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Why Did You Deceive Me, Distant Lights?

Why Did You Deceive Me, Distant Lights?

The Predicament of African Women Seeking Asylum in Israel

Asylum-seeking woman preparing coffee for a coffee ceremony

“I Have Only Known”

I have only known how to tell of myself.
My world is narrow like that of an ant
I carry my burden like it
too heavy for my weak shoulders…

>A hidden fear of the hand of giants
Mocks all my paths, causing me to cry
Why did you call to me, wonderous land?
Why did you deceive me, distant lights?

Rahel (Rahel Bluwstein, 1890 – 1931)
Translation by Reuven Greenvald

On the edge of south Tel Aviv, next to the Ayalon highway, stands a rundown, gray industrial building. From the street, passers-by might miss it entirely and certainly could not know that tucked away in the back is a brightly colored space – a sanctuary, so to speak, called Kuchinate, which means “crochet” in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea. It is a collective for asylum seekers – estimated to number as many as 37,000 people from Sudan and Eritrea – who have escaped horrible torture and persecution in their home countries and who undertook dangerous journeys to get to a democratic country they thought would show mercy on their sorrowful predicament.

While Kuchinate might be tricky to find, the organization empowers African women, many of whom have survived human trafficking, torture, and sexual abuse, by offering them opportunities to design and create brightly-colored crochet products for the home, such as baskets, poufs, and rugs. The women also  interact with the Israeli and visiting public by hosting crochet lessons, meals, and traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean coffee ceremonies. Thus, Kuchinate allows women to earn some money.

On the day I visited in early June, I was greeted by those vibrant colored wools and overwhelming kindness from the women. I watched Eden Geberslase – a Kuchinate team member and Eritrean refugee – carefully roast raw coffee beans in a fry pan. After grinding them in an electric grinder, she boiled the coffee in a small pot. Lina walked around the circle of the other African women, staff, and visitors and graciously poured this bittersweet coffee into tiny cups. The act of sitting together in a supportive and understanding environment while making creations rooted in African culture is therapeutic, helping the women cope with their painful pasts and their current difficult realities.

The calm of the coffee ceremony masks the ongoing challenges these women face day-to-day and month-to-month because Israel’s Interior Ministry has put these refugees from Eritrea and Sudan in a legal holding pattern – not processing their applications for asylum but not deporting them either. Every two months they have to renew their documentation – documentation that doesn’t allow them to work or have access to health care or welfare services.

Exacerbating their legal limbo, the Kuchinate women may suffer from ongoing health issues, could be single mothers who may have children with health issues, or be living in abusive settings and in deep poverty. Because asylum-seeking men are the targets of the various policies that either deport or detain asylum seekers, the Kuchinate women are left alone to support themselves and families. Thanks to a wave of protests around Passover, there’s been a lot of reporting about the political limbo that Israeli governmental policy is forcing upon the migrants.

Kuchinate is co-directed by Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and Sister Aziza, a nurse and a member of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, who, in 2012, was recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “hero of our time acting to end modern slavery.” Together they work with a team of African women to provide crisis support in addition to that which the women receive from the collaborative production of crafts. According to Diddy, peer-to-peer counseling is a key strategy to assist women in crisis – and is especially effective when two women who experienced similar suffering or loss are able to commiserate and problem-solve together.

To visit with and/or support the Kuchinate women, contact Ruth Garon, the organization’s marketing director. For information about other organizations providing social, psychological, and legal support to asylum seekers in Israel, contact the Consortium for Israel and Asylum Seekers.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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