There’s a Starbucks across from the adult learning center on Danforth Street in Toronto. I suggest to Mulu Mespen, 31, that we meet there after his math class, but he says he prefers a little neighborhood place he knows. I follow him as he strolls through some alleyways until we reach a charming little café run by an elderly Asian woman. If you know where to find the café, it’s a sign you’ve acclimated, I tell him. He smiles and hastens to praise Canada’s multiculturalism and myriad immigrants.
Before our meeting, when I asked to come see him and his Eritrean friends in Toronto’s Eritrean area, he laughed. “There’s no neighborhood of Africans here, like in Israel,” he said. “In Canada, everyone mixes with everyone.”
At the café, Mespen pulls two documents from his wallet, and they couldn’t be more different. The first is a Canadian driver’s license that sits in his wallet alongside his permanent-residency card, which he received the day he arrived in Canada from Israel in April 2016.
The second is a faded slip of paper, the kind you pull out when you take a number to wait on line somewhere, such as at Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. One side shows the person’s number on line – 670 in this case – and on the other side is the date, February 16, 2014, and a scrawl that’s supposed to be someone’s signature.
For a year when he was in Israel, Mespen always kept this piece of paper on him to prove to the immigration police, if he had to, that he had gone to the Interior Ministry to apply for legal status but couldn’t submit his documents to renew his visa because the ministry was overloaded that month. He says that this period, when his status hung on that meager slip of paper, comes back to him in nightmares. Even now, a year and a half after he found refuge in Canada, he still has that dream once in a while.
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In the dream, he’s in the middle of a kitchen shift at the Tel Aviv bar where he worked, when officers from the immigration police show up. He hides in the freezer but they find him and send him to prison for the rest of his life. He wakes up in a cold sweat from this and other versions of the dream. “When I received my travel documents for Canada, I felt free for the first time in my life,” he says.
Dawit Demoz, 31, who was also an asylum seeker in Israel and moved to Canada in June 2016, says something similar. Shortly before Mespen and Demoz left Israel, both told Haaretz how they were leaving behind years of feeling persecuted and enduring racist comments on the street, though they were also leaving behind many good friends, both Israeli and African.
Now a year and a half later in Toronto, the Canadian promise appears to have come true. Their lives are tranquil and both are studing at York University. Mespin studies information and cybersecurity, and Demoz psychology.
They are two of 879 African asylum seekers (98 percent of them Eritreans) who left Israel for Canada in 2016. Last year, twice that number came to Canada. On Monday, Interior Minister Arye Dery presented data to the cabinet showing a drop by half in the number of asylum seekers leaving Israel. Dery said that in recent years some 3,000 asylum seekers have left the country annually, while the number so far this year is only about 1,500.
Currently in Israel, there are still 25,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and 7,500 from Sudan. In most of the West, more than 90 percent of Eritreans who apply are granted refugee status, though in Israel only 10 Eritreans have been recognized as refugees.
Canada offers asylum to refugees under the sponsorship method. Sponsors deposit between 25,000 and 40,000 shekels ($11,160) in a special bank account designated for housing, board and studies for a refugee in the first year after his arrival. If the refugee does not need the money, he returns it at the end of the year.
The sponsors also commit to stay in touch with the refugee and assist him if needed. When refugees land in Canada, they receive permanent residency – the document Mespen showed me in the café. They are eligible to open a bank account, obtain a driver’s license and receive health insurance like regular citizens – three basic services they couldn’t obtain in Israel.
The most common type of sponsorship is group sponsorship in which five people put down the deposit. There is also individual sponsorship, and sponsorship by a recognized community such as a church or community center. The private sponsorship program has been in operation for 40 years and has brought 200,000 people to Canada. It’s considered a success because the refugees don’t become a burden on the welfare services. In the vast majority of cases, they’re independent after the sponsorship year is over.
Canadians are especially proud that none of these refugees has ever been involved in a criminal or security investigation; their names have never been tied to any terrorist incident. When people are given a generous chance to acclimate and succeed, they usually don’t disappoint.
The website of The Canadian Jewish News recently published the story of Amar, 21, an Eritrean asylum seeker preparing to leave Israel for Canada under the community sponsorship program. What’s special about Amar’s story is that a dozen rabbis joined with two priests to collect money from their congregations to cover the deposit.
Making life miserable
Mespen and Demoz came to Canada through individual sponsorship. Mespen was working at a Tel Aviv bar where he became friends with a waitress originally from Canada. She connected him with her parents in Toronto (who wished to remain anonymous), and they agreed to sponsor him. Demoz received sponsorship from a Canadian woman he met in Israel while she was here volunteering with human rights groups. The bureaucratic process takes about two years, during which asylum seekers undergo medical checkups and a careful review of their status.
The website of the Canadian Interior Ministry has a video with a detailed explanation of the process. In it, an official apologizes that the process is a bit complicated and promises that the ministry is doing everything possible to streamline it. Not exactly the experience in Israel.
“The people at the population authority in Israel were very aggressive and didn’t speak to us nicely,” Mespen says. “They made us feel like terrorists and kept scaring us with the threat that we’d be expelled any minute.”
Not much has changed since Israel’s interior minister at the time, Eli Yishai, declared in 2012: “Until I can deport them, I’ll make their lives miserable.” Mespen recalls the stress he felt whenever his visa was about to expire, which was every month or two.
The population authority renews visas for two months at most, and the decision of whether it’s one month or two seems totally arbitrary. All this ended for Mespen and Demoz when they boarded a plane in 2016 with a one-way ticket to Toronto. For these two young men, both 29 at the time, it was their first time on a plane.
“The system in Israel is racist in the way it labels people and treats them accordingly,” Demoz says. “I always felt that they were spreading false information about us and the situation in Eritrea to turn the public against us. It was reported recently that with the peace with Ethiopia, Eritrea is now a safe place for the refugees to return to, but that’s not true at all. The danger for us is the army that’s in control there and the government that imprisons anyone who left the country without permission.”
Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says that “all the Eritreans who went to Canada from Israel underwent a careful review by the UN refugee agency, which confirmed that they deserved refugee status. This is an important point because Israel rejects the applications from these people, and now we see that the thousands of Eritreans that we’re pushing out are actually recognized as refugees.”
They’re granted refugee status because a UN commission of inquiry found Eritrea’s leaders guilty of crimes against humanity including executions without trial, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual slavery and forced labor. Mespen's 16-year-old sister was just forced into the army and he is beside himself with worry about what could happen to her. Eritreans are considered the world’s fifth-largest refugee population, with nearly 470,000 refugees spread across the globe.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry is unhappy with Israel’s asylum-seeker policy and its attempts to forcibly expel the, a statement issued by the ministry in June said: “Canada does not support policies of mass deportations of asylum seekers,” said ministry spokesman Adam Austen, adding that the expulsions would contravene migrants’ rights under the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory.
“As the country that resettles the highest number of African asylum seekers from Israel, we are in direct contact with the government of Israel to convey Canada’s concerns about the situation,” he added.
My meeting with Mespen takes place after his math class at the adult learning center. He has to complete these studies for his matriculation in Canada because the Eritrean government won’t confirm studies done in Eritrea for anyone who fled the country. In Mespen's case, this means that his four years of study for a nearly completed bachelor’s degree in engineering went down the drain.
After our meeting, he goes back home to the Jewish family that sponsored him and is also housing him. Most of the time he’s studying or at work as a cook at an Italian restaurant, but twice a week he sits down to dinner with the family.
Mespen was born in a small village on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border and is one of nine children. Like all Eritrean boys, he was drafted at 17, essentially becoming state property. He began resisting the regime — and then fearing for his life. During one of his rare vacations from university, while visiting his parents in 2008, he crossed the border into Sudan. He stayed at a refugee camp there for three months but didn’t feel safe when he saw other Eritreans there vanishing in the middle of the night. He feared the long arm of the regime.
He fled Sudan to Cairo and from there made his way to Israel via Sinai with the help of smugglers. In Israel he first spent four months at Saharonim Prison and then eight years in south Tel Aviv, though he spent several months at the Holot detention facility in the south until one of his bosses got him out. He worked as a dishwasher and cook in various places in the Tel Aviv area.
Demoz followed a similar route, but unlike Mespen, he didn’t plan to come to Israel. He tried to get to Europe via Libya, but his attempts failed and eventually smugglers led him through Sinai to Israel. Demoz lived in Israel for seven years and became a leader of the asylum-seeker community; he was a key organizer behind the 2014 protests against the incarceration of asylum seekers. His absence is still keenly felt in the community.
The most respect for the country
“In Israel, you’re living in constant fear of expulsion, so right from the start I tried to find ways to leave Israel. The feeling is that the government is manipulating the Israeli public at our expense; they call us ‘infiltrators,’” Demoz says.
“At first I thought it was a term for people who crossed the border, but then I understood that the connotation is terrorists. I was in shock that they were calling me that. I understood that if the government and the media are calling us infiltrators, of course people are scared of us. I suddenly understood why most people I met in Israel were aggressive and mean to me. It’s not their fault, they’re being brainwashed by the government,” he adds.
“I’d be afraid too if I was told that these people were infiltrators and terrorists. No one in Israel explained to us how to go through integration because the government preferred for us not to assimilate. For me, that’s the big difference between the two countries. When I walked down the street in Israel, I felt that I was hated. Here everyone defines themselves as minorities and no one thinks he’s better than others just because of where he came from. If somebody walks in before me, he holds the door open. And I do the same for him. I really love this custom.”
Rozen adds that “there’s talk around the world about sharing the burden of caring for asylum seekers and refugees, but not only is Israel not sharing the burden, it’s also making money off the asylum seekers.”
As she explains it, “The government collects huge taxes from the asylum seekers and their employers. First, they pay income tax from the first shekel they earn. They don’t get tax breaks. Beyond that their employers pay a 20-percent ‘head tax’ for employing asylum seekers. Add to that the deposit rule, which requires the employer to cut another 20 percent from their net pay and another 6 percent from their gross pay for this deposit.”
Asked what he got out of his time in Israel despite everything, Mespen says: “Look, I lived in Israel for a big part of my most productive years, from age 22 to 30, years when I could have contributed so much to Israeli society. In another country I would have already become a citizen in that time.
“If I’d become an Israeli citizen, I would have been the citizen with the most respect for the country, just as I feel now for Canada. I’ve lost a lot in my life, but on the other hand, I never would have gotten the opportunity I have now if I’d stayed in Eritrea or in the refugee camps in Africa. I couldn’t have become the person that I am today."