יום ראשון, 15 ביוני 2014

Impressions from my first trip to Holot, May 2014

Impressions from my first trip to Holot, May 2014

Elaine Matlow Tal-El

Last week, an article in Haaretz caught my attention. One of the leaders of the asylum seekers from Darfur had agreed to leave Israel to a third country- not to return to his home. Upon landing in Addis Ababa he was informed that this was just a transfer station and that he was to continue on to the Sudan. Refusing to continue on this flight for fear for his life, he found himself stuck in the Ethiopian airport. His $3500 grant from the Israeli government had been stolen and he was stuck in the airport for a week, like a fugitive.

Had I not participated in the trip organized by Kol Haneshama to Holot two weeks prior, this article would have gotten lost among all of the other depressing and difficult pieces that describe the state of our world.
On that Friday morning, just before Holocaust Memorial day, in a convoy of two cars, a multi generational group (including my daughter Noa) set out with a picnic in our trunk and some cosmetics requested by those who we were going to visit. We made our way down south to the Negev. I felt an obligation to see with my own eyes the place that has been so often mentioned in the news, and to meet (or re-meet) some of the people that I had met at events held at Kol Haneshama on the issue of asylum seekers and to hear their stories. After a two hour drive, we arrived in the desert- turning off the "main" road at the Ketzyiot prison. We continued on this road, passing the Saharonim detention camp and on our right, was the Holot Detainment Center- looking as close to a prison as I have seen. Even the sign at the entrance refers to the Prison Authority responsible for the construction of this installation. Let us not be confused- it looks like a jail. If not for the freedom of movement allowed to the detainees in and out of the center, it would be considered a jail. And even though there is relative freedom of movement- how far can you go from there? Especially if you have to sign in every few hours??

We were met by Jack, a friendly and bright young man from the Sudan. Jack has been Kol Haneshama's contact person on the issue of the asylum seekers. My daughter Noa knew him from her involvement with the Assaf organization last year. Just a few weeks before our visit, Noa had re-met Jack at Ben Gurion University as he had been brought in to tell his story to her classmates in the School of Social Work. I felt that this showed a growing trend among Israelis to understand the plight of these people- to hear them and to "see" them. I know that me, having personalized this issue has made its way into my consciousness by speaking to some of the asylum seekers themselves.

After we managed to put up the covering that we brought to shield us from the blistering sun, we sat down on the straw mats and put out our spread. Jack led the discussion, and  navigated us through the stories of about 20 participants from Eritrea and from the Sudan. They were eager to be heard. We were told that there are some 2300 inmates in Holot- with no doctor, no airconditoning or fans, and, most difficult- nothing to do. Our hosts spoke so clearly and with great calm about the difficulties inside the installation- the boredom, the limited freedom of movement because of the periodic need to sign attendance. We clearly were meeting with leaders of the group inside. They described how they organized themselves into classes to learn English, to relieve the boredom and to try to be productive. They could not offer a very high level of English because there is no one inside who really speaks English sufficiently well. Nevertheless, their commitment to enriching themselves during the time spent in Holot in anticipation of eventually going home, and even becoming leaders of the movement towards peace and resolution in their home countries was not just admirable – it was remarkable!

We asked them- what would you like from us, from our congregation? Can we bring you something to improve your stay – clothing? Shoes? Books? Games?? At first, almost to please us, they mentioned that books, paper and school supplies would be appreciated. But they also made it very clear- they do not want "things"- they do not want their lives inside Holot to be more comfortable. Their message was clear- help us get out of this place. Help us attain refugee status. Help us live like human beings.

They asked that we help them more efficiently by joining forces with other groups that are working on their cause. They felt that their voices would be heard louder if we worked together.

They also made it very clear that they are not interested in Israeli citizenship- they want to go home. One member of the group caught on to our non-Israeli accents and said-" I hear that you are from different countries and yet you came to live in your Jewish homeland. There is nowhere like home. We too want to be home. But until the danger passes, we must live outside of our home."

We continued our discussion for another hour or so. We noticed that our hosts were uncomfortable eating in our presence. The time for signing in was approaching and they were preparing to go back inside. We organized ourselves- each to his own place. We packed up what we had brought and gave it to them.

We said goodbye with smiles and hugs. Although they feel that Israeli society in not interested in their plight, I felt otherwise- and I hope that beyond Kol Haneshama there is growing interest and concern for them.

I was moved by the people we met- their inner quiet, the comraderie  between them. The difficulties they face- far from family, from their wives and children- living in uncertainty.

On our way back to Jerusalem, we raised many questions. Was this visit only a bandaid to cosmetically cover up a sore? To make US feel better? Who really benefits from these visits? Do these visits contribute something to the people there? Shall we organize another group visit to Holot- and who should come? People in professional positions who could tell the story to a larger and new audience? Are we bleeding hearts who do not see the complexity of the situation? Does Israel have no humane way to deal with this complicated situation? For me, perhaps the hardest question was the moral one- how can we as Jews close our eyes to this reality, to human suffering- all that more painful at the time of the year when we a so focused on our own collective experience during the Holocaust?

I do not have answers to all of these questions, but since our visit, I struggle with them every day. I try to understand the official state policy and behavior of our leaders in the country in which I chose to live and in which I chose to raise my children. I ask myself- how can Israel be so blind to the human imperative to treat these people humanely?

At the end of the day, I wonder if that same young man who was stuck in the airport in Ethiopia could have perhaps been one of the young men I met that hot Friday in Holot with my friends from Kol Haneshama??

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