African migrants celebrate freedom at ‘Refugee Seder’

Around 500 migrants from across Africa broke unleavened bread with Israeli friends volunteers at early Pessah Seder in South TA.

African migrant Pessah seder 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
African migrant Pessah seder 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Around 500 African migrants broke unleavened bread with Israeli friends and volunteers at an early Pessah Seder held in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park on Thursday night.
Migrants from across Africa were given copies of an alternative Haggada in English and Hebrew, and were led through a brief version of the Seder, including the eating of salty greens and matza.
A group of elementary school-aged migrants sang “Ma Nishtanah,” while student volunteers scurried around serving schnitzel and rice.
This year’s event, titled “From Slavery to Freedom,” was the fourth such Seder held near the Tel Aviv bus station.
Thursday’s crowd was significantly larger than last year’s, which was held closer to Pessah, causing complications for attendees.
One organizer said that many of the migrants who were invited last year were not able to come because they were busy cleaning Israeli homes for Pessah.
More than a dozen NGOs helped put on the event, including Amnesty Israel, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the UN Refugee Agency, the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, and the African Refugee Development Center. Organizers were also given a boost by the Levinsky Park Library, which supplied electricity free of charge for the evening.
There was a festive air to the event, which took place a day after antimigrant activists held a protest in south Tel Aviv calling on the government to act against the rising number of illegal immigrants.
A four-piece band played folk and rock music early in the evening, but was later upstaged by a young African man singing a heartfelt (if slightly mangled) rendition of Justin Beiber’s hit “Baby.”
A number of migrants spoke of a growing fear that anti-migrant sentiment would become violent, including Oscar Olivier of Congo. “Recently it’s gotten worse. Someday someone will take the message of these rallies in a brutal way and something bad will happen, it won’t stay perfect forever,” he said.
Olivier, who has lived in Israel for 16 years, added that bringing his seven-year-old daughter Esther was important partly because “just yesterday there was a rally against foreigners.
Just yesterday you had Jews talking about wanting to chase away foreigners, and today you have Jews welcoming us. It completes the picture.”
Like many others at the Seder, Guy Joseph, a 23-year-old Darfurian who arrived in Israel three years ago, expressed a rather general understanding of the meaning of Pessah.
“I understand that freedom and being free is a good thing. It’s also good that we all get to sit together here, as children of the same God.”
Tal Shaked, deputy head of Bina, said the motivation for holding the Seder was “found in the basic idea behind Pessah night, that is that we remember that we were also foreigners in the Land of Egypt.”
Shaked said that the event “shows solidarity with migrants who experienced themselves an exodus from Egypt,” adding that “it comes from a very Jewish place, and we believe it’s part of our Jewish morals to recognize that what happened to us in the past happens to other people in the world.”
Daoud, a Darfurian in his mid-20s, said that as a Muslim and a foreigner in Israel, participating in a Jewish ritual observance was “very nice, we sit together understanding each other, and who we are.”
He spoke about his family left behind in Darfur, and the way that Israeli soldiers saved him after he crossed from Egypt. “Now we are rejoicing and eating together, and the future will be better,” Daoud said.