The public debate over asylum seekers in Israel is stormy and complex, and nothing epitomized this as much as events in Tel Aviv on Monday. The Supreme Court had ruled that asylum seekers could be sent to Uganda and Rwanda if they consented, but could not be jailed for more than two months if they refused. A crowd staged a demonstration in south Tel Aviv against what they regarded as a lenient decision. At the same time, a few dozen people gathered at Tel Aviv’s Nanuchka restaurant to hear what the asylum seekers themselves had to say.
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The goal of the “Refugees at the Bar” event was to allow an unmediated encounter with asylum seekers and hear firsthand about the refugee experience, their lives in Israel and their dreams and aspirations.
“We hear about them all the time – ‘refugees,’ ‘asylum seekers,’ ‘illegals,’” the event’s Facebook page proclaimed. “But how many of us really know them?”
The meeting was the brainchild of Anisia Affek, Anat Saad and Yael Ehrlich, three young designers from Tel Aviv. It was born in Creative Studio PO, set up by designers Ronny Edry (father of the “Israel-Loves-Iran” campaign) and Sany Arazi (founder of the political action Project Sixty One) to provide a home for designers, advertising experts and artists seeking to launch projects for social change.
For Affek, 28, this is an issue close to her heart, both because she was born outside of Israel and because she lives in south Tel Aviv. “It’s absurd what’s happening with refugees in this country,” she said. “We’ve branded them as dangerous. I live in south Tel Aviv, and I can tell you it’s not true.”
Nanuchka’s owner, Nana Shrier, agreed. “This is a nation of exiles, we’re all exiles,” she said. “The Jewish soul should be the first to understand their situation.”
Shrier said this wasn’t the first time her restaurant had hosted asylum seekers. Asked whether it also employs them, she replied, “Of course. Do you know of any restaurant without asylum seekers? If you’re talking about the restaurant business, you’re talking about asylum seekers.”
Between the courses of the meal, three refugees from Eritrea and Sudan – Anwar Suliman, Hassan Rahima and Afwerki Tuama – told their life stories. And the term “asylum seeker” slowly acquired a name and face.
Suliman, a Sudanese national living in Herzliya, opened the evening with a humorous apology: He works in a meat restaurant, while Nanuchka is a leading vegan restaurant. “I work seven hours a day, on my feet,” he said. “Afterward I go home. I’m tired, but try to find the inner strength to do something, to learn something, so I’ll have a future.”
Suliman has been a refugee for 14 years. Before fleeing Sudan at the age of 24 in 2003, when the Sudanese army and armed militias began perpetrating a genocide, he completed a bachelor’s degree in archaeology. “If there were peace, I’d have a doctorate and a family today,” he said.
For him, going to another country isn’t an option. “I’m not willing to go to another place ... I’m tired of going to other places,” he said. “I dream of there being peace in my country, and then I’ll go home. I’ll take the tools I’ve learned, and I can make a difference there.”
Rahima also fled Sudan, after being jailed, working without pay and spending several years in a refugee camp in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. He first went to Egypt, then to Israel.
“I took a bus from Cairo to Sinai and arrived at the Israeli border,” he said in broken Hebrew. “There were soldiers there. In the Arab media, they say Israelis kill people, so we were afraid. But we crossed and all was well; everyone told us, ‘welcome to Israel.’”
After arriving in Israel, he was held at three different prisons. But eventually he made it to Tel Aviv. Now, he has to renew his visa every two months.
Tuama, from Eritrea, is an artist. This weekend, he will hold his first exhibition at the Yair art gallery in Tel Aviv. “I’ve been painting since I was young, that’s my freedom,” he said. “I paint; it doesn’t matter where.
“I painted when I was in prison in all kinds of places, including in Israel when I was at Holot,” he continued, referring to an open detention facility for asylum seekers. “I usually paint animals, the freedom of animals in the jungle, and ask why we aren’t free as well.”
He said he was very excited about the upcoming exhibition, terming it “a dream come true.”
Tuama was drafted into the Eritrean army in 1999, after the country became a dictatorship. “I was a soldier for eight years. I tried to desert from the army a few times,” he began, then quickly added, “My story is sad. It’s not appropriate for this evening.”
He said he fled Eritrea because his only other choices were jail or execution. He reached Israel via Sudan and Egypt with the help of smugglers.
Tuama is single. “I don’t want to have a child who will be called an ‘infiltrator’ or ‘son of an infiltrator;’ I would want him to be called by his name,” he said. “So I’m not willing to marry or have children.”
The event organizers had to deal with the hostile attitude toward asylum seekers as well. Affek said that all the posters she hung around the city before the event were demonstratively torn down, sometimes before her very eyes.
“As I was hanging the posters they were taking them down,” she said. “People were angry. Finally, I went to cafes to hang them up.”
In response to an audience question about Holot, Tuama replied that it’s a prison, and conditions are difficult. “Holot’s goal is for people to leave the country,” he said. “At night, the facility is closed. For a year, you do nothing – lie on the bed, get 16 shekels [$4.50] a day, without enough food. And Prison Service jailers run the place, so you feel imprisoned.”
Suliman said that after being released from Holot as the result of a High Court of Justice ruling, he received 60 shekels and was sent on his way. “It wasn’t even enough for the bus,” he said. “I was there for a year and a half, just because. It’s punishment for no reason. The only reason is that I crossed the border. But human beings made the borders.”
Tuama said he was glad to have the opportunity to address the crowd on Monday. “In Eritrea, it’s really hard to connect with people and tell them things; you don’t trust anyone. You’re even suspicious of your friend, who might inform the government. It’s frightening.
“But here it’s the opposite,” he continued. “You say everything you have to say – who I am, why I came here. You say it so people will know.”
As the evening was ending, one person ran to the microphone and begged to ask one final question. “What can we do?” he almost shouted.
Suliman answered succinctly: “Vote for people who will give us our rights.” But in addressing the crowd at Nanuchka, he was preaching to the converted.
Saad, one of the organizers, elaborated on his advice. “You’ve heard their stories, you’ve heard a little, now you know more,” she said. “Anyone who asks you – tell them, so they’ll make an educated choice.”