Flight to freedom?

The 300 detainees at the refugee Seder at the Holot Detention Center danced to live music and shared what organizers called their Exodus stories.

Refugee Seder at the Holot Detention Center. (photo credit: YARDENA SCHWARTZ)
Refugee Seder at the Holot Detention Center.
(photo credit: YARDENA SCHWARTZ)
Two weeks before Passover, Ismael Baraka stood in the blazing desert just six kilometers from the Egyptian border. Speaking in Hebrew to a crowd of more than 400 people, many of them holding matzot, the Sudanese 19-year-old began: “In the Bible, it is written, ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ On Passover, every family shares the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The people of Israel left Egypt to become a free people,” he continued. “The people of Israel know what it was like to seek refuge.”
Baraka was one of more than 100 people who had traveled hours that morning to attend a refugee Seder at the Holot Detention Center, where approximately 2,000 African asylum-seekers are being held without trial. More than three-quarters of the all-male detainees are Sudanese, many of them from war-torn Darfur. The rest are from Eritrea, having fled a dictatorship where men serve mandatory army service until the age of 55, and critics of the government are jailed and tortured.
The Israeli government refers to the country’s 46,000 asylum-seekers as infiltrators who entered the country illegally through the border with Egypt. However, they and the many Israeli activists who try to help them claim they are refugees who fled genocide in Darfur and persecution and slavery in Eritrea.
Baraka was nine when the war in Darfur began.
The Arab Janjaweed militia that destroyed his village also killed his father and older brother. After four years in a refugee camp near the Chad border, he wanted to leave Sudan to get an education and build a life. He fled Sudan for Egypt, but the government there was cooperating with the Arab government of Sudan, capturing refugees and sending them back to Sudan, where they were killed or jailed.
One day, while watching TV, Baraka says, “I saw a man talking about the Shoah and the Exodus from Egypt, and I said to my friend who had fled Sudan with me, ‘We have to go there. They are our people. I’m sure they will help us. They will identify with us.’” Baraka arrived in 2008 at the age of 13. So far, he has not been summoned to the Holot Detention Center, but he knows that he could be at any time. The freedom he expected to gain in Israel, he says, is far from the reality he and other refugees are living.
“They don’t even check our refugee requests,” he says. “They just see all Africans here as criminals.”
Indeed, Israel has not granted refugee status to a single Sudanese asylum-seeker, and only four Eritreans have received refugee status – a vast difference from the rest of the world. According to United Nations data, 68 to 82 percent of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers receive refugee status worldwide. Israel, by contrast, has a rate of 0.1%, one of the world’s lowest refugee recognition rates among nations that are signatories of the UN Refugee Convention. Israel was one of the first nations to sign the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which was drafted as a result of the Holocaust and is the principal international legal document governing who is a refugee, what his/her rights are, and the states’ responsibilities.
The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for handling asylum-seekers’ requests for refugee status, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ever since refugees from Sudan and Eritrea began arriving in Israel in 2007, Israeli activists and members of the asylum-seeker community have been organizing annual refugee Seders. At first, they were meant to simply provide a warm meal to the dozens of homeless and hungry refugees living in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. Eventually, the organizers realized that the Seder meant much more than just a meal, says Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, one of the organizers of this year’s refugee Seder at Holot.
“The purpose of Passover and the Seder is to remind us that in every generation we should see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt and that we should not take our freedom and safety for granted. We should use our freedom and power to fight for the rights and freedom of oppressed people everywhere,” says Glassenberg, who is originally from Chicago and has a master’s in Jewish education from New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Glassenberg now teaches Judaism and social justice at BINA, a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. He is an active volunteer for the refugee cause, having been a member of the Save Darfur campaign when he was a graduate student in New York.
“I think the refugee Seder, better than anything else, reminds us of the true purpose of the Seder,” he says. “I hope it will give the refugees hope and that it will remind Israelis and Jews everywhere where we came from and that we have a mission. That mission is to make the world more free for everyone. Not just for Jews but for all oppressed people everywhere.”
THE SEDER at Holot couldn’t be held inside the detention center, since visitors are not allowed in. So the 150 visitors and 300 detainees in attendance sat on the ground and at symbolic Seder tables that were set up outside. At Holot, detainees are permitted to leave the center but must be inside by 10 p.m., and are only permitted to leave after 6 a.m. Those who break these rules are placed in nearby Saharonim prison without trial for up to four months.
While the Seder did include matza, it was less a traditional Seder than a celebration and a show of support for the detainees, who danced to live music and shared what organizers called their Exodus stories.
Teshome Nega came to Israel in 2008 after fleeing Eritrea, where he was jailed several times for criticizing the government.
“No one wants to be enslaved by his own country,” says Nega, who served nearly three years of indefinite mandatory army service before escaping to Egypt.
Since Egypt is not a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, it upholds no obligation to assist refugees and grants them no rights or legal status. According to human rights organizations, hundreds of asylum-seekers have been killed by Egyptian troops and by Beduin traffickers who hold refugees ransom in the Sinai Desert.
Nega left Egypt for Israel because he heard that Israel was a democracy and that it honored the UN convention.
He thought that he would get refugee status here, but after six years of living in Tel Aviv without his refugee status application being reviewed, he went to renew his visa, which, like those of the majority of asylum-seekers, does not permit him to work and must be renewed every three months. Instead, he received a summons to report to Holot immediately. At the time, Israel’s Infiltration Law stated that those summoned to Holot could be held there indefinitely without trial.
In September 2014, Israel’s High Court struck down key parts of the Infiltration Law that allowed indefinite detention at Holot and ordered the facility to be closed within 90 days. The government’s response was to revise the law, passing a new bill just before the 19th Knesset dissolved, changing the law from indefinite detention to 20 months. Israeli human rights organizations have petitioned the High Court to strike down this new law and demand that the government provide a solution to the situation in which Israel refuses to recognize Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers as refugees, yet also refuses to deport them, knowing that they will be tortured or killed upon their return.
Without legal status, asylum-seekers in Israel live in limbo, with no social or health rights and without the ability to work legally. Human rights organizations claim that Israel’s strategy is to make the lives of asylum- seekers so miserable here that they will have no choice but to leave.
In fact, the government has already begun what it calls “voluntary deportations,” whereby asylum-seekers are given some money and are flown to Uganda or Rwanda. However, according to human rights organizations that have communicated with refugees who have participated in this program, the Israeli government’s promise that they would be taken care of in these countries was not true, and they are left without rights in another country. The outcome has been far worse for those who returned to Sudan.
“We know that the people who have gone back to Sudan have been tortured and imprisoned,” says Anat Ovadia-Rosner of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli NGO. “The Sudanese authorities accused them of being spies for Israel, took their phones, money, passports and computers. The regime is constantly pursuing them and their families. Many said they want to escape again but can’t because they have no money or passport.”
Ovadia-Rosner says that the organization tried to contact refugees who had returned to Eritrea but couldn’t because communication is extremely limited by the country’s oppressive regime. According to the UN, Eritrea is the least connected country on Earth in terms of Internet access.
Speaking in Hebrew to the Israelis gathered at Holot, Nega told them, “This is where the people of Israel crossed when they left Egypt after God heard their cry. Today you are in the desert again. You came here all the way to join our cry. We hope that you can help make our voices heard louder so that we can realize our rights as refugees and live a normal life.”
Mutasim Ali, a Darfuri asylum-seeker imprisoned in Holot since last May, told the crowd in Hebrew, “Passover is a time for Jewish people all over the world to tell the story of their liberation from Egypt and celebrate the value of freedom. It is also a time, I hope, that they can consider the freedom of others.
Passover is an opportunity to look at how Israel is detaining people who have come to it for shelter and ask whether such policies are in line with the Jewish spirit.”
Magdi Hassan also fled Darfur, arriving in Israel in 2007. He’s been detained in Holot for a year now but hopes to be free soon.
“We are not criminals,” he says of himself and the 1,939 other detainees. “We are just human beings who need protection.”
On the ride back to Tel Aviv later that day, Glassenberg told the busload of people, “Holot was put in the middle of the desert to make people feel alone and forgotten. We need to keep visiting to make sure that doesn’t happen.”