Losing Hope of Israel Ever Aiding Refugees, Asylum Seeker Leader Leaves for Canada

'Israel has a racist policy towards Africans, towards refugees,' despairs Dawit Demoz, who fled the dictatorship in Eritrea and fought to improve his compatriots' lives in Israel.

Dawit Demoz, a leader of the asylum seeker community, at Ben Gurion Airport before departing for Canada, March 28, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

On January 5, 2014, three weeks after the opening of the Holot detention center, Dawit Demoz stood on a stage in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and talked to tens of thousands of demonstrators. “We’ll continue our struggle until the government hears our voices. We continue the march to freedom on behalf of our brothers who are now incarcerated again. They arrived in Israel seeking asylum and instead of addressing their requests, the State of Israel is telling them that they — and we — are criminals,” he said to the masses of asylum seekers who rallied to demand protection and basic rights.

This was the high point of the asylum seekers’ protest movement. Demoz, a citizen of Eritrea, was one of its leaders. He quickly became a recognized face in that community and a sought-after media interviewee. This was an extraordinary struggle waged by a group that had no rights, while the government did everything in its power to make their lives difficult so they would leave. Demoz was confident that they could address the Israeli public, tell their stories and have some impact on policymakers.

Last week, six and a-half years after he crossed the border from Sinai into Israel and two years after the big protest gatherings, Demoz packed his bags, said goodbye to his friends and went to Ben Gurion Airport. For the first time in his 29 years he got on a plane. In his hands was a one-way ticket to Toronto, Canada. “There is no future in Israel for asylum seekers, particularly not for Africans,” he told Haaretz in fluent Hebrew a day before he left. “Israel has a racist policy towards Africans, towards refugees. The government is always scaring people by telling them that asylum seekers are violent and that they pose a demographic threat.”

Two years ago he requested asylum in Israel. In his request form he related his personal story in great detail, describing the threats he would face if he returned to Eritrea. A year later he was summoned for an interview, but hasn't received an answer up until today. He submitted an identical request to Canada. He met a Canadian citizen who was volunteering at a human rights organization in Israel and she agreed to sponsor him. Canada granted him resident status two months ago. He has no passport, but Israel has given him a one-time laissez-passer and the Canadian embassy has given him a visa. The Israeli chapter of his life is over.

“I’m confused,” he admitted last week. “On one hand I’m very happy that Canada, one of the finest countries in the world, one that treats refugees appropriately, has agreed to accept me. On the other hand I’m sad to be leaving after seven years here. Despite all the difficulties I’ve built a life here and acquired friends. I’m sad to leave the people around me, people who taught me and people who were my good friends in a community that suffered together, struggled together — I’m sorry to leave them in this difficult, racist and insecure situation.”

Even though he was lucky and was never sent to Holot, constant fear accompanied him everywhere. “I always felt insecure, fearing that the Interior Ministry would send me to jail. I saw that this wasn’t the place for me. I looked for a way to get out, to a secure place where I’d feel safe, with the status of a refugee and an opportunity to study and support the struggle to change the dictatorship in Eritrea. It took me almost seven years to find such an opportunity.”

Demoz grew up in a small Eritrean village. Most of his family is still there. When he finished high school he was drafted into the army and served for one year. “That was the hardest year of my life,” he says, despite all the hardships he’s been through since then. When he was demobilized he was sent to a college run by the army. “You have no freedom of expression or movement there. They call it a college simply because they wanted to find a different way of controlling young people.”

After two years the authorities decided to send him to a political course. “If you object to going there you are arrested,” he relates. “All the most important party members attend this course. You are told how democratic Eritrea is, not in the Western mode but in our own way. After the course they expected me to be a spy for the regime. People take this course but don’t tell anyone. As soon as people know you’ve taken it they know you’re a spy and no one trusts you — you’re shunned.”

Despite their fears, he and his friends talked about their desire for democracy. “We were being watched. We were young and we knew the risks. I didn’t want to work against my family, against my parents, against people living in fear. It was risky returning to the college because of all the questions we’d asked at that course.” At that point he decided to escape to Ethiopia. He didn’t tell anyone of his plans, not even his family. Israel wasn’t on his agenda. He dreamed of going to Europe.

Under cover of darkness he reached the border with Ethiopia. He crossed on foot and reached a refugee camp. “All we got at that camp was 15 kg of wheat per month, a bottle of oil, a kilogram of sugar and salt,” he says. After two and a-half months he decided to move on, paying local smugglers to help him reach Sudan. There too he stayed at a refugee camp. “Eritrean soldiers were free to go there and abduct you. It was very unsafe.” Two months later he again paid smugglers to take him to Libya, from which he wanted to sail to Italy.

“That was a very difficult journey. The Sudanese smugglers took us to the Libyan border and the Libyans who were supposed to meet us were late,” he reconstructs. He waited in the desert for three days before they showed up. “There were 16 of us, with no food or water, without anything. If we’d stayed there a few more hours we would have all died.” He stayed in In Libya for five months. “I tried several times to reach the coast and go to Italy but I failed,” he says.

In Libya he heard about a few Eritreans who had managed to cross the Mediterranean before being turned back by the Italians. “They were imprisoned in Libya under difficult conditions. That’s what drove me to look for a different place.” At that point, for the first time, he started to consider Israel. “I thought it was the only country that could save me until things in Eritrea changed. I had high expectations.”

On his way to Israel he spent three days in a camp in Sinai. These days are forever etched in his mind. “There was one person there who’s been abducted from Sudan. He was in Sinai for a few months but couldn’t pay anything, so they decided to kill him and dismember him. They took someone from our group and told him to phone the Sudanese man’s parents and say that he’s their son and that if they didn’t pay $27,000 immediately he’d be killed the next day. They dripped boiling plastic onto his back and electrocuted him.” Demoz says that he too was beaten there but was never severely tortured.

Smugglers took him from the camp to the border. “Israeli soldiers received us. I was in Saharonim prison for three months. I was briefly interviewed when I arrived there, to determine who I was and where I came from. When they asked me why I came I said that I was seeking asylum. They told me that if I said I’d come looking for work they’d release me. I said I could speak English but they decided I’d have a translator. He tried to convince me to say I had come to look for work. I told him that I didn’t, that I’d come to seek asylum, to save myself. After three months they decided to release me.” He found out later the officials had written that he had come looking for a job.

In January 2010 he was let out of Saharonim. He was taken by bus to Be’er Sheva and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. He slept for two days in Levinsky Park. He then found out by chance that one of his relatives was in Israel and he moved in with him in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva quarter. “After three weeks I started working, assembling aluminium windows in the neighborhood. I worked with this guy for half a year. He gave me a lot, mainly teaching me Hebrew and other things, treating me like a son. He had this store for constructing aluminium windows and shutters.” After six months the owner didn’t need him anymore. Demoz then worked at a pool and then in a hotel. He worked six days a week at the hotel and on his day of rest he volunteered at human rights organizations. After a year he became a salaried employee at the Worker’s Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights (Kav La'Oved).

Demoz lived in the Hatikva quarter for five years, suffering from frequent violence and harassment. “There was a guy with a stall right outside the gate to my house. He always blocked the entrance, putting metal sheets there. One day I asked him to remove them and he told me to go to Eritrea and ask them to move it. There were two of them and they were very violent, beating me and knocking me to the ground. I called the police. We went to the station, he was cautioned and then released.”

The racism didn’t stop at the stall next door. “Young kids always chased me in the neighborhood, calling me a black man. That happened a lot,” he says. The authorities also suspected him because of his color. “I have a subscription to the [Tel-o-Fun] bike-sharing service, but seven or eight times I was stopped by policemen or municipal workers who accused me of stealing the bike. Each time I had to produce my subscription.”

“I realize that people in south Tel Aviv have a hard life,” he says. “I understand their suffering and anger. Unfortunately that isn’t our fault. I wish we could live elsewhere. The solution must come from the government. The government knows it can’t expel us by force. If they really want to find a solution let them disperse us around the country and give us a document that is recognized by the system.”

Despite these difficulties, he says, at no time did he consider returning to Eritrea or leaving for Uganda or Rwanda. “Returning to Eritrea means risking my life. Going to Uganda or Rwanda without any assurances is also a risk. Who knows — those countries may decide one day to expel me to Eritrea and that would be the end of my life. People tell me that no one in those countries is granted refugee status or lives a decent life. People there continue to look for a safe place.”

He dreams of returning to Eritrea one day, under democratic rule. He hopes to visit Israel as well, without worrying about getting arrested. In the meantime he’s thinking about his new life in Canada. He hopes to continue studying economics and business administration, which he started doing at IDC Herzliya. “My future lies in continuing and getting a graduate degree in human rights and culture and in supporting the struggle to bring democracy to Eritrea,” he summarizes.

In Canada he will obtain permanent resident status, enjoying health benefits and the right to work, open a bank account and get a driver’s license. “All the things I couldn’t get here I’ll get the first day I arrive there," he says before leaving. "This is the second time in my life that I’m leaving and starting over. This is the first time I’ll be completely free.”