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מרכז לקהילה האפריקאית בירושלים

A Tear in the Ocean - A Visit to Holot

Yesterday we visited Holot.

Holot is a Detention Centre for illegal residents who reside in Israel and usually have the 2A5 Visa type.

The Ministry of Interior capture these refugees that are commonly single and do not have a family, and send them to this jail in the very middle of the desert in southern Israel. It doesn’t matter to the Government if they are studying or working. If you’re a male asylum seeker from Eritrea or Sudan and you’re single, you will most likely receive an inquiry to go to Holot and forcibly interrupt your life and leave your current lifestyle.

It is not clear why the Government has this horrific policy of disrupting these peoples' lives. It's hard to understand what this is for. But if that was not enough, being a refugee in Israel requires to face everyday problems related to lack of health insurance, illegal employment, and their children’s education, all of them constrained by being invisible before the law. Not to mention the uncertainty of when will they see their mom again.

At any time, they can be required and forced to interrupt their lives to go to this jail. The reason the government formally conveys is to prevent them to keep on building a life, keep on generating incomes.

Perhaps this is a strategy to make them go back to where they came from. But is this even possible? Feasible? Israelis hardly know about the existence of Holot and don’t understand that it’s a prison for people that did not commit any crime. They were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. So they escaped to a land that despite having committed to the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not recognize them as such.

In line with the immigration policy, the refugees are called infiltrators by the media and by the State itself. So they are being neglected. Neglected within a past of persecution, in their attempt to flee to a safer place, in the tortures that marked their bodies for the rest of their lives. Neglected in the discrimination they suffer when they don’t receive health treatment.

But I’m not here to talk about injustice, I’m here to talk about resilience. The men I met in Holot, because only men can be sent there, are mostly happy people. They have creative initiatives and they have plans. Even though it’s more probable to be encouraged if they have two weeks left there, they support each other. They visit each other, they laugh.

When we arrived there with three other people from JACC, we started taking out mountains of clothes we had brought. We arranged them on the car and people immediately started approaching to take things. They came like a sudden wave, seeking for things that could be useful from the outside world. A desperate tide thirsty for a change, at least in their minds.

There were also magazines so some of them took them and started reading. The visitors aren’t allowed to get into the prison’s installations, so the meeting place is in the outside, near the huge gate.

There were some shades, chairs and tables so we organized a picnic. Some of the men, between 25 and 40 years old, approached us and started talking to us, making jokes and sharing the food. At some point one of them opened a bottle of wine and shared it with us, and made a toast “for freedom and health”.

It was a beautiful sunset with the background of the desert. There are few things that the Ministry of Interior cannot control.

But these Africans, refugees, asylum seekers, they have faith in each other, they’ve met so many good people in Israel that helped them stand on their feet and encourage them to continue striving for their freedom. I don’t feel I even have the right to use this word.

Between a deep feeling of injustice and the joy these people irradiated, we left them behind with the car. When we were leaving, a truck from the army came closer and asked us what this place was about. There is a military base close to the detention center so they were curious. One of the soldiers said something like he agreed with the governmental policy towards them.

Shani, a volunteer who helps with legal and bureaucratic hassles (such as filling out RSD forms), answered:

"That’s because you don’t really know what it is about. Most of the people don’t, but give me half an hour with you and you’ll end up agreeing with me. It’s not a matter of postures, it’s a matter of understanding and everyone that understands agrees with me”.

Approaching the highway back to Jerusalem, Omer, a JACC community and board member who was released from Holot until April, said it was very hard for him to leave them. That he had an amazing time, but this was the hardest part. We kept on talking about how other countries have the actual will to fulfill their international commitments, they sponsor refugees, and they have the intention and the resources to help them.

I had never been so aware that the State that gave me so many possibilities of self-development, could also be so damaging towards people in extreme need of help. There is something sad in my words, I notice it. Hypocrisy, lie. My ancestors were also refugees, discriminated, mutilated. These people are being chased for what they believe, for not joining a lifetime army, their homes set on fire, they flee chasing their desperate cry to live, and their plea to survive. So they run away, without a cent, they run, to become objects of torture, to see their women raped. And later get to a land whose people’s blood is made of the same suffering. Still, with everything that is implied, they are rejected. I wonder why we are so automatized in keep repeating never again, like empty robots.

To end, there is no end. As long as they have hope, I will have hope. And I will determinedly write and talk and do things better. Because they have a roof and food, they have each other, and they have us: although it’s a tear in the ocean.

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