GRADUALLY, I AM FINDING MY PLACE IN THE WORLD
Finally, as of 2017, Efrem Tesfa is no longer an 'infiltrator'. He is now a young Canadian resident with a future. In two or three years, he will be granted citizenship. He will be in the midst of his academic studies. His employer will value his professional skills and pay him accordingly. He will volunteer and remain active in the struggle for African refugees. He will continue to translate from Tigrinya to Hebrew, English and French.
Most importantly, he will no longer be required to renew his visa every three months. In two or three years he will have a passport and would be able to visit his sister in Jerusalem. Upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport on a direct flight from Montreal, as a Canadian citizen, no border control officer will call Efrem Tesfa an 'infiltrator'.
At JACC, he is well remembered. After all, he was one of the founders of the Jerusalem African Community Center and so is greatly missed in his community and among JACC's staff. It has been four months since Efrem was welcomed in Canada, and he has yet to forget the community center at Beit Yoel.
He fondly remembers his friends from Eritrea and Sudan as well as volunteers from JACC. He has fond memories of those who helped him during his seven-year stay in Israel, and especially his employers at Pasta Basta who assisted him in getting into college. More than anything else, Efrem misses his sister and her family who live in Jerusalem without permanent status. He also worries about his mother and little brother in Eritrea, whom he has been unable to reach for two months now.
Summarizing this young man's life is no easy task as he has been through so much in such a short time. On a phone call from Canada he recollects, "I am twenty four years old. I fled Eritrea to Ethiopia at the age of seventeen. Subsequently, I migrated through Sudan and Egypt. The journey was not an easy one."
He recalls crossing the forests and deserts between Sudan and Egypt with little water, almost no food and frequent confrontations with his Bedouin smugglers. Why was he forced to flee Eritrea at such a young age? In his words, "Eritrea has been controlled by a dictatorship for over twenty six years. Military service in the country is mandatory and almost indefinite. You are conscripted at the age of seventeen and you may remain in service for years, receiving short holidays at yearly intervals at best, often at intervals of up to three years."
Efrem's father fell in combat in 1999 as a result of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Hi mother is of Ethiopian origin (her family still lives in Ethiopia to this day), which he feels complicates his situation. He has also feared being drafted. This combination has led him to the realisation that, "I must flee."
Four months after fleeing Eritrea, Efrem reached Israel and was immediately detained in the Saharonim detention facility. Upon release, shortly after, he received two bus tickets, one express to Be'er Sheva and another to Tel Aviv. In addition, he received a temporary visa for one month which prohibited him from working in Israel.
His status was clear: 'infiltrator'.
It was then by chance that he learned of his sister's whereabouts. "Do you live with your sister in Jerusalem?" he was asked by an acquaintance from Eritrea whom he had met in Tel Aviv. After this chance encounter, he moved to Jerusalem to join her.
He lived in Jerusalem for almost seven years, working and getting to know people. With the help of his employers at Pasta Basta, he studied Hebrew and English. Later he graduated from a medical interpretation course at Tel Hashomer Hospital. Eventually he joined his friends to cofound the Jerusalem African Community Center.
He recalls that, "Canada was never on my mind, especially when I was studying Industrial Design at Hadassah College." Efrem achieved all this while his only legal status in Israel was that of an 'infiltrator' and while his visa was only a temporary one which he was required to renew every three months. This was achieved while in fear of being summoned to detention in Israel's detention facility for asylum seekers and while it seemed there was no future or hope.
In 2014, he met and fell for a young Canadian woman. The two married, and after eighteen months Efrem was able to join his wife in Canada.
Efrem talks about his longing for Israel, but he is also happy to have left. ”It is not easy to live in a state in which it is unclear where you will be in two months. To little avail, I made an effort to impress the authorities and prove to them that I am working and studying and doing all that I can to be a good citizen."
Looking back, he now concludes that, “In Israel I met people and made friends. In seven years I discovered the many intricacies of Israel, its inhabitants, its atmosphere and its culture. Even without status and while seen only as an 'infiltrator', I still did not feel alienated from Israel's people and culture. Now everything is different. My status and identity are no longer shrouded in doubt. I am no longer in a state of fear that tomorrow I might be summoned to detention. For seven years I have been carrying a great stone which has now been lifted off my shoulders. No one is after me any longer. I no longer live under threat. I volunteer in a community center similar to JACC and I try to help people. I am also looking for ways to complete my studies. I feel that gradually, I am finding my place in the world. I always knew what I wanted to achieve and yet it was unattainable, always out of reach. I now have a chance to give to others and accomplish my dreams. In Israel, asylum seekers don’t have the opportunity to reach for their dreams."
Efrem is still waiting to hear from his mother and little brother in Eritrea. He yet to hear about how his sister and her family are managing in Jerusalem. "The winding journey through which I have treaded since fleeing Eritrea only strengthens me now. The great hardship which I endured is what now gives me the power to stand and survive and open up to the opportunities which the future holds for me."