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Eritrean activist: Asylum seekers plea for safety, compassion

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

Isayas Teklebrhan at a demonstration near Saharonim, August 31, 2012 (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills)

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

Dear Excellencies,

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.

Eritrean refugees after their store was attacked in Tel Aviv riot May 23, 2012 (Activestills)

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. 

Read +972′s special coverage on Seeking Asylum in Israel

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    1. sh

      To hear this man pleading for the right of his companions to a future and to watch our own government rejecting it by either locking up or locking out hope is unbearable; impossible not to remember the murdered grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins we never had the honour to meet and grow to love. Inexplicable that the ways of the countries that refused to take them in became our ways.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      Dear Brother,

      You have left your home and embarked on a dangerous journey where you have faced many terrible toils. Yet you have come unbidden and bring with you tens of thousands of your brothers and sisters, with millions of others that would surely follow if given half a chance to escape the misery of your blighted home. The country you have arrived in is small and facing challenges from all sides – political, military and economic. It is a country that has a hard time maintaining programs that provide for its own citizens that have fallen on hard times and is being forced to make additional sacrifices by the tides of economic fortune.

      Much as it pains us to demand more hardship of you, we can not take responsibility for your fate as we already have the fate of hundreds of thousands our own people that must be taken care of. Much as it pains us to turn you away, we must, because we know that if we accept the responsibility for you, we will be forced to accept responsibility for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others with stories of similar grim nature. We wish you and your home a brighter future, one in which we can enjoy many years of fruitful collaboration, but that bright future for you personally will have to come as a result of the birth of a proud, democratic, and prosperous nation which only you and your countrymen can build in Eritrea, and it sadly can not and will not come to you as a permanent guest in our already crowded and troubled nation.


      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      Bravo K9! The very tune the chorus on the shore crooned to the passengers on the MS Saint Louis.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Because the Eritreans are fleeing from a regime that is trying to kill all Eritreans? The comparison is absurd.

        Reply to Comment
    4. HT

      What short memory K9! One is too many, indeed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        40,000 economic migrants is too many, unless of course you wish to argue that they are all fleeing genocide?

        Reply to Comment
    5. Eritrean

      Dear K9, the nation-state idea was wrong from the beginning, which made people not to care so much for others other than with in their political territory, but our global law makers set an international law that make nation-satates to abide with, unfortunately you country Israel is a signatory nation to one of the international laws that is the Issue of refugees in 1951, so our claim is your country should grant our international right as refugees, so if your nation at this time of our refuge coundn’t grant us our refugee rights then how can we will have a collaboration in the future when Eritrea become democracy? our collaboration will remain a top political issue on our future politicians who are the now refugees in Israel!! but, to be honest i liked this part of your comment “but that bright future for you personally will have to come as a result of the birth of a proud, democratic, and prosperous nation which only you and your countrymen can build in Eritrea, ” and I asure you it is very soon our Eritrea will be a great prosperous nation!!

      Reply to Comment
      • Bluegrass Picker of Afula

        >> he nation-state idea was wrong from the beginning

        Then how did it get so wildly popular? Where are all those right-thinking people who want to abolish their own country?

        >>> which made people not to care so much for others

        you are confusing cause and effect. I retract my prior statement about you being a well-educated person who might be useful to us.

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Dear Eritrean, so your version of international law is one where Israel has no right to define itself as it wishes or to control its own borders? I realize that you are not a fan of the nation-state, yet it seems awfully cavalier to disregard the right of a country’s inhabitants to define its own nature and to determine it’s own immigration policy.

        The 1951 convention suggests that Eritreans have the full right to be permitted entry into a neighboring country to escape persecution. Israel is not a neighboring country. Feel free to use international law to gain entry into Sudan or Ethiopia, but don’t pretend that it extends to a total freedom of entry into any and every country in the world.

        I also fail to see much of a connection between granting Eritreans phantom refugee rights that they do not in fact have under international law and future relations and cooperation with Eritrea when it becomes a prosperous state.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      a fellow with a physics degree might very well be a desireable immigrant. Apply by the usual means – not by raping our border fences. It isn’t Eritrea’s job to take care of all the Rohingyan refugees; nd it isn’t our job to take care of all of yours.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Eritrean

      Watch out, Israel is getting closer to be modern dictatorial regime! i don’t mean to wards refugees but to wards you the citizes my friend!

      To your moth’s word… do you think the Jews in Europe in their refuge time were willing in raping the borders of many countries in search of refuge! you must be one of the modern days brain washed little boy!

      try to stop filling your head nonsense haterd! You can’t achieve any thing than losing!


      Reply to Comment
    8. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      You’re correct. Israel is a terrible, terrible, terrible place. I’m glad you’re willing to stand at the head of the line to leave, just to set an example about the necessity of isolating us.

      Maybe the REALITY is, is…. you’re peeved that all those Ethiopians & Russians of… uhm… debate-able “Jewish” roots…. got a free pass. While you guys didn’t.

      But that’s actually just an accident of history.

      Anyway, it wasn’t anyone in Israel who forced Eritreans to piss away the fairly tolerable situation they had when they were still a province of Ethiopia.

      You wanted de-colonization…. you got it.

      Sorry you had bad timing. Just as the passengers on the St Louis did – they ignored the writing on the wall and bugged out WAY after they were warned to. The ones who listened to the warnings before it was too late, now have affluent great-grandhildren whose wives cluck in
      Hebrew: those Thailander farmhands are ==great== workers…. just keep your dogs and cats inside the house on a Royal Birthday day.

      Better luck – as the Filipinits like to say – next time. PS: don’t even TRY to compare yourself to the Filipinit problem; they entered legally through an ACTUAL “Port of Entry”, then merely overstayed. And they seem to have aptitudes towards getting along with yekkim & sachim – a key skill in our reality here. I don’t see many firebombs being thrown at Filipinit off-the-books, under-the-table-arrangement’ed eateries. Which are plentiful. Discount if you know when to say “Ah-tay” and when to say “Koo-yah” !!

      So you guys must be doing ==something== wrong.

      Reply to Comment