Between Tel Aviv and Holot: Open jail splits refugee family

Six years after he fled Eritrea for Israel, Aman has found himself living in Holot – an ‘open detention center’ built by the Israeli government for African asylum seekers. His wife and his daughter, on the other hand, were left behind in Tel Aviv and are not permitted to live with him.

By Ayla Peggy Adler 

Aman and his wife Elsa, Holot 'open detention center.' (photo: Ayla Peggy Adler)
Aman and his wife Elsa, Holot ‘open detention center.’ (photo: Ayla Peggy Adler)

When Aman, who has been sitting in Israeli prisons for over two years, was moved to the new Holot “open detention center,” he was told he was no longer a prisoner, but a resident.  That got him thinking. “If I’m a resident, then my wife, Elsa, and (eight-year-old) daughter, Dahab, should be able to live with me,” he said when I visited earlier this week. Inspired by this logic, Elsa and Dahab packed a bag from Tel Aviv and came to Holot with the intention of moving in. If they weren’t permitted to live on the inside, they hoped, at least, to live in a tent on the surrounding grounds. However, they were not given permission to do either; in fact, the two have never even made it past the front gate to see Aman’s living quarters. Instead, they’ve been traveling back and forth between Tel Aviv and Holot by bus, four times this week alone. Is that a way to treat a community resident?

“Today is six years since I arrived in Israel,” Aman told me. “The exact date.”

“Mazal tov,” I said.

I’d brought an Eritrean friend, “W,” who had come to help me translate, as well his friend, Abraham, an Eritrean asylum-seeker who is living in fear of Holot and had jumped on the opportunity to come see for himself.

Read more: Photo diary from inside Israel’s ‘Holot’ detention center

When we arrived, Aman and his family were sitting just outside security along with 20 or so other prisoners — all seemingly new since I didn’t recognize them from previous visits — and some Israelis, Ronit and Tamar, who had driven down from Jerusalem to drop off their friend who’d received the dreaded orders. Aman confirmed that while there had been about 130 prisoners when we’d visited just a few weeks earlier, now there were hundreds more and counting, ten per room. Many of the new guys seemed younger to me. “Young, old,” Aman said. “They’re bringing everyone.”

Aman's daughter, Dahab, at the Holot 'open detention center.' (photo: Ayla Pegg Adler)
Aman’s daughter, Dahab, at the Holot ‘open detention center.’ (photo: Ayla Pegg Adler)

Ronit and Tamar asked Dahab what level of Hebrew she was in and she told them: Gimel.  I — a Jewish American living here with citizenship — am Aleph-plus. If I spoke Hebrew, Dahab and I would have done just fine without a translator. In Hebrew, Ronit and Tamar asked Aman many questions about life inside; they were worried for their friend. In response to their questions about medical care, Aman told them that there was a building that appeared like a health clinic, complete with a Magen David Adom sign, but inside it was always empty. “Holotwood,” he called it.

Frustrations were running high as people felt they’d reached an indefinite dead end and that Israeli government officials didn’t see them as human beings. The previous week, there had been no food one day until 3 p.m. and fights broke out, resulting in a guard punching a prisoner in the face and breaking his teeth. Aman said they’d complained to the “Big Man,” Albert, who is in charge of all three prisons, all off the same road: Ketziot (which they refer to as the “Palestinian Prison”), Saharonim (the other prison for African asylum seekers) and Holot, the “open facility,” though men who’ve lived in both said they were no more free in Holot and that the conditions in Saharonim were preferable. When Albert heard of the skipped meals, Aman told me he’d said, “What — back home you only ate one or two times a week; here you eat every day. What do you want?”

But the reason people are leaving Eritrea is not hunger; it’s a dictatorship that imprisons and tortures citizens at will. If he could live in Eritrea with freedom and safety, W told me there was no place he would rather live; it was home. I have heard this from every African asylum seeker I have talked to, including my dear friend, Tsehaye, who has been granted asylum in the United States with his wife and children. What was W supposed to do now, he asked me; go back to the place from which he’d escaped with bullets at his back?

W and I met when he was earning his Masters degree in ecology at the Jacob Blaustein Desert Research Institute, after world-renowned elephant specialist and conservationist Israeli professor Jeheskel “Hezy” Shoshani, who taught at the now-defunct University of Asmara in Eritrea, recommended he apply. The Eritrean government closed the university when students held protests against the dictatorship, making it impossible for citizens to choose their own field of study. To get out of Eritrea and obtain a visa to fly to Israel, W had had to risk his life like everyone else, sneaking across the border at night. Unlike most, however, he entered Israel legally, through the airport. But now that he’s graduated, his student visa has expired and he has no place to go next. He can’t stay, can’t get a visa to another country, and can’t return. To top it off, his Israeli advocate, Shoshani, was killed in a 2008 terrorist attack in Addis Ababa when a minibus exploded, after W had come to Israel.  When I asked W if he was afraid that he, too, could get rounded up on the streets of Tel Aviv and put in Holot, he said, of course. I mentioned that he had a different status than the others and could prove this with papers, but this was no comfort to W, since with Holot, Israel is breaking all kinds of international law.

Eritrean prisoners at the Holot 'open detention center'. (photo: Ayla Peggy Adler)
Eritrean prisoners at the Holot ‘open detention center’. (photo: Ayla Peggy Adler)

Elsa had traveled with a backpack larger than herself as well as with Dahab, who was now sitting quietly beside Aman. They’ve been living off dwindled savings Aman earned in the Timna copper mines where he’d worked for a Mexican company. Mexican, in the Arava.  Because what would a border crossing story be without Mexico. Of course Elsa can’t work now because of the crackdown on Israelis hiring asylum seekers, and almost no asylum seekers are granted the refugee status that could give them the right to work temporarily. They’re utterly stuck.

As we drove out of Holot, W said, “it looks exactly like the military camp in Eritrea” (where men do constant, mandatory service until they’re 55, making it impossible for them to have any other life). “Exactly the same! The only difference is that in Eritrea, the fence is wood,” he said, looking out at the high, thick metal topped with barbed wire.

They didn’t know whom to trust now, W told me. The government was using Jewish Ethiopian citizens, who speak their language, against them. I knew this from Aman as well:  the Israeli immigration officers at Holot were all Ethiopian. One had said to him, “why did you come here?” When Aman answered about why he’d fled, she had said, “no, why did you come here to Israel; this is a Jewish country.”

I asked Abraham if he was happy he’d come. He was absolutely happy he’d seen for himself, he told me, though Holot was even worse than he’d feared; there was nothing open about it.

Dahab had fallen asleep on my dog the minute we’d entered the car. We woke her only when it was time to haul the backpack out of the trunk so she and Elsa could get on the bus, again. Were they even unpacking between visits? When I asked Aman if they’d be coming back in the next few days, he looked off. “I don’t know,” he said. “They’re very tired. We’ll see.”

For more +972 :
Photo diary: Inside Israel’s ‘Holot’ detention center for asylum seekers
The origins and politics of Israel’s refugee debate