Ethiopian woman being denied any formal status

Non-Jew who was brought to Israel by force as child 16 years ago says limbo status "like being in jail."

A non-Jewish Ethiopian woman, who was brought to Israel by force as a child and raped by her captor for more than a year, is being denied any formal residency status even though she has lived here for more than 16 years, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Aregash Gudina Terfassa, whose lawyers have petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to accept her claim, first applied for permanent residency status in 2006, when the Interior Ministry announced it would recognize children of foreign workers either born here or who had spent the vast majority of their lives here. Even though Terfassa fit most of the criteria - she had arrived before the age of 14, grew up here and speaks fluent Hebrew - her application was denied because she had never attended an Israeli school. She has been living here without any formal status ever since. "It's like being in jail," the 28-year-old told the Post Wednesday. "I was working as a cleaner two days a week but after being arrested twice [by immigration police] and spending a month in jail, I'm too afraid to go out to work or even leave my house." "I would have loved to have had the opportunity to go to school," continued Terfassa, who, ironically, spent much of her teenage years cleaning an Israeli school, but never actually learning in one. "But I had no parents to help me with that and I did not have the chance." Attorney Michael Decker from the Jerusalem-based Yehuda Raveh & Co. Law Offices, which is representing Terfassa, said the Interior Ministry's decision not to grant her permanent residency was unfair. He pointed out to the Post that under the country's laws of compulsory education it is the responsibility of parents and/or the authorities to ensure that every child attends school. In the case of Terfassa, however, because she had no parents or official legal guardian, that criteria should not apply. "She was cleaning schools while other kids got to study there, but never had the chance to study herself," said Decker, adding that a court hearing was supposed to take place on Sunday but that the Interior Ministry has asked for an additional extension to further analyze the situation. The presiding judge has not yet ruled whether next week's hearing will be delayed. "It's a unique case," commented a ministry spokeswoman. "The courts will now have to decide what should be done in this matter." Asked about the Interior Ministry's approach to her case, Terfassa replied sadly: "All my life has been filled with hardships; it's all I know. I have no parents, no family, except for my [non-Jewish] husband now. I have been here for 16 years and still have achieved nothing." Terfassa, who hails from rural Ethiopia, said that her parents died when she was a young child and that she was sent to live in a church. In 1993, the church's priest was posted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem and Terfassa accompanied him, entering the country initially on a tourist visa. "He was like a father to me," said Terfassa of the man who first brought her here and later beat and raped her. "I was only a child then, I did not speak Hebrew and the officials in the church told me not to report it to the police." Terfassa recalled, however, that the priest was later deported by the Israeli authorities. At the age of 14, Terfassa, who was left barren by her ordeal, managed to escape the church and found refuge with another Ethiopian Christian family in Jerusalem and worked for them caring for the family's young children. She was later hired by a manpower agency and sent to work as a cleaner, which she has done ever since. "I know that she would love to have a formal status so that she could at least improve her work situation," said Becker. "She has expressed to me that she would love to work in a store, folding clothes. She is just devastated that next week's hearing might be postponed."