A history repeated

African refugees in Israel, many fleeing atrocities in their homelands and 'slavery' in Egypt, celebrate Pessah in south Tel Aviv.

refugee seder 88 224 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri 88 224)
refugee seder 88 224
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri 88 224)
In the run-down Shapira neighborhood, near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, the sounds of a drum circle - comprised of Israelis and African refugees - ring through the air as the sun eases itself down in the sky. Row after row of tables flanked with white tablecloths, matza, non-alcoholic wine, and sprigs of fresh flowers await the guests who trickle in. Freshly-printed haggadot entitled "From Slavery to Freedom: Passover Joint Seder for Israelis and African Refugees in Israel" in Hebrew, English, French, and Arabic will be distributed once the chairs are full. Volunteers from Israel and the Diaspora hurry to make the final preparations for the some 250 refugees who are expected to attend. The seder will begin soon. The Lasova soup kitchen and community center's basketball court serves as the setting for the evening's festivities. To the left of a stage, a white banner hung on the chain link fence urges us in both English and Hebrew to remember that "The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:34)." Red letters in the center of the banner read "Passover Seder for the African Refugees in Israel." Below appears a list of sponsors, and the list is long: synagogues, youth movements, and Zionist organizations ranging from B'nai Brith to Magen David Adom have all donated equipment, food, money, or volunteers for the seder. Tal Shaked, director of Bina's Secular Yeshiva, collaborated with Esteban Gottfried, director of Beit Tefilah, to organize the evening's content, including creating a special version of the haggada. "Bina works a lot with the refugees from Africa. They're all over the neighborhood," Shaked tells Metro. "The main thing we have to do on Pessah is remember them - the refugees have exactly the same journey through Egypt. Tonight, we tell the same story." Gottfried adds that "For centuries, the Exodus story has been an inspiration to groups, and it's [the refugees'] story as well. It's important to share and to have this tradition of acting, asking, and praying for freedom." Guests at the seder will partake of the traditional four cups of wine. But tonight, three of those cups are to be dedicated to the different African refugee communities in Israel - one cup will stand for the people of Darfur and southern Sudan; another cup will represent the Congolese refugees; and the final cup will represent the refugees from Eritrea and the Ivory Coast. These people, now living in Israel, find themselves, as Gottfried puts it, "free in a physical way." Bina director Eran Baruch elaborates on the link between the Exodus story and the story of the refugees attending the seder. "Bina's mission is to make Jewish texts and culture relevant. What's more relevant than talking about Pessah? Celebrating with people who just a few weeks ago came out of slavery to freedom here." Baruch explains that making the Pessah text relevant means finding foreigners, finding sufferers, and inviting them to the seder. Bina, he says, is linking the Jewish heritage to the current discourse on refugees. Drumbeats continue to resonate in the background, and some people present clap and dance in time to the music. The atmosphere is festive as the tables fill up, but the stories being told are not. Many of the refugees have been in Israel only a short time, their own tales of exodus still a fresh pain. In broken English, some speak of the families they left behind in Africa. Omar, a Muslim refugee from Darfur, has been in Israel for nine months. He crossed Egypt and is now working in a Tel Aviv hotel. His mother, father, and seven brothers are still in Sudan. "Salaam alaikum," Gabriel Meyer, co-founder and co-director of the Sulha Peace Project, greets the crowd as the drums stop and the evening begins. "It's a beautiful day… and I welcome Christians, Muslims, Jews and Israelis." One of a group of Darfuri men says he arrived in Israel 20 days ago, alone. Another completed his journey to Israel 30 days ago, passing through Egypt, where he'd lived for four years and of which he said "not good." Things were so "not good" in Egypt that after living there for four years, he returned to Sudan, only to return to Egypt again so that he could enter Israel. "Do you know about this holiday, Passover, Pessah?" Bina volunteer Noga Brenner asks him. "Freedom," he replies. Brenner tells him the story of the Exodus, remarking that, like him, the ancient Israelites had been in Egypt. As the first cup of wine, to be drunk in remembrance of the Jews' flight from Egypt to freedom in the Land of Israel, is poured, a speaker holds a bottle up and tells the crowd that there is no alcohol in this wine, so everyone can drink it. Many of the Darfur refugees are Muslim. One of the men at the table passes around a cup of grape juice, and everyone drinks, in remembrance of the journey the Jews made thousands of years ago. Then a band of refugees from Darfur takes the stage. Far from their homeland, they begin to sing in their mother tongue. A small group of Sudanese quickly gather in front of the stage, moving their bodies to the pulse of the drum, some clapping to the beat, some using their haggadot to beat time. The song almost immediately becomes a call-and-response, with the man on stage leading and the refugees before him responding. The ring of dancers is tight and close, and the circle grows thicker and larger as people leave their seats and rush to join along. Nearby, a young African boy looks on, sitting alone at the end of a table. Dark-skinned, painfully thin, his almond-shaped eyes emit a penetrating stare. He lethargically picks up a package of matza, his long fingers slowly opening the plastic wrapping. He breaks off pieces little by little, seeming almost unsure about eating. The expression on his face never varies, and he speaks to no one. "He's in shock," an Israeli volunteer says. The men who sit at the table with him, mostly Christians from Eritrea, shake their heads when asked if they know the boy or know anything about him. He is a heartbreaking sight as he watches the joyous dancing before him. Volunteers from Magen David Adom bring food to the tables. The kosher meal includes rice, hummus, tehina, carrots, sweet potato quiche, cholent, chicken-based hot dogs, and a variety of salads. The crowd eats and chats and soon another performance begins on stage. A young African boy and young Caucasian girl sing in English, "Freedom, freedom - freedom is more than everything." The haggada that Shaked and Gottfried compiled includes the song's lyrics and a note written by Tosh, a Congolese refugee. As the words "freedom, freedom" float through the air, William, a Christian refugee from southern Sudan, talks about how he initially fled his homeland to Egypt, seeking protection. "They used me as a slave. For three years, I didn't get paid," he says, stating that he had worked in construction and was only provided with food and a place to sleep. He escaped and came to Israel alone four years ago. When asked about his family, he replies that his father was killed. His mother and two brothers remain in Sudan. He says that although he would like his family to be in Israel, "I can't bring my mother or brothers, the Egyptians kill them at the border." One of the event organizers rushes over to William, who is scheduled to be the first representative of the African community to speak tonight. They need him to begin. Now. He takes his place before the crowd and repeats the story of his own exodus. "Help us, let us get out of this suffering," he pleads. A speaker from Ivory Coast is next, and a volunteer translates from French to English. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he begins. "Today, we, the people of Cote d'Ivorie, the Ivory Coast, are united again in Israel because of the war in our country. We thank all the helpers in Israel, for the way they have accepted us in their country." A final African speaker takes the stage, a microphone in one hand, a toddler holding his other. He gives two short speeches - the first in Arabic, the second in English, "I'm happy to be here; I left my country to save my life. I lived in Egypt as [the] Jews did. I passed through the way that Moses and his people crossed. I reached the holy land, land of freedom, as they did. I didn't plan to be here, but my desire for freedom brought me here." Music begins and the crowd sings the final song together, "When Israel was in Egypt's land, let my people go!" Africans, Israelis, and Jews from the Diaspora all gather in front of the stage to raise their voices and dance. Eventually, the chairs are empty. Almost every seder participant singing the words, "Let my people go." Looking around, Brenner shares her thoughts. "It's a story about caring Israelis that don't know what to do… our hearts are torn and we just don't know what to do. Where do we even start? How do we really help these people? [Beyond] just a meal and a couple of t-shirts?" This sentiment had been voiced throughout the evening by many volunteers, and leads to the question: what should the people of Israel - once enslaved and now free - do to help the refugees who are coming here to escape atrocities in their native lands? At the end of the evening, the crowd thins out and it's time to clean up. An Israeli volunteer, Sigal, who has completed her army service and lives with other members of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in Holon, discusses the evening. She and members of her group had been helping to set up since 9:30 that morning. "It was amazing to see the message of being free transferred from our heritage to the people here. We can never understand the horror they went through. This holiday means so much to me, and I hope it will mean something to them," she says. When asked if Israel should open its gates to the refugees, Sigal replies that this was a difficult question, especially for her, a Zionist. "I think [Israel] should be a country of Jews, but our heritage says we should welcome foreigners. For me, being a Zionist is what's happening here today. It's a different type of Zionism, [one] that has been forgotten along the way," she says.