It’s a hot day in Tel Aviv. As the sun reflects off the windows of parked cars on Levinsky Street, Teklit Michael is pedalling his bicycle. He slows his pace as he turns into the Eritrean Women’s Community Centre, where he volunteers when he’s not working as a chef in a local Italian restaurant.
Michael is an Eritrean asylum seeker and he has lived in Tel Aviv for eight years, since he was 20. He is one of an estimated 30 000 Eritreans who have fled to Israel in search of a better life, according to recent reports published by the Israeli Immigration and Population Authority.
“The government do whatever they want,” Michael says. “Eritrea is not safe any more and I feel like it’s not my country any more. They treated me like a slave.”
Eritrea is a small country in the Horn of Africa that has endured more than its fair share of turmoil in recent decades: brutal civil wars, a bitter occupation by neighbouring Ethiopia and now an authoritarian one-party state. The government is notoriously repressive. Many young men flee to escape compulsory, indefinite military conscription.
Most escaping Eritreans end up in Ethiopia. Some take the route through Sudan and into Europe, braving the dangers of the journey as well as an increasingly hostile reception for those who make it. Still others, like Michael, try their luck in Israel.
He knew little about the country before he arrived. He didn’t even know it is a Jewish state – he only knew that life there was supposed to be better than back home. “It is a democracy and it was easier to reach than Europe,” he explains.
But he didn’t receive the warm welcome he had expected. Instead, he has faced rejection and hostility from both the Israeli government and parts of Israeli society.
Though Eritreans’ claims for asylum have been recognised by many European countries, Israel denies they are refugees and labels them economic migrants. By doing this, Israel escapes the requirements of the United Nations convention on the rights of refugees to process their asylum claims. According to Israel’s interior ministry, thousands of Eritreans have sought refugee status but only eight applications were approved between 2009 and 2016.
Eritreans in Israel are no strangers to racism. There have been cases of families who have been physically harmed by Israelis and the government didn’t intervene. In 2016, an Eritrean girl was stabbed in the head in Tel Aviv, according to reports by Newsweek. The Israeli government would not help the family with medical expenses because they were undocumented.
Eritreans in Israel are often deemed infiltrators and are kept in detention facilities such as Holot, a holding place for African refugees that is located in the Israeli desert. It houses single men from refugee communities, who are held for long periods without access to employment.
Other communities of asylum seekers from Africa face similar challenges. Recently, an investigation in Foreign Policy magazine found that Israel was paying some African countries, specifically Rwanda and Uganda, to resettle asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Sudan. But after leaving Israel, lured with the promise of a work permit and $3 500 in cash, asylum seekers were encouraged – and in some cases forced – to return to their country of origin.
Israel’s treatment of African refugees is ironic, considering Israel’s own history as a safe haven for refugees fleeing persecution and genocide in Europe and the Middle East. And this doesn’t sit comfortably with many Israelis, including members of the government.
“We did not handle them the best way,” Michael Oren, the deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, said in a forum at the Knesset. “We took them, but we didn’t always give them the best treatment.”
Oren refers to the government’s decision to channel new arrivals towards Levinsky, a poor, overcrowded suburb in southern Tel Aviv, as a mistake, especially because it leaves them without social services or government assistance.
Oren regrets that the government “dumped them in one area in southern Tel Aviv, knowing they came from different areas, different tribes and different religions”. He describes it as “a human tragedy”.
For Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, the problem is simpler: it’s racism. “This is a shame on Israeli society,” Benn says. “They are law-abiding people and they should just let them live and leave them alone.”
He suggests that “they get the ability to work, to bring basic needs to their families and let them integrate into society”, adding that asylum seekers should not be pushed away, detained or called “illegal infiltrators”.
The charming, soft-spoken Michael certainly doesn’t fit that pejorative tag.
He was a star track and field athlete in Eritrea when, at 17, he was conscripted into the military. There, he spent a year under what he calls a strict regime.
“The army commanders used us to do whatever they want,” Michael says. He recalls waking up at dawn and being shipped to a farm every day. He and other soldiers would be forced to construct buildings, which he didn’t know how to do. There were days when he would work tirelessly without rest or food.
“They diverted my mind and interrupted me from attending school,” he says. “They interrupted me from everything.”
Many Eritreans have been conscripted into the army for life with no way to leave. After a year of service, Michael escaped.
“When I saw that my dream was completely destroyed by the government, I said: ‘That’s it.’” He left without telling his family, fearing he would put them in danger.
Michael says he escaped death several times while crossing borders into Sudan and Egypt. He was shot at three times. His first stop was Sudan, where he spent a year. But, as a Christian, he faced violence and discrimination there.
Michael says he witnessed mothers being torn away from their children, killings and sexual abuse on his journey to Israel. “I thought I could get asylum here and be safe. I expected to get status and live a normal life because, in the Christian world, Israel is a good country.”
Michael’s boss is Helen Kidane (27), the director of the community centre. She is also an asylum seeker and, like Michael, she left Eritrea to escape government oppression. Her father was a prisoner of the regime.
“It’s difficult to live in Eritrea,” Kidane says. But her transit from Eritrea through Sinai was “traumatising” too.
Recalling her overland journey in 2011, Kidane describes women being raped on the refugee trail. She encountered organ trafficking rings. She saw children who were separated from their parents. Now, at her centre created by Zebib Sulthan in 2011, Kidane says there are women who have become pregnant by their kidnappers in the Sinai desert.
Though Michael and Kidane are safe now, their future is uncertain if they are not granted asylum.
“We can’t go back to Eritrea because we will go to jail, so we have to stay here,” Kidane says. “Nobody is thinking about us or helping us.”