Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easter with the Eritreans

I haven’t been feeling inspired to write lately, but just yesterday I had another one of those “Is This Real Life?” moments that sparked my creative juices and got my pen to paper again (or shall I say hands to keyboard). I will call it, “Easter with the Eritreans.”

As some of you may know, I am working with an organization based in Tel Aviv called Tov Lada’at (, or Good to Know. It is a small project that helps African refugees gain access to higher education. They work with a cohort of eight students, offering them scholarships to school, a monthly leadership seminar, and guidance towards creating their own community projects.

The situation with African refugees and asylum-seekers is an interesting one, and one which I hadn't heard about until moving here. In short, many Africans (approximately 27,000) from countries like Eritrea, Sudan (80% of Israel’s asylum seekers come from these two countries), Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, flee from some form of political or religious persecution in their home countries, looking for a better way of life elsewhere. Since geographically speaking, Israel is one of the closest democracies; many end up coming from Egypt through the Sinai desert of foot.  Often times the refugees hire Bedouin smugglers to lead them through the desert but are still faced with abuse from the smugglers, threats of rape and violence, and attack from the Egyptian army. Once arriving in the “Promised Land,” the Israeli government rarely gives these people refugee status (in fact, they are arrested by the Israeli army and put in jail) and they are often here on temporary visas that do not allow them to work. They are then stuck in a strange legal limbo, with little access and support to basic needs, along with facing a lot of discrimination and racism on a daily basis. With all of that said, many have been here for several years and are quiet adept at Israeli life.  Despite the lack of human rights, they have families, and jobs, and go to university like everyone else.

One of my duties as an intern for TL is to work with half of the fellows as a sort of mentor, to support them in developing their own community projects. I’ve enjoyed the work immensely so far because I’ve been able to really get to know four refugees. I’ve met with them to discuss their past, how they came to Israel, and their future aspirations. Every single one of the fellows have personal stories of hardship. And above all, their warmth, intelligence, and resiliency constantly amaze me.

So back to Easter. It started off with the release party for one of my fellow’s magazine. He is one of the Eritrean men I “mentor.” The word mentor here feels funny to me because this man is the most remarkable person I have ever met and the idea of me imparting wisdom onto him just seems like a joke. He went from Eritrea, to Ethiopia, to Sudan, and then to Israel, constantly fighting to get a college education. While spending time in a refugee camp and then again in Israel he helped start art groups that meet once a week to write together or discuss community matters. The group in Tel Aviv pulled together their own resources and published a magazine for the Eritrean community called “Maedo.” They distributed it during a fun talent-show like even on Easter.  It was held in the back of a little run-down Eritrean store close to the Central Bus Station. The station itself is notorious for being a little-Africa of sorts; it is the hub for all refugee activities in Tel Aviv and always bustling with people from all over.
That little guy in red is Eritrea. It is often bulked together with Ethiopia although they have been in conflict for years.

I wanted to go to the event to support this man and thankfully my good friend Anna and co-worker Florentine joined me because it was nice to have some company sitting among a crowd of Eritreans speaking a language I don’t know. The event itself was really interesting though. Various people performed – reading poems, telling jokes or stories, playing some traditional Tigrinia songs, and my personal favorite, dancing to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” The multi-culturalism of it all just blew my mind. There I was, an American, sitting with a German and another American at an Eritrean event in Israel. We almost covered all of the world’s continents. Anyways, even though we didn’t understand a word of the festivities, it is remarkable how much you can gauge from tone and body language.

It was really interesting to see how Easter is celebrated in different cultures. There were no bunnies or Easter egg hunts to be found. Rather, it seemed like a big party. People are out on the streets and dressed in fancy suits and dresses. They served cola and water and traditional snacks like popcorn and a thick bread I’m not sure the name of. The program ended when Florentine and I were whisked from our seats and made to dance with everyone. I think Flo put it aptly afterwards when she said, “I guess I can check that one off of my list!”

Afterwards I went with another one of the fellows, Dighe, to his apartment for another Easter celebration. In a previous meeting I had told him how much I wanted to eat some good injeera (a sponge-like pancake served with different sauces; the “naan” of Ethiopian/Eritrean food), so he invited me to the party where there would be promised home-cooked Eritrean food. I’m not sure how I always seem to get myself into these situations but soon after I found myself in a small apartment surrounded by about 15 Eritrean men drinking Heinekens and dancing to Tigrinia songs on You Tube. Once I got over the initial stares and the fish-out-of-water feeling,; it was a blast. I ate some fantastic njera and after being practically force- fed a few “chasers” (the Israeli equivalent of a mini-shot) I danced to Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” a staple for any Africa-lovers. I learned how to say “How are you?” in Dighe’s mother-tounge (Workma?) and was even presented with a Hanukkah candle as an Easter gift. Something about candles is symbolic, seeing as the whole apartment was sprinkled with lit Hanukah candles. I liked the quirky juxtaposition of the two holidays.

An example of some injeera. You eat it with your hands and the sauces are mostly meat-based.

The whole day was nice reminder of how people can overcome hardship. These refugees undergo unspeakable difficulties in their daily life, but they don’t let it define themselves. They were just people, doing what people all around the world do best on Easter: celebrate. Whether that’s decorating Easter eggs and eating chocolate or eating injeera and drinking beers. 

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