'Each One Tells My Story': Asylum Seekers in Tel Aviv Draw Inspiration From Making Dark-skinned Dolls

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Dolls made by asylum seekers through the Kuchinate project.
Dolls made by asylum seekers through the Kuchinate project.Credit: Meged Gozani
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

“When I create a doll I forget all my troubles,” says Lamlam (not her real name). “I think about the doll that I’m sewing and am concentrating on its preparation. It calms me.”

The 33-year-old is seated next to a table filled with fabric and sewing paraphernalia at Kuchinate, a workshop where a group of African asylum seekers create crocheted baskets for a living. A 5-month-old baby is swaddled in Lamlam’s lap. When he falls asleep, she places him in a stroller and goes back to braiding a doll’s hair. It is part of a new product line Kuchinate is launching: black dolls.

Lamlam comes to the workshop in south Tel Aviv twice a week. “It is hard for me to concentrate, and I am tired,” she admits. “But here I meet women, I relax, eat something, rest. The most important thing is not to be home alone with my thoughts. If not for this job, I would sink into a great depression. Working and creating gives me the strength to cope.”

A collection of notebooks prepared by asylum seekers. Credit: Meged Gozani

Lamlam was born in Eritrea. Her husband served in the Eritrean army for many years, and then deserted and fled the country. Lamlam was forced to flee Eritrea eight years ago, leaving behind a child who is now 13. Her family is raising him. She escaped first to Ethiopia and then, two months later, to Libya, where she was imprisoned and tortured.

As she describes her time in a Libyan jail, her voice falls to a mere whisper and her eyes close more frequently. She pulls up her shirt, showing the scars from serious burns. “They tortured people, hanged them, burned their flesh,” she says. When Lamlam was released from prison, she fled to and from there to Israel. Along the way, her Bedouin smugglers tortured her as well. About three years ago, she found a partner and built a new family in Israel.

Dark model of beauty

Kuchinate (“crochet” in Tigrinya) was co-founded in 2011 by Diddy Mymin Kahn, a clinical psychologist who specializes in aiding victims of rape and sexual abuse among Eritrean asylum seekers. She worked in collaboration with the Eritrean nun Sister Azezet Kidane, who in 2012 received an award from the U.S. State Department for her efforts to combat human trafficking. The center bustles with activity each afternoon: While some women are working, others sit on the couches and socialize. There are little children everywhere, and the open kitchen is constantly producing meals.

The project began with crocheting of practical objects: baskets, rugs and bean bags – and now the black dolls. The asylum seekers also give crocheting lessons on site. The women’s work has also been exhibited at a contemporary art fair in Tel Aviv and the Haifa Museum of Art, among other places.

According to Mymin Kahn, the collective employs six women as full-time managers, while some 140 women receive payment based on their output. “For some women this is their regular job,” she says, “whereas for others they are coming in for temp work in crocheting because they’re pregnant and were fired, or they’re sick and this is a comfortable job for them.”

Aside from the work, “there are many women coming for treatment, for consultation, for emotional support,” she says. “Sometimes, they come to hear a lecture, to meet with girlfriends, or even just to eat and enjoy friendly company.”

An asylum seeker presents one of the dolls she made.Credit: Meged Gozani

The idea of creating the new line came after the collective heard about the difficulty of finding black dolls in Israeli toy stores. “We decided to create black dolls because it is especially needed in Israeli society, which is diverse and multicultural,” Mymin Kahn explains. “Black dolls present a dark-skinned model of beauty, and empower children with a dark skin tone at a young age.” The dolls also “have significance in education to all children, for the purpose of tolerance and acceptance of the other,” she adds.

According to government data there are currently 28,873 asylum seekers in Israel, including 4,831 women. Many of them have been in Israel for close to a decade, without any legal status and without welfare and health benefits. “They have no future and live in a state of uncertainty,” says Mymin Kahn. “They are victims of discrimination, xenophobia and racism on a daily basis. They fled due to war or persecution, and many of them are victims of human trafficking – women who survived following rape and harsh abuse in Sinai’s torture camps.”

She says the women are more acutely exposed to sexual assaults, harassment and domestic violence. Many of them are single mothers, as their partners have acceded to Israel’s offers to return to their homelands. “Most of them work cleaning houses, a few have found jobs as translators,” Mymin Kahn adds, “and they live well below the poverty line.”

‘Easy prey’

“I feel that every doll I make is telling my story,” says Yasmo (not her real name). She was born in a small village in Eritrea and, after completing her studies at age 17, drafted into the army. Yasmo, now 32, struggled in the military and was released after about a year, but was then forced to carry out office work for the next 18 months without pay. When the pressure got too much, she fled to Sudan.

After a year in Sudan she arrived in Israel, a victim of human trafficking. She accepted a marriage offer made by an asylum seeker from Eritrea who had escaped to Israel. “I didn’t know him, but I didn’t have a choice,” she relays. “To be a woman alone in Sudan, without family, far from home, is a difficult and frightening situation.”

Mymin Kahn, the founder of the project, with the dolls they prepared by asylum seekers.Credit: Meged Gozani

When she arrived in Israel, it became clear she was bound by a marriage contract to a violent alcoholic. “He would beat me, and when he was afraid that I might run away he would imprison me at home.” This went on for three years. “Even when I was pregnant, he beat me. He would come to my work and make a mess of things,” she says.

One time he arrived drunk at her workplace and chased after her with a knife. Yasmo filed a complaint with the police; he was detained for 15 days and then released. She arrived at a shelter for battered women together with her small daughter. When they left it three months later, her partner had left Israel. “I felt a burden lifted from me,” Yasmo recalls. “I was walking on air. I felt as if I’d been released from prison.”

It wasn’t long before she was marked as easy prey in her community, though, and was forced into prostitution for some three years. “I am ashamed,” she says, suddenly bursting into tears. “Every time I sought help I was told, ‘All right, but in exchange come to my apartment.’ I would accept offers from men on Facebook and on the telephone. I had no choice, I had no other way of surviving,” she relates.

An asylum seeker knits a doll. Credit: Meged Gozani

About two years ago, Yasmo turned to Kuchinate for advice. “From the first day I came here, everything got better,” she says. “I stopped being involved in prostitution. I moved a few times, in order to prevent the clients from finding me.” She now works there four days a week and receives emotional support.

“I’m proud to create black dolls,” she tells Haaretz. “My heart beats with excitement when I see people coming especially to purchase them, and I’m proud when they say how beautiful the dolls are.”

‘Therapeutic power’

Indiana-born Laura Lee Burch is an artist and doll maker who once owned a doll store in Tel Aviv called Burch and Daughters. She now volunteers at Kuchinate, where she teaches the women to produce dolls. “This work has tremendous therapeutic power,” she says. “It diverts their thoughts from the difficulties. It is an encounter of women who sit and crochet and sew together. Making the dolls is a source of pride and empowerment. The women mirror themselves by way of the dolls, and that brings respect to the handicraft. “In addition,” she continues, “through the preparation of these dolls, they acquire and upgrade their sewing skills,” offering them another way of earning money.

Lee Burch, who volunteers at the center and guides the women in making the dolls.Credit: Meged Gozani

Eden Gebre, 29, is married with three children and manages the doll production line. She distributes fabric to the women and keeps track of their output in order to determine their monthly pay. “Very young children love the black dolls,” she says, smiling shyly. Gebre was born in Eritrea and was forced to enlist in the army after completing her studies. “It is lifelong slavery,” she says.

Gebre escaped to Sudan, and from there to Egypt. She was imprisoned in an Egyptian prison for six months and then repatriated to Ethiopia. But she didn’t relent and set out on another arduous journey. This time she managed to reach Israel.

She has been here for the past eight years. Three years ago, she underwent a liver transplant and is now in the advanced stages of recovery. However, she still suffers from pain and has a hard time paying for the medication without medical insurance. “I now have to undergo CT and ultrasound scans,” she says, “and I have no way to pay for it.”

Gebre works at the center as well as at home, making the dolls. “When I am working I am busy with something else,” she says. “Then I arrive at home so tired, care for the children, and then go to sleep. It’s so much better than just sitting at home. This is a very good place for women. We can come here with our children. If my child is sick, it’s still OK to bring him and not miss work. If I were at home, alone, I’d be crying nonstop.”

Three-year-old Tzehiya is embracing a black doll, happily playing with its braided hair. “We raise the shelf with the dolls on it, but the kids are always able to climb up and pull down one of the dolls for sale,” laughs Mymin Kahn. “When children see that their mothers are working and producing, it inspires a sense of pride.”

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