Arrivals: The refugee

Mati Teklite, 27, from Eritrea to Ra’anana, 2005.

Mati Teklite 311 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Mati Teklite 311
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Mati Teklite escaped from Eritrea five years ago and managed to find asylum in Israel as a refugee. He works cleaning 18 hours a day and his dream sustains him: to save enough money and to get a Green Card, so he can go to America and bring over his mother and the wife whom he barely knows.
Teklite learned English in school so we were able to converse in that language, although he speaks very softly and it was difficult to understand him. He is one of seven children and his father was a policeman in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
Officially every young man in the country is drafted into the army for two years, but Teklite served seven. He saw action in the fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia and was desperate to get out of the army. The only way he could see was to run away, and five years ago he just set off.
“I went where my feet took me,” he says with his big smile.
His feet took him to neighboring Sudan, where he lived for three years working as a gardener. “No, I didn’t know anything about gardening but I learned on the job,” he says.
From there he and his friends walked again, this time to Egypt.
“We were 86 people, and as soon as we arrived, we were arrested by the Egyptian police,” he recalls. He managed to persuade the police that he was Sudanese and was able to take the train to Cairo, with a few friends.
From there he made his way to the border at Eilat with several other Eritreans.
“They took us within about 300 meters of the border and then they left us,” he says. “Of the 17 people in our group, five got through. Some got killed, the rest captured.
“The Israelis helped us – they gave us food and drink and papers and we were put in a refugee camp and from there sent on buses to Tel Aviv.”
Teklite traveled the route all his compatriots do when they arrive, sleeping first in public parks with only the clothes on their backs and looking for cleaning work during the day.
Eventually he found himself in Beersheba which he preferred – “it’s a balagan in Tel Aviv,” he says – and worked there for a year and a half.
About a year ago, he arrived in the center of the country, and now holds down three jobs. He starts cleaning at six in the morning and moves around between Kfar Saba, Ra’anana and Herzliya, mainly working in public buildings rather than private houses. In Kfar Saba he works at the local country club and has made a good impression as being reliable and thorough in his work.
Home is a third-floor walk-up in an old building on the outskirts of Ra’anana which he shares with four other Eritreans. Each pays NIS 500 for a small shared bedroom and a tiny and none-too-clean kitchen. The smell of curry overpowers as one steps into his abode.
“I’m happy,” says Teklite. His fervent Christian faith sustains him, and the day after we spoke he was planning to visit Bethlehem for the first time and was very excited about it. He wears a crucifix on a beaded chain around his neck and shows it to me with great pride. He has been to Nazareth and parts of Jerusalem, and if he ever has a spare Sunday he tries to go to church – but usually he’s working.
I ask him if he intends to study and what his plans are.
“No, I don’t want to learn, for me it would be a waste of time at the moment. I make good money and I’m able to send it back to my family.”
A sadness falls across his face as he takes a photo from his wallet to show me how his mother has aged. “Look, she’s 60 and she looks 90,” he says. A white-haired bescarved woman looks sadly at the camera.
“In our country and our culture, it’s accepted that the young people will take care of their elders,” he says.
He barely knew his wife as he fled only a month after their arranged marriage, but he says he loves her and she loves him.
“But her parents want a divorce and I don’t expect her to wait for me.If I could get to America I could bring her over there, but I can’tbring her here.”
He would love to go back to Eritrea, but only if the situationimproves. When I take my leave of Teklite we shake hands and his skinis raw and rough.
“It’s the bleach,” he says ruefully. “Perhaps one day I will be able todo something else, but for the moment cleaning is a lifeline for me.”