African asylum-seekers find their voice in Israel

Editor of community newspaper aims to educate, encourage Eritreans to adapt to life here.

Eritrean migrants living in Tel Aviv 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eritrean migrants living in Tel Aviv 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
After months of criticism and threats of deportation by Israeli politicians, asylum-seekers from Eritrea are finally finding their voice.
The community has launched its own locally produced Eritrean newspaper, in an effort to better adapt to life in the Jewish state.
“We are trying to create a conversation in the Eritrean community about our behavior and place in Israeli society,” Kebedom Menghistu, the 34- year-old accountant-turnededitor of the paper, told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday.
Written in Tigrinyan and distributed to roughly 1,000 members of the 40,000-strong Eritrean community here, Menghistu explained that the goals of the paper are simple: To report on some of the hardships experienced by the migrants as they made their way to Israel via Sudan and Egypt; to discuss the expectations versus the reality of life in exile; and to introduce the community to the norms of Israeli society and the Jewish nation.
“We have limited power here and no status at all, so a community paper is the only way for us to talk,” Menghistu said.
“We want to make sure that people know we do not pose a threat but rather, one day, if we are treated well, we could even become ambassadors for Israel.”
According to Menghistu – who despite being a qualified accountant and the editor of the newspaper still works daily as a minimum wage cleaner – over the years, as the migrants arrived in Israel, no official attempts were made to help them understand the laws and customs of this country.
“We plan to be here for a while,” he said. “Therefore it is important for us to learn how to live here properly and to creatively find a way to fight the stigmas against us.”
The father of two, who left his family behind in Eritrea, explained that there are certain customs and practices in Israel that are very unfamiliar to the African community. In addition to dealing with the transition from a third-world country to a very modern, Western nation, Menghistu said that the community also needs help in understanding some of the religious practices.
Sitting together on Wednesday in the hub of migrant life – the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station – he pointed out various articles in the neatly produced newspaper.
“This one is a guideline to Shabbat,” said Menghistu, fingering the Aramaic-like text.
“It describes the rules of Shabbat, that on Saturday people try to keep quiet and that we should not make too much noise, that things are closed and there is no transport.”
He said that a similar article outlining the significance of the forthcoming High Holy Days is planned for the newspaper’s next edition, slated for September 12.
“Eritrean people need to know that all the shops are closed on this holiday and that they should buy their food in advance,” noted Menghistu, who used part of his own income for the first few editions of the newspaper but, more recently, received a grant from the New Israel Fund to keep the publication in print.
In addition to providing information about life in Israel, the newspaper also acts as a mouthpiece for the community and draws attention to controversial issues, such as the recent crimewave in areas where many of the migrants reside.
One of the articles on the front page of the paper’s most recent edition is a response to reports in the Hebrew media suggesting that some of the Africans are being used as money launderers for terrorist organizations wanting to move cash in and out of Israel and into the West Bank.
“The article addresses this issue and discusses how we are portrayed by Israelis,” said Menghistu, who is also receiving guidance from one of the country’s most veteran journalists, former Haaretz staffer and author Lily Galili.
Galili, who contributes a regular column in the newspaper – there is one page in Hebrew to provide Israelis with information about Eritreans, and one page in English aimed at other foreign migrants here – told the Post that she felt it her civic duty to help the community in some way.
“Some people bring them food and clothes, but the best way I could help them was by contributing something relating to my profession,” said Galili, who is also assisting Menghistu in raising additional funds.
While obtaining funds to cover the paper’s printing costs might be fairly straightforward, Menghistu said that the next step is to improve the distribution and outreach of the publication, both among Eritreans already living here and those who are considering making the trek to Israel.
“We cannot tell people not to come here, we can only inform them, but I really hope that those who read this paper will gain a better understanding of what life is like in Israel,” he said, adding that he is trying to figure out a way to get the newspaper to some of the refugee camps and communities of Eritreans still in Africa.
“Life is very difficult here and we just want to address the gap between what most of us expected and what the realities are,” Menghistu said.