African migrants celebrate their own Egypt exodus

Nearly 300 people attend special community Seder in south Tel Aviv.

Refugee seder 311 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Refugee seder 311
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Nearly 300 people attended a special community Seder in south Tel Aviv on Thursday. The event, titled “Out of Egypt,” was a Pessah celebration for the residents of the Shapira neighborhood and hosted African migrants, some of whose grim memories from the African continent echo those of the children of Israel under Pharaoh.
“This Seder is important because we are remembering something that happened to an oppressed nation. Through the telling of the Passover story, we can connect to our own story. It gives me hope that we can also overcome and that the next generation in my country will remember their brutal experiences as a story and not a recent memory,” said Abdel Man An, a refugee from the Central African Republic.
Man An crossed the border from Egypt to Israel three years ago. Like the people of Israel in the time of the Exodus, he was fleeing for his freedom and for his life. Both his father and his brother were executed in the Central African Republic, suspected of organizing a rebellion against the regime.
Man An himself had to flee Cairo, where he was studying in a university, for fear that he would be extradited to his home country where in all likelihood he, too, would be killed.
Though it didn’t last 40 years, Man An’s journey to Israel was not without its hardships. It took him and 20 others three night attempts to cross the border. The first two times they had to retreat out of fear of the Egyptian soldiers who shoot first and ask questions later. Every time they failed they had to go back to a shack in the Sinai desert, where they spent the day in hiding without food or water. On the third night they made it past the border and were eventually arrested by the IDF.
“I was afraid of the Israeli soldiers. From what I [had] heard of Israel and from what you see on television, I believed they would harm us, but unlike the Egyptian soldiers who shoot to kill, the Israelis only shot in the air to warn us,” Man An said. “I was surprised that when they arrested us, they weren’t aggressive or cruel. Instead one of the soldiers offered me a bottle of water and asked me if I was physically well.”
After four months in a holding center, Man An met with representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who saw to it that he was set free and eventually recognized as a bona fide refugee, one of the few in Israel who received official status.
Today, Man An lives in Bnei Brak’s Pardess Katz neighborhood and works in a restaurant in the city. He said that he had learned a lot about kashrut laws and this week helped clear hametz from the kitchen.
“I am always touched by the stories of the refugees who come here,” said Ilan Lorai Weiner, who works for the African Refugee Development Center, one of the organizers of the Seder. “The Haggada story is so far removed from us. It happened thousands of years ago. But when they tell their stories, suddenly the Exodus story becomes relevant. Oppression, violence, longing for freedom – these are things the refugees experienced recently. The shared past helps bring the people together.”
Weiner explained that like in most Israeli families, the Refugee Seder skips through portions of the Haggada and dwells on others. “We look at the universal moral of the story more than the religious story. We intermingle the Pessah narrative with personal stories by the refugees. That way everybody feels part of the ceremony.”
This year is the third time the Refugee Seder is being held. The event is funded by more than a dozen organizations, and the location – a basketball court next to kitchen facilities – is donated by Sova, a philanthropic aid organization that runs 20 youth centers and shelters across the country.
Gilad Harish, CEO of Sova, said that in the past five years Africans have made up more and more of their “customers.”
“We don’t turn anyone away, and many in this population are in great need,” he said.
Harish said that the veteran Israeli residents of the neighborhood were absent from the event. “This is a poor neighborhood and the residents are not thrilled, to say the least, about the influx of African migrants. Look, half of the white people here are American volunteers; you don’t see any of the old Bukhari residents at all.”
When asked about the absence of the neighborhood locals, Weiner saidthat despite the efforts of the aid organizations to bring the peopletogether, the veteran Israelis had issues with the African community.
“It’snot that they have a problem with specific people; they have problemswith the phenomenon as a whole. They come from the weakest segment ofthe population, and they never asked or expected to host the newcomersto their neighborhood.
“It’s the [migrant] children who give usthe most hope,” said Weiner. “They act as a bridge between the people.The children go to school and learn about the customs of the holiday.During the Seder, you can see the kids explaining what’s going on tothe parents. They all know the words to Ma Nishtana.”