Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Looking for Legal Status

photo by: Sonia Chaim
Date: 5.8.16 Source: The New York Times

When I first came to Israel from Eritrea four years ago, I went to a hospital and told them that I was a midwife, and that I had come to apply for a job. But they told me that I didn’t have the papers needed to do that job in their country, so I went to work in a shawarma restaurant instead. I started out cleaning dishes and washing the place. It was not easy. The money was small, and four of us lived in two rooms. I had to go every two months to renew my asylum papers. For four years, I could never be permanent. Waiting in those queues, I could think only: I have to leave here. I cannot stay.

Finally, some months ago, the government told me I had to go. That wasn’t quite the way they said it. What they actually told me was that I had three choices. First, I could go to a camp in the Negev Desert called Holot. It’s a funny thing to call it — a camp. I’d heard that at Holot, you stayed in a crowded room and you had to check in three times a day — in the morning, the afternoon and again at night. All around you there is only desert — no people, no shops, no town. So really you can’t go anywhere at all. You’re trapped.

Then the immigration people told me if I didn’t want to go to Holot, I could instead go home, back to Eritrea. My home is in Asmara, a city in the mountains full of old Italian buildings, from the colonial days. Tourists used to come to take pictures of how Italy looked 80 years ago. As a midwife there, I delivered babies at a government hospital. It was a life with great purpose.

But I was afraid that if I went back to Eritrea, I would be arrested and tortured and perhaps killed. The government is not kind to those who flee military service, as I did. In Eritrea, military service is mandatory, and it is basically unlimited. They can keep you for as long as they want, and you don’t see your family or make enough money to live. There is no dignity in it. So I could not go back home, as much as I wanted to.

Then there was a third choice. The Israeli government said if I wanted, they would give me $3,500 and a plane ticket to Rwanda. Why Rwanda? I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about Rwanda except that it sounded better than Holot and safer than Eritrea, so I said yes.

I had never been on an airplane before. When I came to Israel, I mostly walked, or sometimes rode in the backs of the smugglers’ cars. I crossed Sudan and Egypt this way, walking until I could barely speak from thirst. Many people die on that route — the desert is not easy. But on the flight to Rwanda, I sat by the window. They served us cheese and bread and Coca-Cola, and the world looked very, very small.

There were 12 of us Eritreans on that flight, and when we arrived in Kigali, there was a man there to meet us. He didn’t tell us who he was, and he was dressed in civilian clothes, but we thought he was probably from the military. How else would they let us through the passport line so easily? No one said anything, but we assumed that he must be someone official.

Outside, this man had three cars waiting, and he drove us to a villa. I had never stayed in a house like that — with two stories and many bedrooms. A rich person’s home. But it was like Holot. We were guests, but we could not leave. At night, a guard sat by the door with a gun.

After two days there, the man told us that we could go on to Uganda. In truth, I already knew this would happen because I had friends who had gone before me. They told me, you’ll be sent to Rwanda, but Rwanda will not want you. And so I agreed. I gave that man $250, and we drove for 14 hours. When we crossed the border into Uganda, it was 3 in the morning. No one asked us for our documents. We were invisible.

Sometime later, they dropped us off at a small hotel in Kampala. They said, Now you are free. Go. And then they were gone.

I’ve been in Kampala now for some months. I like it here. It’s quiet, and people respect one another. Ugandans see me eating injera, our sour Eritrean flatbread, and they ask, what is that? They hear me speak my language, Tigrinya, and they want to know what I am saying. They are curious. But the problem is that I am not here legally. I feel sometimes that I am making a circle of the world, looking for somewhere I am allowed to be, but not finding it. Half my family is still home. Half is in Europe. And I am nowhere.

I’ll wait here now to see if they will give me status in Uganda. I want very much to be legal. To have documents. Maybe this will be the place. But if not, I will leave again. What else is possible?