The Eritrean cooking course teaching Israelis about asylum seekers

Kitchen Talks is a social project that aims to connect different groups in Israeli society.

Chef Asmait Merhatsion runs the ‘Kitchen Talks’ program (photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
Chef Asmait Merhatsion runs the ‘Kitchen Talks’ program
(photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
When Asmait Merhatsion, 30, was in prison in Eritrea, she never dreamed someday she would be teaching Israelis in Tel Aviv how to cook Eritrean food. But on a recent evening in Tel Aviv, before the coronavirus outbreak, she helped a dozen Israelis cook an Eritrean feast, as part of “Kitchen Talks,” a social project that aims to connect different groups in Israeli society and educate Israelis about asylum seekers.
“The government in Eritrea is a dictatorship and our life was miserable there,” Merhatsion says, speaking softly as she chops tomatoes and onions. “We don’t have any freedom to talk or give an opinion. I was in prison twice during college and the third time I escaped.”
As a college student, she says, she organized religious gatherings of Orthodox Christian young women. There was nothing political about these gatherings, she said.
“In Eritrea, you are not allowed to go outside the church to speak about your faith,” she says. “When I arranged groups of girls to pray, they [the authorities] caught us and asked, ‘Who organized this?’ I organized this. They thought it was political, but it wasn’t.”
She served two short stints in jail. But the third time, she said, authorities said they would send her to a distant prison for a much longer sentence. She decided to escape the country, hoping to migrate to Europe.
She traveled first to Sudan on foot. She got a job living with a Sudanese family, teaching them English. She spent six months afraid to leave the house, fearing if she was found to be there illegally she could be sent back to Eritrea.
Her next stop was Libya, where she spent two years, originally living with a family and working for them as a cleaner, then living with friends. During that time, she saved some money to prepare for her new life in Europe. But by the time she was ready to travel, the door to Europe had closed. Instead, she decided to go to Israel via the Sinai desert. She tucked her money in her hair, afraid it would be stolen during the journey.
Upon arrival in Israel she was arrested and taken to Saharonim Prison in the Negev (which has since been closed), although she was released after a few weeks.
Now nine years later, she is married to another asylum-seeker and they have a young daughter. She works for the AIDS Task Force. And several evenings a month, she leads cooking workshops for Kitchen Talks.
Kitchen Talks was founded by Yael Ravid and Ben Dagani as a social enterprise bringing together asylum seekers and Israelis.
“There are a lot of people who are unaware about asylum seekers lives, and there are barriers between them,” Ravid says, as she prepares the rented kitchen for the participants. “Breaking bread, literally, not just as a metaphor, is helping to break the barriers that we have.”
While asylum seekers have become part of the Israeli landscape, few Israelis have more than passing contact with them. Most live together in crowded apartments in poor neighborhoods, like south Tel Aviv. There have been clashes between asylum seekers and local residents, who say that crime in the area has increased.
Given those tensions, Kitchen Talks is a way for Israelis to have a meaningful conversation with an asylum seeker. For the chefs, it’s a way to share their traditions and help counter stereotypes.
The participants each paid $50 for the cooking workshop. The idea is to prepare dinner together and then eat together. Each participant also takes home the recipes. The meal is vegetarian and includes five dishes.
Asmait has brought bread she made at home, injera, similar to bread used as the plate in Ethiopian food.
“In Ethiopia and Eritrea we use this bread every day and only change the sauce that we put on it,” she says, laughing. “It’s gluten free, and healthy and that’s why we are not fat.”
Over the course of the next two hours, Asmait helped the participants create five dishes including Tayta Fir’ Fir’, a salad of injera, tomatoes, green chili, and onions; Keih Sur, a colorful vegetable dish of beet roots, purple onions and white potatoes and a red lentil stew.
As they chopped and cooked, Asmait’s story emerged, with the participants riveted by her peripatetic tale.
Cooking traditional Eritrean dishes (Photo Credit: Linda Gradstein)
Cooking traditional Eritrean dishes (Photo Credit: Linda Gradstein)
According to the government, there are some 30,000 asylum seekers in Israel, not including their children born here. The vast majority are from Eritrea and Sudan. Human rights groups say the number may be higher. That number is down from a total of more than 60,000 asylum seekers.
Over the past few years, there have been attempts to deport these asylum seekers, either willingly or unwillingly, to third countries including Uganda and Rwanda. Israel has also given just a handful of asylum seekers’ refugee status. It means that most asylum seekers live in a political limbo with no status.
There are still frequent reports of people being arrested in the street.
In late February, immigration police arrested four foreign women from the Philippines on suspicion of residing in Israel illegally and took them to prison while their children were in school. They did not notify the school authorities, and the children, as young as nine, were left on their own for hours.
In some cases, public pressure has delayed efforts to deport the asylum seekers, but they say they live with no security and no status.
The Supreme Court ruled children born in Israel are entitled to free education, but most asylum seekers do not have socialized Israeli medical care and have to pay privately. They are allowed to work, but do not have an official status.
In 2017, a “deposit law” was enacted in Israel, meaning employers have to deposit 20% of an employee’s salary, in addition to 16% from them, in a special account. They only receive the money when they leave Israel. Many asylum seekers complain that the deposit law makes it impossible for them to make ends meet, and some who have left have not been able to access that money.
Most asylum seekers have now been here for years, and for their children Israel is the only place they know. Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to anybody with one Jewish grandparent and in the early 1990’s more than one million people came from the former Soviet Union to become Israelis.
Asylum seekers say they do not expect to receive Israeli citizenship. But they want some kind of official status that will allow them to stay in Israel long term and receive medical care. In the current situation, they say, they live in fear they could be deported.
Back at the Tel Aviv kitchen, the participants seemed interested in both the food and Asmait’s story. Every dish was Instagrammed repeatedly and then devoured. Guests peppered Asmait with questions and later said they learned a lot from the evening.
“Most people don’t know asylum seekers first-hand, just what they see on the news,” participant Adi Cydulkin said. “You can form an opinion based on what you don’t know or what you fear, but once you get to know someone and speak to them, you learn that they are just like me and deserve rights like me.”
The participants each got the recipes to take home, and several people said they will try to recreate them.
“I came to learn more about the Eritreans who live in Israel,” Eli Levy said. “It was the first time that I tasted Eritrean food and it was delicious. The ingredients are simple. I had a lovely time in a great atmosphere. I will definitely come again.”
Asmait says she sees herself as an activist and tells her story wherever she can. She said Israeli public pressure has succeeded in limiting the number of deportations, but she and other asylum seekers want some type of permanent status.
“I’ve been here nine years and I worry about my future,” she says, softly. “Not only for us, but for our children.”
The estimated 30,000 asylum seekers, along with their 7,000 children are among the most vulnerable populations in Israel in terms of the corona crisis. Many of them live paycheck to paycheck and have not been able to save money over the past few years. They live in overcrowded, small apartments, mostly in south Tel Aviv, and the virus could spread quickly.
Kitchen Talks’ participants dig in after preparing the Eritrean dishes (Photo Credit: Linda Gradstein)
Kitchen Talks’ participants dig in after preparing the Eritrean dishes (Photo Credit: Linda Gradstein)
Since the corona crisis began, says Sigal Rozen, the public policy director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, more than half of them have been laid off – 10,000 in the restaurant sector alone.
Unlike native Israelis, asylum seekers get their health insurance from their employers, meaning many are without health insurance at this crucial time. Rozen says the government has agreed to treat asylum seekers with coronavirus symptoms in emergency rooms, but many are still afraid to go.
Several human rights groups have petitioned the government to allow the asylum seekers to access money that was put aside under the deposit law, which mandates that asylum seekers put 20 percent of their salary and employers give 16 percent, to a special fund. The asylum seekers can access that money only when they leave Israel to return to their home countries.
“The deposit law was enacted to pressure asylum seekers to leave,” Rozen says. “But that can’t happen now anyway because the skies are closed and they have nowhere to go. This is not government money like unemployment – this is their money – and they should be able to access it.”
Unlike native Israelis, asylum seekers are not entitled to unemployment insurance. In addition, says Rozen, many fled from authoritarian regimes and have misunderstood the current directives to mean they are not allowed to leave their homes at all. On the bright side, she says, there has been an outpouring of help from civil society groups and private volunteers who have provided food and other necessities to the community.