Louis says he feared nothing more than spending endless years as a boy soldier in the Eritrean army/ national service, where conscription can go on to age 50. Desperate, he embarked on a treacherous journey, not sure where he’d end up.
While the moral debate rages over the limits of the responsibility of strong, free countries like ours to take in migrants, I am having lunch with one such refugee. Louis is the name he’s using. We can’t use his real name for fear of retribution to his family.
Louis and I are in the cafeteria of Hadassah- Neurim, a Youth Aliya village near Netanya. School has just started, and around us, teens fill their plates with rice and chicken, salads and hot peppers. Like Louis, they are wearing jeans and T-shirts with the school logo.
Each student gets five shirts in a choice of colors. Louis is wearing white and blue. He’s tall and lanky, with a semi-mohawk haircut and sparkling, dark eyes. He sprints to the communal kitchen to get us additional water and glasses.
Leaving home is dangerous, but it’s not rare in Eritrea, where an estimated 5,000 citizens stealthily leave their country every month. If you’re caught, you might be shot or tortured. Such is life in the State of Eritrea, a country of 6.5 million – half Christian, half Muslim – in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Sudan to the west and Ethiopia in the south, and with a long coastline along the Red Sea, the Greek for which is the source of the country’s name.
The United Nations forged a federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea in December 1950. A 30-year war of liberation resulted.
The same UN supervised a referendum in which the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence, declared in 1993. A party called the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front seized power, established a one-party state, banned political activity and conscripted citizens to work for it.
Defiance is crushed with imprisonment, reputedly underground, and torture.
The second of seven children – his older sister moved to Ethiopia and married – Louis dodged armed border guards and made his way to the UN (again!) compound in Sudan. There are multiple stories of kidnappings there, but he survived and crossed the shoot-on-sight guards to enter Egypt. He used money gathered by his family to pay the notorious smuggling gangs that guide Eritreans through Sinai and into Israel.
“I was terrified all the time, but knew I didn’t want to turn back,” he says.
The word among the refugees was that Israeli guards don’t shoot, so he was relieved to be captured by the Israelis and sent to detention in the Holot facility in the Negev. The doctors who examined him confirmed that he was only 14.
Over 40,000 migrants from Eritrea have entered Israel this way, most of them young men, but some of them children traveling on their own.
Louis was transferred to a new detention center in Hadera. That’s where he met Natan Biton, director of the Hadassah- Neurim Youth Village. Says Biton, who introduced me to Louis: “I received a call from a representative of the Education Ministry to ask me if I would be willing to take in refugee children from Eritrea.
I told him I would be honored to.”
Biton has a strong sentimental side about absorbing migrants, nurtured by a childhood growing up in Israel, one of six children of immigrants from Morocco. His parents couldn’t read or speak Hebrew, and he and his siblings – all of whom, like him, have graduate degrees – made their way through the no-frills school system in Israel’s periphery.
The Youth Aliya village he runs has 400 residential students and 100 commuters from Netanya. It was originally called Ben-Shemen 2, because Ben-Shemen, the veteran children’s village near Ben-Gurion Airport, was evacuated at night to the abandoned British barracks just north of Netanya in the War of Independence. (The emotional evacuation scene in the movie Exodus is based on this.) The teens there had fled Nazi Germany or were Holocaust survivors. Later, Youth Aliya villages around Israel were opened to immigrants from Morocco, Romania, Iraq and almost every other immigrant group, as well as Sabra children from impoverished and dysfunctional homes. In recent decades, most immigrants have come from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.
Biton – no surprise here – comes down on the side of stretching our resources to absorb as many teens as possible.
“I always remember that after World War II we had nothing and needed to be taken in,” he says.
Another core value of Biton’s is that coping with diversity produces strength of character. Nearly every ethnic group is represented in his student body, including Arabs. Louis is Christian.
“I wish we had a teen in a wheelchair, or a blind teen, so that our students would learn what it is like to live with disabilities,” Biton says.
And yes, he’d be willing to take in Syrian teens.
“We took in South Lebanese, and there’s no difference,” he exclaims.
Louis is one of 12 Eritrean teens who have studied so far at Hadassah-Neurim.
“Every one of the girls had been sexual assaulted on the way,” says Biton, who made sure they received medical and psychological counseling. The village staff has a lot of experience in trauma.
Biton remembers with fondness the day he met Louis, a skinny kid with big eyes and a charming smile.
“Such a great kid,” he says.
A staff member who speaks Tigrit came along to ask Louis if he wanted to come to Hadassah-Neurim.
“The kids were wearing rags,” says Biton.
“We stopped at a second-hand store on the way home and filled suitcases with jeans and T-shirts.”
Typically, the villages have been supported by the Jewish Agency in partnership with Diaspora Jews who believe in child rescue (in this case, Hadassah).
Of course, the Youth Aliya village is experienced and well-prepared for immigrant absorption. In the nearly two years Louis has been at Hadassah-Neurim, he has learned Hebrew and received tutoring for his schoolwork. He has a lot to catch up on, even in a setting that is geared for children who need remedial work because of disrupted childhoods.
“I miss my family but have no desire to return until the situation in Eritrea changes,” Louis says.
Biton’s key assistant in absorbing the Eritrean youth is athletic coach Alemayhu Faloro.
A coach to champions in Ethiopia, Faloro, now 44, met many Israeli athletes who came to train with him in Ethiopia.
Through them he fell in love with the country and moved here. He worked first in Gush Etzion and at the Hebrew University.
He found his life challenge with the children at Hadassah-Neurim, turning them into champion athletes. Along the way, he converted from Christianity to Judaism.
Faloro believed that Louis could run.
“Running teaches you the value of hard work and that there are no shortcuts,” he says.
Pounding the professional athletic track at Hadassash-Neurim, Louis found his feet.
At first, he ran off his fears from Eritrea and the terror of crossing all the borders.
He ran faster thinking of the journey with the Beduin. He ran off his longing for his family. He ran because Faloro urged him to train harder and go faster and make the team proud.
Soon, Louis was winning races, and today he is Israel’s top runner in his age group. As soon as his permanent status as a refugee is straightened out and he can get an Israeli passport, he’ll be representing us abroad, says Falaro.
Louis smiles when the coach describes his two-and-a-half-hour daily training regime.
“The coach can still outrun us all,” he says.
Says Faloro: “Louis is so talented that if he continues to work hard he can go all the way to represent us at the Olympics. The missing factor for many athletes is courage.
Louis has plenty of that.” The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.