You are on page 1of 2

FEATURE

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
Text and photos: YARDENA SCHWARTZ

wo weeks before Passover, Ismael Baraka


stood in the blazing desert just six kilometers
miles 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 countrys 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

20 METRO

| FRIDAY, APRIL 3, 2015

The event included matza, but was not a traditional Seder.

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. Im 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 dont 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 worlds 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 Avivs 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 years 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 masters in Jewish
eduction from New Yorks 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 couldnt 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

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

Teshome Nega

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, one of the organizers.


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 the 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,
Israels Infiltration Law stated that those summoned
to Holot could be held there indefinitely without trial.
In September 2014, Israels 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 governments 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 Israels 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 governments 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

We are not criminals, says Magdi Hassan from Darfur.

The Seder had to be held outside the detention center as visitors are not allowed in.
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 cant because they have
no money or passport.
Ovadia-Rosner says that the organization tried
to contact refugees who had returned to Eritrea but
couldnt because communication is extremely limited by the countrys 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. Hes 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
doesnt happen.