Last week, asylum seekers and their Israeli supporters traveled south to the Saharonim prison near the Egyptian border, where thousands of asylum seekers are held. The prison is presently under expansion to hold thousands more – new Israeli legislation, coming amidst a package of moves to put pressure on refugees and asylum seekers, now enables detention for years at a time, even if the detained asylum seekers cannot be deported under international law. Eritrean activist and asylum seeker Isayas Teklebrhan spoke during last week’s protest. His speech is reprinted in full, below.
By Isayas Teklebrhan
Dear Brothers and Sisters. Thank you all for coming.
In the name of all of you who came together today and in the name of all refugees here in Israel, let us deliver our message today with compassion:
Dear Ladies and Gentleman in Israel
Today we have come together in front of the detention camp [of Saharonim] not to protest in anger, but to share with you our story. We have come together not to blame, but to plea to your heart. Today, we seek your understanding.
Our journey to reach Israel was one of hardship. We have left behind the country we grew up in and that we hold dearly. We miss the smell of our home, the sounds of our streets, the love of out people.
Sometimes the longing we have for home becomes paralyzing. But we had no choice.
We have said our goodbyes to our families, our parents who raised us, our brothers and sisters who took care of us, our neighbors who laughed with us, our friends who went with us through thick and thin. We hugged them one last time or left in silence out of fear of endangering their lives.
Sometimes the love towards them becomes overwhelming. But we had no choice.
We run throughout the night, over the border, knowing that we could be shot on the spot if seen. We faced living in Sudanese refugee camps, knowing that our dreams and our future would be killed staying there.
We walked through unbelievable heat, with the fear that we may die of thirst. We have fought illnesses without the help of a doctor or a bed to rest in.
We have found ourselves kidnapped by criminal gangs in the Sinai desert who tortured us with hot irons and electric shocks while we were on the phone with loved ones back home, or in Europe and America, to ask them to pay ransom to save our lives.
We have been chained inside desert caves like slaves, our feet shackled. We faced the incredible fear of being butchered for our organs. Many of our brothers and sisters were cut open and left to die. Like animals in the desert. We were unable to save them. Their families will never hear from them again.
We have been raped – both men and women. Our sisters are now raising their babies alone in a foreign land. We have faced the fear of death many times during our journey to Israel, and when that fear was so brutally strong, we cried, or wished to be dead, so the fear and the pain could just stop.
Sometimes the memories of what happened to us during our journey to Israel do not allow us sleep. Some memories are too much to handle. Even now. But we had no choice.
We have not gone through this to find a job in Tel Aviv. We have taken this hardship and danger of this journey upon us to find dignity and life. Hope. Because if your hope dies, you die with it as a human being.
We have lived under the most brutal dictatorship in Africa. We have been ruled like slaves. We have been made voiceless. We have been held in military camps for over a decade. We have been punished and imprisoned and tortured. Many of us have gone hungry. Hope was about to die for all of us under the dictatorial regime. We long stopped living and were merely surviving.
But when hope is close to death, life is close to becoming meaningless, and your survival instinct kicks in. You are ready to face the risk of death in exchange for the slimmest chance to revive your hope. We knew about the dangers we could face on our way, but we faced them anyway, just for the chance to finally be able to live a life in freedom.
And finally, we reached Israel – a democratic country with Western values of freedom and respect for international law. An open society, with independent institutions, individual choices, diversity and dignity. We reached out gateway to new hope.
“Until I can deport them I will lock them up and make their lives miserable,” There were the words of the Interior Minister. We have experienced more misery and suffering than more people may ever have to endure an entire lifetime. We have left what the Western media calls “the biggest prison in Africa,” and now face the threat of being thrown into the biggest detention center in Israel.
Your excellency, we plea for compassion. We have seen our brothers and sisters who arrived here in Israel being attacked by extremists, burnt and beaten.
We plea for protection. We have been threatened to be deported back into the hands of the dictator.
We plea for safety.
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, your Excellencies,
Today we do not plea to you as refugees to politicians. Not as blacks to whites.
Because among us are mothers and fathers, children and students, musicians, soldiers, doctors, civic servants, geologists, farmers and merchants…
In life we all shares the same fears and hopes.
On that basis, we pleas to you as human beings to human beings….for dignity.
Isayas Teklebrhan is an Eritrean refugee who has been living in Israel since 2010. He has a degree in physics from the University of Asmara in Eritrea. He left Eritrea after spending seven years in prison for his pro-democracy advocacy.
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