee Development Center, on Golomb Street in Tel Aviv ( ), were asylum seekers from Sudan, Darfur, Eritrea and Kenya, alongside Israeli volunteers. Sprawled on tattered sofas, sitting on plastic chairs, passing around chewing gum and nibbling on injera, traditional Ethiopian bread, during breaks, they chose the photographs for the first issue, voted on a name for the newspaper (among the names rejected: "Lighthouse" and "Refugees Today" ) and read out the finished articles in English.

This intensive collaboration is not self-evident. To Israelis, the asylum seekers look like one big community of black men whose resemblance to one another is greater than their differences. In practice, they come from different cultures and different tragedies and speak different languages. Their encounter in the offices of the ARDC, after a long and wearying day of work, stirs questions no less acute than the encounter with the Israeli volunteers.

During the meeting, someone raises the idea of publishing op-eds for and against returning to Southern Sudan, in the wake of the region's looming independence. J.J. Kubo, from Sudan, who misses his girlfriend - she is in Kenya - and has been dreaming of the trip back ever since the independence referendum, volunteers to write in favor. Adam, from Darfur, is adamantly opposed. Worried, he sits down next to Kubo and engages him in a conversation enlivened by abundant hand gestures.

The clash between them is complex. Sudan has been torn for decades by ethnic, religious and political strife. At the same time, the situation in each part of the country is different. Kubo knows that Southern Sudan, where he comes from, is expected to declare independence this July. He still has no way of finding out whether the security situation there has improved and whether the multiple-casualty attacks that are reported every week will stop, but he is impelled by a great hope that neutralizes some of his natural defenses.

Human rights organizations, though, are fearful that another war will break out if the government of Sudan refuses to recognize the south's independence. They are also concerned about how the independent militias in the border areas will react to the changes in the political balance of forces in the country, particularly in regard to the struggles to gain control of the oil resources in the region. Kubo knows that things are complicated, but is dying to get out of Israel and hopes for the best.

Adam, in contrast, who is from Darfur, where genocide has been rampant, has no such hopes for his homeland. Amnesty International reports that the genocide in Darfur is continuing, along with the militia attacks; even inside the refugee camps the situation is not stable, and the United Nations is forbidding the return of refugees to the region.

"It is dangerous to go back," Adam says. "You cannot take responsibility for the return of people to that place, neither to Sudan nor to Darfur." The two argue heatedly, until a decision is made to wait and see how matters develop in Southern Sudan, to keep abreast of testimonies from the region and to issue a reasoned position in the second issue of the paper. The storm abates; the tension lingers.

In another case, Singeda, a Sudanese refugee, is amazed when Tesfay reads aloud an article he has written about torture camps in Sinai in which Bedouin gangs abuse Eritrean refugees. "I didn't know the Bedouin imprisoned you," he says, referring to the hundreds of fleeing Eritreans who fall prey to gangs from the Rashaida tribe on the Sudan-Egypt border. They abduct the refugees or lure them with lies to gather in one place, incarcerate them, chain them to one another and torture them. They refuse to release them until they pay a ransom of $11,000 per head - an inconceivable amount of money for barefoot, destitute refugees.

The Sudanese listened with stunned attention to the article. Afterward, they plied Kidane and Tesfay with questions about the situation of the Eritrean refugees in Sinai and about the abuse they undergo. In an earlier meeting, held in a smaller forum and without the presence of Sudanese refugees, the Eritreans related that the Bedouin also harass Sudanese along the border, but without meting out similar torture. The reason is religious: the Eritreans, who are Christians, arouse powerful animosity in the Bedouin, whereas many of the Sudanese are Muslims, speak Arabic, communicate easily with the Bedouin and interface with their culture. As a result, according to refugees' testimonies, they are treated differently when they are caught, helpless, in the desert. In light of these tensions, the feeling of a shared destiny among the refugees in Israel is far from a foregone conclusion.

Information front

The idea of the newspaper arose when Maya Fennig, 25, a social-work student with a rich record of volunteer work, decided to put out information pamphlets for the refugees. "I was a volunteer with Kav LaOved - an Israeli NGO that helps migrant workers, ethnic minorities and others - "and I found that refugees came to us only when their employers stopped paying them altogether," she says. "Not when they were paid less than the minimum wage or when they are made to work 24 hours a day seven days a week. They don't complain about those abuses, because they simply don't know the law. I started to think about how I could disseminate information to this community about their rights."

She was also spurred to action by the first reports, last November, about the detention camp for refugees and work migrants that is being built in the south of the country. Terrifying rumors about the expected incarceration of 8,000 to 10,000 asylum seekers (of the approximately 33,000 currently in Israel, according to Amnesty International ) in a facility encircled by barbed wire and guard towers, scheduled to be completed by July, were accompanied by the launching of a tough policy against employers of refugees. This generated great panic in the community. Lacking accessible information in their own languages, the refugees filled in the blanks from models they knew in their countries of origin.

"When the rumors intensified, we held an emergency meeting in an attempt to calm the general hysteria," Maya Fennig notes. "I remember one mother saying that she had given birth to her daughter in Ketziot Prison [in the Negev desert] and would rather die than be imprisoned again. A Sudanese refugee told me that he had heard there would be 15 people in each cell and that they would be given one spoon of cereal a day. For people with so many traumas behind them, the reports evoked the horrors they had experienced in Africa. The rumors circulate quickly and with each telling get more embellished. The absurd thing is that we, the Israelis at Kav La'Oved, know a lot more than they do about what they can expect."

Fennig drew additional inspiration from a meeting she attended as part of her social-work studies, in which she heard that the Filipino community in Israel publishes no fewer than 10 newspapers. Gradually, the plan to issue information pamphlets was upgraded into the dream of a newspaper to be published jointly by refugees and volunteers. In addition to closing the information gap, the paper would give refugees the opportunity to take part in the general discourse.

Fennig recruited Tomer Camus, also 25, a communications student at the College of Management, and the two scouted around for others to aid the project. In a meeting held ahead of a demonstration to protest the establishment of the detention center, Fennig invited the refugees she met to help found the newspaper. They responded eagerly. "From there it was mostly a matter of word of mouth," she says. "We did not circulate the invitation through the human rights organizations, because that would have generated a big response from volunteers and we were afraid there would be too many Israelis. We very much did not want to upset the balance that makes shared work possible. As it was, the Israelis would have a lot of clout in this encounter, and they tend to be very dominant."

After obtaining a one-time donation from the UN agency for refugees, Fennig and Camus held a first meeting, with refugees only. "We wanted to ask them if they even wanted Israelis to be part of the project. We decided that this was not self-evident." The refugees agreed immediately. "Their infectious enthusiasm moved us deeply," Fennig says. "I didn't think they would react so eagerly." In the months that followed, she and Camus, along with the others on the editorial board, went through a tricky and sometimes exhausting process of getting close and getting used to one another.

At first, Fennig recalls, the Israeli volunteer reporters would call to complain that their partners were filtering calls or not arriving on time for meetings. "We called it 'Africa time.' We are used to working in very different ways," she explains, "and obviously it can be frustrating at times, and we also got totally fed up along the way. There were some meetings to which no one came. I remember sitting alone in a meeting where only Vladi, the Peruvian photographer, showed up. This was in the middle of the exams period and you have a thousand other things going on in your life. So we got fed up and the refugees got fed up, but in the end you snap out of it and push yourself forward. We felt that we were doing something very important with these people, who have been silenced ever since they arrived here."

Even though the paper was originally meant to be an intra-community publication to ensure that the refugees had access to all the information they need for living in Israel, it soon emerged that their true desire was to publish in both Hebrew and English. In other words, to get their message across to those who hold the true power to change the situation: the Israeli public. "That was a natural wish, it's the only way they have to influence the public that makes the decisions that will determine the course of their lives," Fennig observes. "We flowed with them, because it's their newspaper. Still, we tried to strike a balance, so it would not become a newspaper of refugees who are writing for Israelis. In the end, the decision was made to publish the newspaper in four languages: English, Tigrinya [spoken in Eritrea], Arabic and Hebrew. The UN agreed to pay a token amount to translators, who were chosen from the refugee community, with the intention of having the money go to those who need it."

Life as humiliation

Adam, who is 24, knew from the first editorial meeting what his subject would be. In recent months, Israel has been working intensively to return South Sudan and Darfur refugees to their home country in return for monetary compensation, despite the concrete danger they face there. A few of Adam's friends have already gone back to the place where they underwent such painful ordeals. After hearing that some of them had been arrested by the authorities, Adam persuaded the editors that it was important to check this information.

"I am in touch with my family in Darfur, and they tell me: 'Don't come back,'" he says. "My family lives in a camp of one of the human rights organizations, which gives them a carpet to sleep on in a tent. That is how it has been since our village and our home were burned down. These days the Arabs rule in Sudan, and if you are not an Arab you have no rights and you cannot live in peace. There are government-run Bedouin militias that attack with cars, rifles and horses. They attacked our village and we simply lost everything - we don't even have food."

In the past, Adam took refuge in a hiding place near the village when the militias ran amok. "I saw with my own eyes how they shot people to death," he relates. "I know the names of those who were killed, I know them, they were my neighbors. Afterward, I learned that on that day the same militia destroyed five villages and killed 75 people." Since then, Adam's parents and his brother have lived in a refugee camp. There too the situation is far from bright. "You are not allowed to leave the camp and at night there are attacks inside the camp," he says. "My family has nothing, and there is nothing to be done."

Disturbed by the news that some of his friends and neighbors were going back to that nightmare land, he decided to find out for himself what happened to people who returned to Sudan. "On December 15, 150 Sudanese flew back," he says. (Since then, there has been another flight from Israel, in March, and a third is scheduled this month. ) "I know those people. I got their phone numbers and called their families in Sudan. The parents of Zakariya, a friend I met in Israel, told me that he had been taken away and they do not know where he is. They heard that he had been murdered, without even giving them a last opportunity to see him. I know for certain that three others who went back were arrested. I spoke to their families - they don't know where they are. I don't know if they are alive, but I do know that it is very hard to stay alive in a Sudanese prison."

Adam has firsthand acquaintance with a Sudanese incarceration facility. In Darfur, when rumors warned of an impending attack on his village, he organized meetings of local students at which he spoke against the government. "We met with students and explained to them that the government is perpetrating genocide in Darfur," he says. "More than 300,000 civilians have been killed. I told them: We can live here in peace. Every so often I and my friends were arrested for trying to change things, for wanting to change Sudan. They told us, 'You belong to America, you belong to Israel,' you could be killed.

"Israel and the United States are great enemies in the eyes of the Sudan regime. But we no longer cared. We organized a large crowd of students and spoke to them using a microphone. We told them that the government was always speaking ill of Israel and America, but we have not seen Israel coming to kill even one Sudanese citizen. We do not see Israel coming to rob us and plunder our homes like the government is doing. We said that inside the college!"

Adam paid a steep price for his activity. The local police followed him after the meeting in the college and arrested him. "I was in jail for two weeks," he says. "A friend of mine spent a whole year there. In prison you are beaten every day to extract information, and they use mainly electric prods. They burned the letters UPF on my friend's back, because he appealed to the Universal Peace Federation [an umbrella group for organizations that are working to achieve peace in various parts of the world]. I came out of it relatively all right."

Knowing this situation so well, Adam decided that he was obligated to do everything in his power to persuade others not to return to Sudan. The medium presently at his disposal is the newspaper. He and Camus co-authored an article about returning to Sudan. He quoted his sources in Sudan and Camus obtained information from Israeli sources. When they heard that another flight of refugees was about to leave, they tried to locate the bus that would take the refugees from the bus station in Tel Aviv to the airport. Their idea was to interview the refugees in order to understand their true motivation for returning and to find out if the Israeli authorities had either threatened them or offered them enticements.

However, neither Camus' calls to Israeli officials nor Adam's connections in the refugee community helped. The return of refugees to their homeland is a sensitive issue, and none of the officials involved wanted to talk about it; similarly, the refugees sounded as though they had been warned in no uncertain terms to keep mum. Adam says he intends to ready himself more efficiently - and sooner - ahead of the next flight.

In the next issue of the paper, Adam will explain in an opinion column, addressed also to the Israeli audience, why some residents of Southern Sudan and Darfur are choosing to return to their homeland. "People think the refugees are going back because things are good there, but that is not the reason," he says, raising his voice with emotion. "Some of my friends here in Tel Aviv do not have so much as a shekel, not to shower, not to eat" he goes on, struggling with himself, ashamed but angry.

"I know that if I don't find work this month, I will have to leave this apartment. I know 10 people who have developed psychological problems because of the situation. They sit closed within themselves, don't eat, don't do anything. Last night, a friend of mine, Abd al-Aziz, tried to kill himself, he was so hungry. He jumped out of a window and injured himself, and now he is in the hospital, recovering. He is not the only one."

Adam speaks in a rush, furiously, despairingly. He and his friends do not know for certain what the economic and political situation in Sudan or Darfur is at this time. The testimonies are confused, contradictory and vitiated by vested interests. Personal security there is probably still poor. Yet, many refugees are giving up on Israel and asking to go back. The ongoing difficulty of life here, in a foreign, unwelcoming land, drives them to despair. With one hand the state prevents asylum seekers from working, and with the other refuses to provide them with minimal social-welfare conditions that will enable them to subsist, however meagerly. If there were a coherent government policy, a clear horizon, a prospect for improvement, the refugees' distress might be relieved somewhat.

"The absence of a policy and the refusal to confront the situation are the mother of all sins," Oded Diner, from Amnesty International, says. "And the new policy taking shape in Israel is no better. Israel likes to speak in terms of deterrence, and that is what the new policy consists of: deterrence. In other words, we need to make life tough for the asylum seekers so that new ones will not come here. That is not only immoral, it is also not viable. When people flee for their lives they do not stop to check what percent of the asylum seekers are taken in by the country they reach. They flee because they have no choice."

Life as ongoing humiliation, as intolerable existence, is reflected in Adam's eyes and in his demeanor. He has had his fill. The tears and the words spill out in a torrent. "It's because of this whole situation that people are now going back to Sudan. Not because things are better in Darfur. There are demonstrations against us here, Sudanese were attacked in Bnei Brak, in Ashdod, in Eilat. I am afraid. That is the reason why some people are saying, 'We will go home.' People don't know what is happening there and they hope for the best. But the truth is that the people in Darfur are living in camps and are in danger. The situation is very bad. People need to know that."

Multilingual newspaper

The newspaper has a press run of 5,000 and is printed at Solan, the only printing press that agreed to produce such a small number of copies. There are 16 pages, divided into news items, magazine-type articles, a health column and a culture column that surveys community events and has reviews of African restaurants. One item ("Inspired by Time Out," Camus laughs ) will offer a short get-acquainted interview in each issue with one of those involved in the newspaper's production.

The same article appears in four languages on each page, a complex graphic matter, but one that is grounded in a principle. "The rationale is for it not to look like four different newspapers that have been cobbled together but like one paper in four languages," Fennig says. "The goal is for there to be one voice for the community, a place where people from all kinds of cultures meet."

Despite the frustrations along the way and the temptation to work only on texts, the editorial board insisted on a joint, non-hierarchical, even complicated project. "We could have written everything ourselves and done the interviews and the editing. A lot of times you want it to be a finished product already," Fennig says. "But if we have decided to work together, that means choosing photographs together, formulating headlines together and also that everyone writes.

"I think that even within me, after years of volunteering with refugees, there was something that sees them as weaker, as somewhat less savvy," she admits. "I also think that two months of work on the paper, with them as full-fledged reporters, changes something."

For each article idea, a small team of two or three reporters - refugees and Israeli volunteers - work together in an attempt to exploit the advantages each side has in terms of obtaining relevant information. In addition, a number of Israeli journalists (including this writer ) have acted as consultants for the fledgling journalists. "I remember that in the first editorial meeting Domoz [an Eritrean refugee] and Kidane asked me, 'Can we write that this country treats us like dogs?'" Fennig recalls. There is no free press in Eritrea, they point out; there is one newspaper, one television station and one radio station, and they all belong to Isaias Afwerki, the dictator who runs the country. In Israel they adjust quickly to the new conditions.

Letters to the editor

Kinade arrived in Israel from Eritrea four months ago, leaving behind mates on the journey who did not survive ("In Sinai you don't look back" ). He is young, energetic, smiling and very attentive. When he heard about the new paper, while on a chance visit to Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, he decided that this was the way to try and save whatever could still be salvaged.

"From the moment I got to Israel, I realized that we had no way to communicate with the Israelis or among ourselves," he says. "I felt that we had to find a solution for our voiceless state. We need to be heard."

Kidane linked up with Tesfay, who is quieter and a bit shy and reached Israel from Eritrea three years ago. Tesfay's English is not as good but his Hebrew is far better than that of most of the refugees. Together they set out to find out about the situation of the Eritrean refugees who are now trapped in Sinai. "We heard that some of the refugees are still being held there, so we raised the idea in an editorial meeting," Kidane says. "We wanted to rescue them. It was important for us to pass on this terrible experience." At that stage, Tesfay and Kidane knew that 250 Eritreans had been abducted or lured by the Rashaida tribe to go with them and were being held by them in inhuman conditions in the desert.

"We understood that there were a few Eritreans who had managed to get out of the Sinai camp and were in Israel, in the Ketziot detention facility," Tesfay says. "At Ketziot, people from the Hotline for Migrant Workers visit the detainees from time to time. Through a representative of the hotline, we sent telephone cards to the four refugees who arrived, so that we would be able to interview them by phone. They told us about the inferno they had been through. How they were tied together with iron chains for more than two months. How they were beaten from morning to night and were forced to call everyone they know to ask for money. To make them cry, they were hit even harder; with clubs and with iron rods. The nine women who were with them were raped every day, sometimes by the side, sometimes in full view of everyone."

The four refugees told Kidane and Tesfay that their daily food ration consisted of a tomato and a slice of bread. There was also one bottle of water to be shared by 40 people. The water was contaminated and many of them got sick. "Whenever one person wanted to relieve himself, dozens of people who were bound to him with chains had to go along," he says. "The result was that everything in the camp became an improvised toilet. The conditions there were insane, inhuman."

Kidane and Tesfay made renewed contact with the four refugees - three men and a pregnant woman - after they were released from Ketziot and came to Tel Aviv. "We prepared a few questions in advance and interviewed them," Kidane relates. "They slept on chairs in the Nigerian church [in south Tel Aviv]. We tried to supply them with blankets and other things, but there weren't even enough chairs for them all. They told us that there were still hundreds of abducted refugees in Sinai who are waiting for $10,000 each and are slowly dying. They were in a total panic."

Zion, a 28-year-old Eritrean woman in the middle of her first pregnancy, who was one of the four, was especially stunned. Her husband was in Bedouin captivity and she didn't know if he would survive the abuse. "I need help," she said, wiping her eyes, "I need help now."

From the four refugees Tesfay obtained the telephone number of Tadrus, an Eritrean in the torture camp in Sinai and a translator for the Bedouin. He too is being held against his will and knows that any resistance on his part will be met with violence and torture. But his situation is good compared to the refugees who are not employed by the Bedouin, according to refugees who have reached Israel.

"I barely managed to get hold of him, but I insisted on knowing what the situation is there," Tesfay says. "Thus we found out more information about who is there, how many, their names. We tried to map the nightmare that is going on there while we are here." Since then, Zion's husband has also succeeded in escaping to Israel. At the moment he is being held in Ketziot, but the pressure that was branded into Zion's face is beginning to abate.

The article in the paper, they hope, will arouse the dormant empathy of the Israelis and someone will decide to help them. "This newspaper is more important than anything," Kidane says. "It is important for us to be able to write about our day-to-day situation. I hope it will succeed in effecting some sort of change in the attitude of the Israeli public. I hope they will understand us. I know that Israel is small, I understand everything, but we have no choice. We do not know what the future will bring, but Eritrea is not safe now. Everyone has a right to security and life - us too. We need to be treated with understanding and find a solution. Closing the border is not a solution. Taking out visas is not a solution. Imprisoning us in a detention camp is not a solution."

The Interior Ministry responds

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, Sabine Haddad, conveyed the following response to the allegations raised by the article:
    1. The flight that is mentioned was undertaken willingly by a group that asked for help in returning to their country. It was coordinated at every stage and was carried out in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, the UN and every relevant internal and external body.
2. The Population, Immigration and Border Authority was in charge of organizing the flight in all its aspects. Those on the flight were Sudanese and it was assured for all of them that their life is in no danger. In principle, because all those present on the flight were there of their own will, their country of origin is not relevant.