It has been over 2 months since my return from my big trip abroad. I was expecting to stay for months, if not years, but New York called me back again, as did my family and friends. Only being away for 2 months, I guess it’s hard to say I really got to know Israel any better, but I did see a lot and hang out with old friends and eat some amazing foods! Then I went to Cyprus, where I stayed with an amazing group of young men who immigrated from India. On the final leg of my trip, I had to survive long, overnight layovers in Europe before finally landing in Morocco.
At each stop, I did my best to leave a positive mark, to make friends, and to work with children, animals, and refugees who were in need. These were moments from which I gained and learned so much! I think the experience that touched me the most, however, was during my time volunteering with the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in South Tel Aviv. Most people are not aware of the arduous journey single, refugee mothers must take on in order to escape Eritrea into a safer land. Nothing about the trip is safe, though, and safety isn’t guaranteed once they arrive in Israel, either.
Unfortunately, due to xenophobia and traditional beliefs, even the Israelis can quickly become fearful and hateful of these people. Not only because they are different from themselves, but also due to commonly being overrun and attacked by immigrants who come from nearby countries. Because of this, whenever there is crime or destruction, the Eritreans may be blamed. The community center itself was broken down, poorly constructed, had faced a few acts of vandalism, and was littered in garbage, barbed wire, miscellaneous clothes items, and I even came across a used condom in the backyard where the children played! Despite being warned that the children I would be meeting would be energetic, stubborn, and wouldn’t even understand English if I tried to stop them, I found the kids delightful!
Sure, their mothers were too busy and exhausted to help them adjust to the customs and etiquette to which we are familiar, but they were warm, sweet, and trying their hardest!
The saddest thing is, so few people know what these small families must endure in hopes of reaching the Promised land. Personally, I had never even heard of Eritrea prior to coming across the center and becoming intrigued. In response to the kindness and knowledge I gained from volunteering here, I would like to do my part by teaching my readers more about the plight of these women and their children. Occasionally, the women would also have male partners, but many of them were abusive, so the women were happy to separate from them.
Let me start by explaining why the Eritreans became refugees.
The country of Eritrea is a repressive dictatorship. The U.N. described the situation in the country: “Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts – have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic campaign since 1991 aimed at maintaining control over the population and perpetuating the Eritrean leadership’s rule.”
Tens of thousands of Eritrean men and women are held in arbitrary detention in appalling conditions. This could be for calling for reform, practicing an outlawed religion, or trying to avoid mandatory and indefinite military service. Not only are there official reports of forced labor and sexual violence during this service, but I heard it from the women, themselves. They were called into service at 18 and were to serve, often as domestic slaves until they were too old, were replaced, or died from torture and maltreatment.
Many Eritrean women flee the country to avoid child marriages, sexual abuse, or exploitation in the Eritrean military. Unfortunately, smugglers and human traffickers take advantage of this “market”. During their journey to Israel, thousands of Eritrean men and women were held in trafficking compounds in the Sinai Desert in Egypt, until their families could pay ransom for their release. Hostages were subjected to brutal torture including electrocution, mass rape of women and men, and branding. The New York Times, CNN, BBC and many other news outlets have covered in detail this brutal treatment of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai desert. When given work, the tasks would be torturous and make one wonder if death would be preferable, such as cleaning up the blood from past prisoners. It would be nearly impossible to find a single refugee who had not experienced or witnessed rape, torture, and/or complete lack of basic necessities.
As of now, there are about 7,000 Eritrean refugee women in Israel. All of them lack access to basic services, including healthcare and welfare.
Of course, this causes all sorts of problems with population control within the tiny country of Israel. While the government intends to grant most of these people refugee status and grant them the ability to work and have the rights of a citizen, the rapid rate of new entries makes this a huge task. Very few of the refugees have been kicked out, but majority live without legal status and in constant fear of being returned to Eritrea or worse, Sinai.
This is why the community center exists and persists. Not only do they offer babysitting, but also education for the mothers, in which they learn about Israeli culture, what rights they have, how to complete forms and applications to become a legal citizen, and therapeutic services and support. They are also given assistance in finding work, dealing with dangerous spouses, proper childcare, and even a program in which they teach them how to do beauty care and make money.
HOW (you can help):
The first step I would recommend is to read and learn and know as much as possible. Until you know the reality these people face, you cannot even begin to realize how important our help is. Of course, once you know, not everyone can fly abroad to help in person, here are some other ways you can help: