Denied asylum in Israel, Eritreans are welcomed by Canadian Jews

21.01.22, Dina Kraft & Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor

Asylum Seeker Community


Israeli government policy

The shelter system

Taking one last look at the Mediterranean sun pouring through the lavender curtains of their Tel Aviv apartment, Medhanea and Titi Solomon scoot the last of eight suitcases and assorted carry-ons – everything they own – out the door and close it. They jiggle the handle to make sure it’s locked.

The Eritrean asylum-seekers and their two Israeli-born daughters – Hermela and Heran – climb into cars headed to the airport, swallowed into the morning’s traffic of a country that for more than a decade they had hoped would be their home. But Israel, although a Western democracy created in response to the Jewish people’s own history as refugees, did not embrace them.

The government classifies non-Jewish asylum-seekers as “infiltrators,” putting their children into segregated schools for families of foreign workers and asylum-seekers. Here they are relegated to a life of limbo and chronic economic instability with little likelihood of being granted refugee status.

Israel “forgot what it feels like to be a refugee,” says Ms. Solomon, who 20 hours after leaving their fifth-floor walk-up in Tel Aviv was on the other side of the world. She is urging her daughters to open the door of their new apartment on a cold and rainy November night in Toronto.

Each wears a gold necklace that bears their names in Hebrew. Bundled in matching pink coats, their curly hair brushed back in identical ponytails, the girls slip through the doorway and into a new future in Canada.

“Mama, is this a dream?” 10-year-old Hermela, dazed from the journey, asks in Hebrew.

The two-bedroom basement unit in a handsome brick home in one of Toronto’s most desirable neighborhoods had been lovingly prepared by the family’s four sponsors, members of the Jewish community of Toronto. For years they had watched Israel’s harsh policies toward asylum-seekers with a mix of heartbreak and rage. They have filled the newcomers’ fridge with pita and hummus, fresh fruit, and salads. A teddy bear is placed at the head of each girl’s tidy single bed, covered in matching polka-dot duvets. Fresh daisies sit on a coffee table.

“Everything is ready already,” Ms. Solomon keeps repeating.

For many Jews around the world, Israel’s treatment of asylum-seekers has stirred deep emotions, says Jon Allen, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel. He is the Solomons’ sponsor, along with his wife and another couple. The four of them picked up the family from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, helping them carry their eight suitcases down the stairs into their new home.

“Jews have been a persecuted people their whole existence,” Mr. Allen says. And while Israel was never perfect, he notes, “the Israel I grew up with was going to be the land of Jewish people with Jewish people’s values, which were to recognize what we suffered through and ensure that other people didn’t go through that.”

For them, joining Canada’s private sponsorship program to resettle refugees from Israel is an act of love and faith – and a protest against what they consider Israel’s moral failure.

Israel began trying to stem the tide of asylum-seekers when thousands started crossing into the country in the mid-2000s. The first wave of refugees was from the Darfur region of Sudan, followed by Eritreans escaping brutal military dictatorship and forced conscription that has been compared to slave labor. The Eritrean asylum-seekers made their way through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, and eventually paid Bedouins to smuggle them through the Sinai Desert. This last leg of the journey left many vulnerable to torture, extortion, and sexual assaults, according to human rights groups.

From the start, the presence of African asylum-seekers has posed a quandary for Israel, founded in the shadow of the Holocaust as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. The policy of successive governments was driven by the concern that the country could be overwhelmed by large waves of non-Jewish migration from the region. Officials, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said the asylum-seekers pose a danger to the Jewish character of Israel.

Israeli officials have also maintained that the majority of Africans who have crossed into Israel are economic migrants looking for work and a better life, not refugees fleeing persecution. Israel does not recognize abandoning military service, as so many of the Eritrean asylum-seekers have, as a valid reason to grant asylum. In working-class neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, where many African migrants live, some residents have protested against their presence, blaming them for an increase of crime.

Ayelet Shaked, the interior minister in the government that replaced Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition last summer, has vowed to work to “return infiltrators to their country and encourage voluntary departure to safe third countries.” She added that she would “work with all my might to implement a responsible migration policy, while providing a suitable response in proven humanitarian situations.”

At its peak, in 2013, some 60,000 African asylum-seekers lived in the country. The next year, Israel completed construction of a 150-mile fence along its southern border with Egypt.

In 2017, Mr. Netanyahu devised a plan to deport African asylum-seekers to their homeland or third countries in Africa. It drew fierce criticism inside Israel, from rabbis to filmmakers to Holocaust survivors, and from Jews abroad, especially in North America. The pushback was intense enough that the government canceled the deportations.

But policy measures persist that make the lives of the newcomers so miserable that they often leave. Today, the number of asylum-seekers in Israel has dropped by half, to 30,000, the majority Eritreans. They have minimal social or labor rights – no unemployment benefits or social security-style payments to fall back on. Their children have subsidized health care that many still can’t afford. The pandemic shutdowns have hit them particularly hard: Most work in the restaurant or hotel industries as either kitchen staff or cleaners. Even then they must renew their work visas every six months.

In Western countries, some 90% of Eritreans seeking asylum have been granted refugee status or protected status in past years. Canada has resettled some 22,650 Eritrean refugees since 2015. But in Israel, only 20 Eritreans have been recognized as refugees since they first began arriving, estimates the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an advocacy group in Israel. Only recently has there been some easing, for asylum-seekers fleeing fighting in Sudan. In December, 2,400 Sudanese in Israel were given temporary residency permits.

Over the past decade, alongside Jewish activists inside Israel, Jews abroad have been among the most outspoken against Israel’s approach to refugees. And Canadian Jews have been able to do something about it – largely through sponsorships, which allow religious or community groups and individuals to apply to resettle asylum-seekers.

As the situation worsened in Israel, Marin Lehmann-Bender, sponsorship director of the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA) in Toronto, which enables private sponsorship, has seen a spike in interest among Jewish Canadians with ties to Israel.

The number of Eritreans resettled to Canada from Israel went from a handful in 2014, the year Israel constructed a wall at the border with Egypt, to about 1,000 per year until the pandemic. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Canadians have resettled about 5,230 refugees from Israel since 2011 – the vast majority privately sponsored Eritreans.

Danny Schild explains it simply. “We’re Jewish.” His family, like so many other Jewish Canadians, is a family of refugees. His father, a rabbi in Canada who is now more than 100 years old, was arrested on Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis attacked thousands of Jews and Jewish sites.

So the Jewish Canadian community has always mobilized to help those fleeing persecution and conflict, dating back to the inception of Canada’s sponsorship program 44 years ago. It helped Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and has since rallied to sponsor families escaping strife in Syria and more recently Afghanistan. But, to many, the move to help Africans in Israel feels more personal.

Mr. Schild attended a protest in Tel Aviv a few years ago, organized by African asylum-seekers, against a so-called deposit law tax (which has since been canceled). Under the program, employers deducted 20% from the salary of asylum-seekers and deposited it in a fund they could only access once they agreed to leave the country. Mr. Schild found himself amid a crowd of Africans who spoke better Hebrew than he did, quoting passages from the Torah. He calls the Africans in Israel the only Hebrew-speaking refugees in the world.

He founded CHAI – Canadians Helping Asylum Seekers in Israel. “I asked myself, how could this possibly be happening, this kind of discrimination, this kind of poor treatment of the other in Tel Aviv, when our tradition says 36 times you shall welcome any stranger?” he says. “We have a chance as Canadian Jews to repair that problem. I think I have no choice but to get involved.”

On a recent morning, he stands with members of CHAI – peers from synagogues and the community at large, including Eritreans. They are outside the garage of Judy Cass, who organizes donations that come in, from mattresses to warm winter coats, for the new arrivals.

Mr. Schild says the Jewish response in Canada has been a grassroots effort of individuals rather than an “official” Jewish response. While individual rabbis have spoken out against Israeli policies, condemning the government for its stance on immigration sometimes gets conflated with criticism of Israel as a whole. “The question that always gets asked is, ‘Why can’t [the asylum-seekers] stay in Israel?’ When that question gets asked, there’s embarrassed silence,” he says.

Mr. Allen and his wife, Clara Hirsch, an artist, don’t hold back with their opinions. Ms. Hirsch came to Canada at age 8 from Europe after purges against Jews in her native Poland in the 1950s. She has long explored the refugee experience in her work – the centerpiece of which is a series called “Flight” that hangs on her living room wall. A multimedia work, it combines photographs that she took in Syria, old maps of the modern migration route to Europe, and images of her family as they set out on their voyage to Canada as refugees.

During the “boat people” crisis of the 1970s, the couple sponsored Laotian refugees and later a family from Syria. But what is happening today, in Israel, feels more disappointing to them. “I find it heartbreaking,” says Ms. Hirsch. “This is not Vietnam. This is not Syria. This is Israel doing it.”

Supporting a refugee requires a big commitment. Sponsors collect money – often around $35,000 for a family of four, typically raised by a wide network of friends and colleagues. But they also must take the time to help the arrivals adjust to a new culture. Along with the other two sponsors, William and Linda Hechter, Mr. Allen and Ms. Hirsch have helped the Solomon family with innumerable needs: get social security numbers, register for schools, find doctors and dentists, orient to a new city, craft résumés, and prepare for job interviews.

The relationships started deepening even before the Solomons landed in Canada. During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Israel, Ms. Hirsch spent long hours on Zoom tutoring the family in English.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Hirsch speak glowingly about the family today. They were taken by Mr. Solomon’s activism in Israel as an organizer against the deportation order, and Ms. Solomon’s savvy. She worked at a McDonald’s, starting out as a cook before asking to be moved to the cash register so she could interact with customers and improve her Hebrew. She eventually transitioned to running a day care center. Mr. Solomon says he can call his sponsors with any question he has, “just like they are family.”

Ms. Lehmann-Bender, who sponsored an individual from Israel herself, says the program not only supports those who most need it but also strengthens communities. “I think refugee sponsorship is where the best things in the world come together with the worst things in the world,” she says, “and we very much exist at that intersection.”

No one navigates the world of hope and heartbreak more than Simret Tekele.

In order to escape imminent arrest for her outspoken criticism of the government in Eritrea, the former journalist made the decision to flee the country quickly. She left her infant son Yuel behind with family ahead of setting out for the perilous journey to reach Israel. That was 12 years ago. And even though she rose to prominence in the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv, becoming the director of the Eritrean Women’s Community Center, she had no hope of seeing her baby boy unless she could find a country to resettle the entire family. He has now grown from a toddler into a spirited teenager.

On one of her last nights in Tel Aviv, Ms. Tekele sits in her apartment with three Israeli friends, all activists who have come to say goodbye, and her cousin. Her husband, Tesfldet, has gone out with their two elementary school-age sons, Sirafiel and Natan, so they can have some privacy.

“It’s so wonderful to know [the family] will have a life of stability [in Canada] with freedom and all the basic rights they deserve,” says Tamara Newman, one of the friends. “But it’s also heartbreaking that we weren’t able to get [those rights] here despite so many years of trying. I used to be heartbroken when asylum-seekers leave, but now I know it’s the best for them.”

A pot of strong Eritrean coffee is brewing. They have just eaten a traditional Eritrean meal of stews and injera bread, when Ms. Tekele takes a break from hosting to call Yuel. He is in Ethiopia waiting to be resettled with the rest of his family – the two brothers he has never met and the parents he knows only as voices on the phone and occasional flickering images on a screen. Ms. Tekele’s face brightens as his image appears on her cellphone. She laughs out loud as they banter in Tigrini. Then she introduces him to her friends. They lean into the screen as he speaks in halting English, his mother positively beaming. He tells them he’s just turned 13.

“Wow, a big boy – a man!” Ms. Tekele says. They all giggle.

Days later, on one of their first nights in Toronto, the family is invited to their sponsors’ home for the seventh night of Hanukkah. Sharon Zikman, along with her husband, Michael Levine, and daughter, Alex Levine, has hung festive cutouts of dreidels and Stars of David from the chandelier and walls. Ms. Zikman provides the boys with chocolate coins and dreidels. Hanukkah songs play in the background.

Two members of the local Anglican church, who supported this sponsorship through AURA, are also there. Ms. Zikman urges the boys to teach the interfaith group about Hanukkah before the Tekeles, who, like the Solomons, are Christian, light a menorah they have brought as a gift.

But amid the joy and relief is the uncertainty about Yuel. He was supposed to arrive less than two weeks later. Amid pandemic and war in Ethiopia, his arrival has now been delayed – a hole that Ms. Tekele has felt for 12 years.

Leaving him in the care of her mother – with plans they’d be reunited as soon as she got to Israel – was the hardest thing she’s ever done. “My heart is beating now thinking about it. … I knew the journey would not be easy for him and I didn’t want to risk [his life],” she says. “But as soon as I crossed the border I cried. I shouted. I was so depressed. I instantly regretted it.”

“It’s not easy. I still feel that I made a mistake,” she says at another point. “It’s my own son that I brought into the world, but I didn’t take responsibility. I have to carry that wherever I go.”

Authorities tell her it may be another six to eight weeks before he arrives. “One day we will meet,” she says. “I’m in a better way of thinking. Because of many, many long years without any help, now I have big hope.”

The Solomons and the Tekeles are aware that their families are fortunate. So many other Africans are left behind in Israel, continuing to live in limbo, even if they are safer than in their troubled homelands. Often those who get help are the stronger members of a community who know how to forge connections, such as the one that came to be when Ms. Tekele met Ms. Levine when she was living in Tel Aviv. Their bond helped set in motion the Tekeles’ residence in Toronto five years later.

Ms. Lehmann-Bender of AURA says that one year when she calculated requests for her organization, more than 12,000 people applied for sponsorships, and it could only submit around 75 applications.

“You can do something about it for a very tiny number of people,” she says. “But I think that in Canada, because we have the ability to do private sponsorship, we have the responsibility to do private sponsorship.”

Ten days after they’ve arrived, the Solomons sit in their apartment. Their wedding photos hang on the wall. A big Christmas tree stands in the center of the living room because Ms. Solomon promised her daughters that’s one of the first things they’d do upon arriving in Canada. (Most of the Eritreans who came to Israel are Christian.)

Both parents were already offered jobs: She has taken a position teaching Hebrew in the Jewish community, while he has found work in a kitchen that employs refugees in Toronto. They have gotten social security numbers, set up a bank account, and registered for government health insurance. While they had to fight to have their daughters integrated into a school in Israel – a 40-minute commute by bus each way – here they just enrolled at the local school a few blocks away from their new home. Their first weekend they went to a holiday lighting ceremony in downtown Toronto and ended up meeting Mayor John Tory. They took a selfie.

But their story is not over. Mr. Solomon, who was a prominent activist in the asylum-seeker community in Tel Aviv, is already planning to work with Eritreans here. When they left Israel, the Solomons held a going-away party. It was not to say goodbye. “We want to show other Jewish people they can do this, too,” Mr. Solomon says.

The morning he flew to Canada, he showed a reporter the text message he got from a Jewish Israeli friend. It was the words of a revered Talmudic saying: “Whoever saves one life, it’s as if they have saved the entire world.” He plans on using that line as he tries to convince other Jewish Canadians to join in helping sponsor Eritreans living in Israel.

“Canada has given us a lesson in how to help people, how to help a newcomer,” says Mr. Solomon.

He looks forward to the future his daughters will forge in their new land. They are both inquisitive. He hopes one day they might choose to study politics. “Because that way they can help change the world, so what was hard for us will not be hard for others.” He smiles. “Maybe one of them will even become the prime minister of Canada.”

Ms. Solomon holds her ID card from Israel, where her status is listed as “infiltrator.” In Canada, she and her family control their destiny. “We are full human beings now,” she says.

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