Surviving Without a Country in the Promised Land

Migrants brave perils to reach Israel — only to confront new challenges

by Diane Handal

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Asmeret, a 26-year-old Orthodox Christian, has journeyed far in four short years. From her homeland in the Horn of Africa, in a land that won its independence shortly after her birth, she trekked west, eventually reaching Khartoum, Sudan. She then traveled north to the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. And finally, through great perils and sacrifices, she arrived in Israel.

Under the yawning shadow of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station — a seven-story structure famously seen as an eyesore — migrant workers, asylum seekers and others from abroad struggle to eke out an existence, often after risking their very lives to reach Israel.

A petite, shy woman with short, red-tinted hair and a warm smile, Asmeret speaks English and Hebrew in addition to her mother tongue of Tigrinya. Although her linguistic skills have aided her difficult transition, they could not spare her the indignity and pain facing so many vulnerable people caught in human trafficking.

Before leaving home, Asmeret had worked in an office internship, but received no salary. For support she relied upon her father, who served in the army. When he contracted malaria and died at age 46, she was left with nothing. It was then she decided to leave in search of a better life.

In Khartoum, she spent a year cleaning houses. One family provided her with a roof, but she was not treated well, she says. Her family, aware of her difficult lot, eventually sent word of a man in Israel who would pay for smugglers to take her to Sinai, on one condition: she must agree to marry him.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, people who use such methods face a constellation of risks - including arrest, deportation, extortion, kidnapping, rape, torture and murder. Despite these dangers, she traveled on the back of a pickup truck alongside Bedouins to Sinai, and walked across the border to Israel. There, she spent two months in a camp for asylum seekers.

Once in Tel Aviv, Asmeret married the 29-year-old man who had paid for her trip. “But he was not a good man,” she says. “He was jealous and he beat me.”

For three years she stayed with him. In that time, he never worked and took for himself whatever money she made.

She eventually gave birth to a daughter. But her situation deteriorated; she endured heart problems, a miscarriage and an increasingly violent husband, who one day came to her work in Haifa with a knife and threatened to kill her.

The police took Asmeret to a women’s shelter, where she spent the next six months with her daughter.

“In the women’s shelter, the social worker was very supportive,” she says. “They gave me a four-month program on how to care for my child.”

Soon, she began looking for day care for her daughter so she could eventually return to work. This, too, presented a challenge.

“In Israel, there is very good care of children from 3 to 18, but nothing before the age of 3; everything is private and extremely expensive,” says the Rev. David Neuhaus, S.J., the Latin patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, in a recent interview with the Franciscan Media Center.

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