Bureaucracy – Where Tel Aviv and Eritrea Meet

An Interior Ministry visa clerk did everything he could to humiliate me, for hours, while I fought to be able to live with my husband for another two months.

An Asylum Seeker
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Asylum seekers stand in line in front of the Interior Ministry building in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2014Credit: Moti Milrod
An Asylum Seeker

Tuval Street, Tel Aviv, 6 A.M. I am already there, together with my husband and hundreds more refugees and asylum seekers who need to renew their visas. A great deal has been written about the lines for visa renewal. What people do not know is that the Holot prison has no room for families, so married couples must prove that they really are married, otherwise the men are incarcerated there.

The women – myself and several others in my situation – must fight to keep our families together, and in my experience it is very difficult to make the Interior Ministry believe us.

At 8 A.M., a clerk with a megaphone orders us to form a line. Since we came early, I knew we would make it into the line. What I did not know was that I would only leave there, exhausted and humiliated, at night. The gates opened at 9 A.M. (even though officially they should have opened at 8 A.M.). Those of us who got in received a number and were directed to a waiting room. The first ones to arrive had seats. The rest sat on the floor.

Our turn – my husband’s and mine – came at 5 P.M. We went to the office, which was one room with a long table divided into 10 counters. An Interior Ministry clerk sat on one side of each counter, with the refugees on the other. No Israelis, not even lawyers, are allowed inside.

My head began aching the moment I went in. All of the clerks were shouting simultaneously at the people opposite them, and inside that closed room there was nowhere to escape from the noise and the aggression. My husband and I were interviewed separately, on and off, for four hours.

Where did you meet your husband? What do you eat for breakfast? For lunch? What time does your husband get up in the morning? What do you see from the window of your home? When I told the clerk that we ate injera (Ethiopian/Eritrean flatbread), he was furious.

“What, does everyone eat injera? You eat injera all the time?” he shouted. “You’re not in Eritrea!”

I didn't know what to say. “You asked and I answered,” I said. “What do you want?”

The clerk calmed down a little. “I want to help you.”

“How do you want to help me?” I asked.

“I will send you back to Africa with a lot of money – to Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan.”

“But what will I do there?" I asked. "That’s not my country. I don’t know anybody there.”

"This isn’t your country either. So get out!” he responded.

This dialogue took place at high volume, with fist-banging on the desk and threatening hand gestures. The clerk did everything he could to scare, embarrass and humiliate me. He did so deliberately, for hours, with all his might.

It reminded me of Eritrea, actually. Not the questioning – I was questioned under torture when I was in prison there. Rather, the frustration I felt at the Interior Ministry was the same frustration I felt when a great deal of power was also used, arbitrarily, against me.

Sometimes the dialogue was interrupted because the interpreter – there were only two interpreters for all of us – was called to another station. During those breaks, I listened to the questioning sessions being conducted around me.

“In what position do you have sex?” a clerk shouted at a woman sitting near me. “Is the woman on top or the man?” The clerk did not let up even when the woman began quietly to sob. He shouted that he did not believe that she and her husband were really married to each other. He told her he would be issuing her husband a summons to Holot. The woman burst out crying.

Her husband and other people tried to calm her. Even a few of the clerks who noticed that she was suffering terribly approached her and told her to go home. She was afraid to leave, lest her husband be taken to Holot.

The clerk said to another woman, “You have beautiful eyes.” She was silent. He got annoyed. “I gave you a compliment. Why don’t you answer? You should say ‘Thank you.’” After enduring another round of invasive questioning, she fainted. From the heat, from the embarrassment, from the shouting.

In the meantime, I took out the documents I had prepared: my marriage certificate, rental contract, electric bills. The clerk did not even look at them. He told my husband that he had to go to Holot. I felt such despair that I could not stop the tears. The clerk paid no attention.

After we went through another session of questioning separately, my husband received a two-month visa. But that is not the end of the story: The clerk said he did not believe us and would be leaving our case open. This means that when my husband has to renew his visa, I will have to go with him (even though my visa is valid for six months) and try once again to fight for him and for myself, for our life together.

I left the Interior Ministry at 9:30 P.M. after spending 13-and-a-half hours there, fighting for our right to live here together for another two months.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said in response: “Although we have no intention of disputing the writer’s personal feelings, we feel it is important to clarify that what she has written is based on her subjective point of view and not on the facts. Since a brief visit to the location in question shows immediately that there are no people waiting in line, it is not clear what sort of situation she is describing.

"The employees of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority are instructed to act professionally and respectfully toward those who receive services, and they do that.

“We wish to comment that the esteemed writer forgot to say that her entry to Israel took place in blatant violation of the law. And also, the fact she and her husband are ‘fighting for their right to live here together’ appears to stem from the fact that their stay here began illegally.”

The writer is an asylum seeker from Eritrea.