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Fleeing Brutality and Genocide, I Was Sure in Israel, Anne Frank’s People Wouldn’t Deny Us Refuge

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Israeli border police question an African asylum seeker, Tel Aviv, December 17, 2017.
Israeli border police question an African asylum seeker, Tel Aviv, December 17, 2017.Credit: Meged Gozani

Stories matter.

Every one of us has a unique story. I’m sharing mine not because it’s a better story - but because it’s relevant to an issue I hope more and more people will learn about, engage in, and protest.

Here is an excerpt from one of Anne Frank’s diary entries (and it’s not by accident I am quoting it here):

Tuesday, 11 April, 1944

My Dearest Kitty:

Who has inflicted this on us? Who has set us apart from all the rest? Who has put us through such suffering? It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we are doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held as an example.

Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and that’s the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer. We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever; we will always be Jews as well. And we will have to keep on being Jews, but then, we will want to be.

I first met Anne Frank in a library makeshift in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was one of four stories, along with Robinson Crusoe and Benjamin Franklin’s journal, bound together in one book. I read it and something touched me deeply: her innocence and longing for just normal life.

I identified with that feeling. I was born and grew up in war. I was arrested twice in my home country, Eritrea, a corrupt, totalitarian dictatorship, fled, and then lived for two years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

I looked at all the innocent kids around me in the refugee camp. "Why can’t a child, every child, have a normal life?" I asked. I read one of her letters to my students in a refugee camp class and everyone was deeply touched. I cried when I found out she did not survive the war.

I strongly felt I owed her something - telling her story, and passing on her gift to children of my own country. So I translated the diary into my own native language, Tigrinya. All handwritten, it took me 14 months to complete.

Sadly, I lost the manuscript on the long and dangerous journey from Sudan to Egypt.

African migrants demonstrate against Israel's policy of forcibly deporting African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

As we reached the border between Egypt and Israel, around midnight, the Egyptians opened fire at us but we were already jumping the fences and running for our lives. Luckily no one in our group was killed.

I remember asking the first Israeli soldier I met if he knew Anne Frank.

He looked at me, surprised, and said, "Of course, I know her diary," and told to relax, in thickly accented English.

We were immediately taken to a nearby military camp, where soldiers brought us food and water.

"Freedom! Freedom! I’m free and happy!" I sang in my heart. I was finally in the hands of human beings who knew how it feels to be a refugee. Shortly afterwards, I moved to Jerusalem and went to a bookstore, where I ‘re-met’ Anne Frank and started the translation all over again.

For several years from 2003 onwards, Israel was overwhelmed by the arrival of tens of thousands of Africans through its Sinai border. Unprepared, the government reacted out of fear; Israel erected a border fence, which stopped the influx completely.

People in Tel Aviv, where the newcomers were sent, worked hard to help; at first, residents brought food, clothes and blankets. Existing NGOs adjusted their missions and new ones were established to serve the new population.

Eritreans, who fled a repressive regime, and Sudanese, who fled genocide, were given temporary group protection, so we were issued "conditional release visas," which we needed to renew every three months.

Members of "Stop the Deportation" protesting the government's plan to deport nearly 40,000 African asylum seekers from Israel.Credit: Stopping the Deportation

I remember it was the first time in years that I could freely move anywhere and anytime inside the country without fear of being arrested, though my legal status was still somewhat unclear. I could also work and earn money, though my visa was not a work permit. I did not care much about my legal status as long as I was protected, so I looked for more opportunities.

I applied to the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and was accepted to study psychology. As part of my admission, I wrote an essay titled, "Anne Frank, the immortal." Yes, she was, and will always be for me.

I finished both my BA and MA studies in five years. I never dreamt I would accomplish that much. I could only do it because I was privileged to have some wonderful people who believed in me and supported me, in spirit and financially.

I also tried to give back to the community. I developed an afterschool program for children, which is growing every year. I initiated a joint Israeli- Eritrean cycling team called "Bicicletta TLV" and a farming project. I traveled from Acre in the north to Eilat in the south. I went to Passover seders.

My eight years in Israel were incredibly transforming. I fell in love with Israel. I miss it; I miss my friends, the food, the warm weather and the chutzpah of its people.

But stopping at this point would be a bit dishonest.

My story is not typical of refugees or asylum seekers in Israel. The vast majority can’t tell a similar story about their life in Israel. As much as I love Israel, I do not want to conceal how deeply concerned I am about the recent move by the government to expel African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel to a third country, particularly Rwanda.

Vulnerable people, appreciative of the refuge they were given, will have to choose between leaving Israel or jail. I sincerely believe that Israel should take a different path today.

This is my plea to anyone who proudly considers themselves friends of Israel: I know many of you love Israel the way you love a member of your own family. Israel’s policy is wrong, from an international legal perspective -remember, none of these refugees have no any links whatsoever to Rwanda - and it is also wrong from a moral perspective.

Yikealo Biyene speaking to an American Jewish audience in Washington DC in January 2018Credit: Yikealo Biyene

Those of my friends who left Israel for Rwanda over the last three years ended up without protection, and vulnerable to human trafficking. Most of them made their way to Europe; some ended up in the hands of ISIS and were beheaded in Libya or are held as slaves, others drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and some arrived in Europe. It’s not uncommon these days to find Eritreans who speak Hebrew in Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

Governments and political systems may appear heartless, but I think we all know that systems are made up of people - ordinary people - and it is my sincere hope that I can convince some of these people, including officials in Rwanda, that there is another path.

What I have to offer as persuasion is to tell my story. And for you to Imagine what stories those people who came to Israel, desperately seeking safety, who have lived there for nearly a decade, could tell, if they had the same platform as I now have. Imagine the stories those who have lost their lives since being deported from Israel could have told.

My two favorite quotes from Anne Frank’s diary demonstrate why, despite her tragedy, she continues to be a source of hope for me and others in desperate situations. The first: "How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." The second: "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."

I pray no one ever forgets that. That’s partly why I have embarked again on translating the diary into Tigrinya. There are many times when Anne’s thesis is tested. I am still hopeful that Israel’s government, its people, and friends of Israel around the world, recognize that the deportation of African refugees is one of those moments. But for luck and generous souls, I would have been among them. I hope Israel chooses life, and chooses what’s right.

Yikealo Beyene, originally from Eritrea, was a refugee in Israel for eight years. He graduated high school; won a national prize for outstanding students, and earned a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Organizational Behavior and Development from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.

He was active in the asylum seeker and refugee community and worked for the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC) as a community organizer.

Yikealo moved to the U.S. in 2016 on a family unification visa to join his wife. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington and plays an active role in the Eritrean community.

This op-ed is based on an address given by Yikealo Beyene at Ohev Shalom -The National Synagogue in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2018

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