Eritrean Refugees Leave Jail for New Start in Tel Aviv

There was no telling what was going through the minds of the 50 Eritrean refugees who left the Keztiot detention facility, in the Negev, for Tel Aviv on Thursday. They had been detained the moment they entered Israel some months before, and this bus ride was their first taste of freedom in a new country.

"Green! It was like the Sahara before," one of the refugees said, commenting on the changing scenery as the bus left the Negev. The refugees were being taken to a shelter in South Tel Aviv.

"Are you from the United Nations? From the government?" some of them asked the one non-African passenger on the crowded bus. They were surprised to see that for the first time in months, they had been left unguarded and unsupervised.

Looking out the window, 26-year-old Ali (all names are pseudonyms) said he was unhappy to be leaving prison - his 19-year-old wife had stayed behind in jail, he said. "I don't understand why they wouldn't let her come with me," he said.

Ali escaped with his wife to Sudan, and from there they headed to Egypt. They had been traveling for six months.

Ali had spent two months in prison. "We were treated okay but it's not good to be in jail. You feel trapped, no matter how nicely they treat you," he says. Ali said he intended to call some friends who were living in Tel Aviv when he arrived. A while later, he said he was hungry. The refugees had received no breakfast on their last day in prison.

There were seven women on the bus. One was 24-year-old Simret, who says she escaped to avoid the draft. Everyone in her family, she says, died from AIDS and tuberculosis. She also said she hoped to find some people she knew in Tel Aviv.

Azyeb, the daughter of an Ethiopian father and an Eritrean mother, escaped alone, too. She is around Simret's age. Her father was shot by a man wearing a government uniform, she says. She left her mother and her 10-year-old brother in Eritrea three years ago, and then spent two years in Sudan and one year in Egypt.

"Women, they get exploited," she says about the journey. No one was waiting for her in Tel Aviv.

But the bus never reached Tel Aviv. The refugees were let off in Ashkelon, and told to go to the Interior Ministry offices there - which were closed. Eventually, the vice manager of the Ashkelon office came and gave out work permits allowing them to stay in Tel Aviv for 30 days.

Hours later, the bus to Tel Aviv came, after much miscommunication and misunderstanding, and many phone calls to the ministry, the Israel Prisons Service and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The refugees disembarked on Levinsky Street, and were directed to a filthy shelter on Har Tzion Street, where 100 men sleep in an unventilated room on one floor, and some 80 women and youths sleep on another, equally stuffy floor. Azyeb took one look around, and declared that prison was better than this place, where junkies were crouching to shoot heroin.

On the way back to North Tel Aviv, the city showed its other, more celebratory face. After all, it's February 14, Valentine's Day.