When asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan walked out of the Holot Prison last week, they walked out of obscurity. Until then, even many people like myself who had been involved in their community six years ago when they first spilled into Israel—and who, three years later, had protested against the Holot prison—had allowed them to disappear. The truth was, even though I live in the Negev, I wasn’t even sure exactly where Holot had been built.
At the same time, Christmastime was making me homesick for family and friends-who-knew-me-before-I-was-forty; I had this embarrassing impulse: I wanted to Christmas Carol for the Holot prisoners. I knew that only some, Eritreans, were Christian, and that even they celebrated the Coptic Christmas on January 7th, and that anyway, neither they nor most Israelis would know the songs that I, an American Jew, had grown up on (Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy, Oh Holy Night…), but I felt, somehow, that it would bless them, and us, if we, their Negev neighbors, knocked on their door and sang these Noels of love and devotion.
It was six years ago that my friend, Tsehaye showed me how if you want to reach out to people, you simply show up. Tsehaye had overheard me, a stranger then, on the telephone talking to Israeli NGOs about wanting to help African refugees, and he’d approached me, saying, “I am an African refugee.” Like many, Tsehaye had walked from Eritrea through Sudan and Egypt into Israel, all along risking his life, imprisonment, and paying enormous bribe money to human smugglers. He offered to take me to South Tel Aviv to meet his community. We went. After that, I visited people at the shelter once a week. It was there that I finally met the NGO workers I’d been trying to connect with by telephone, but really, they were just people doing what I was doing and a lot more of it: learning what people needed, trying to help.
So it was with Tsehaye’s guidance in mind that I simply put an event on Facebook: “Caroling for Holot”. There: it was happening. There was only one person I was sure would come: SH of +972 Mag commenting fame. We had met each other commenting on the site and had been in touch for years, but until Thursday, had never met in person. After creating the event, I posted confident posts, though in truth, I suspected SH and I would be singing duets.
But Tsehaye taught me this, too: if you show up, somehow, it will be. And it was. Four others joined us. We had a mat to lay on the desert ground, a car full of food and gifts (hats, scarves, socks), and a packet full of Christmas lyrics; what more could we need?
One thing we were very curious about was this oxymoron: Open Prison. Israel calls it an Open Detention Center, but it’s impossible to distinguish between Ketsiot, the old prison the refugees call “The Palestinian Prison”; Saharonim, the other prison in which African refugees have been detained; and Holot, the new, “open” place, all three a part of one complex. In fact, prisoners refer to them interchangeably; I received an SMS from a prisoner, thanking us for our visit, referring to himself as “Emmanuel from Saharonim”. We were not surprised when we showed up to heavy security between ourselves and the prisoners; the gate was padlocked, the security intense, as they came out slowly, one by one.
We’d also received word that since the week before, not many prisoners remained in Holot, since the hundreds who had walked had been punished by being put back in Saharonim. So we were surprised to learn from the remaining prisoners—35 (20 Eritreans, 15 Sudanese according to Aman from Eritrea)—all who seemed to join us that day—that they prefer Saharonim to Holot. Why? First of all, it’s nicer; Saharonim has televisions in the rooms and a library. Secondly, from Saharonim, there is at least the hope of getting out. From Holot—Sands, in English—you aren’t going anywhere. Ever. I was reminded of an Eritrean refugee I’d met in the Tel Aviv shelter so many years ago, Solomon, who had told me that he’d been in a Sudanese prison for twenty years, but never had he been as depressed as he was now that he’d come to Israel. “At least then,” he’d told me, “I could dream of being free. Now, we are stuck. We can’t work. This is not a life.”
Two lawyers from Hotline for Migrant Workers who showed up to Holot at the same time as us explained it this way: “Israel calls this an ‘open center’; how can one be released from a place that is open?” Hopelessness is the strategy: if people have no hope, they might sign their own release forms to go back to their countries of origin; countries in which the human rights are so bad, it’s against international law to deport them. The fact that they’ve all been in Holot for one, two, some three years now with no chance of release and have chosen to stay should be proof enough for anyone believing the Israeli government, who had the nerve to tell even the NY Times that most Africans here are economic refugees. If Israel had a Refugee Status Determination process (for non-Jews) like every other democracy in the world, the asylum-seekers’ status could be determined objectively, by the UNHCR, but Israel has no such policy. “Really?” we asked the prisoners. “It isn’t a bit better to be in Holot, where at least you can take a walk?” But they are in the middle of the desert, not far from Nizana border crossing to Egypt, with three mandatory roll calls a day; where is there to go? There’s only one thing that makes Holot more advantageous than Saharonim, and that’s that they can come out if people visit. Until they put themselves back in the spotlight last week, no one had been visiting.
We actually had a great time, picnicking desert style, exchanging stories. They all speak Hebrew. I arrived in this country around the same time as them and although I’ve been embarrassed not to have learned more, I’ve never felt ashamed until I visited Holot. “It’s easier for us,” Amman told me. “Hebrew and Tgrinya are very similar.” He pointed to his finger: etzba; atsabe’ta. To his hand: yad; ea-d. To his leg: regel; egri. The same.” In fact, Tgrinya comes from Ge’ez, the language in which Ethiopian Torahs are scribed, in which older generations of Ethiopian Jews still pray.
Still, we had enough language between us for me to understand that their wives and children are living on the outside. “Holot is separating families, and for what?” they asked. They want to be with their children, who speak fluent Hebrew by now. They want to be learning, working. What should we bring them when we return? Toothbrushes and dictionaries.
We didn’t sing. It just didn’t feel right. When we’d seen them coming out, we’d scrambled to set up our mat, and later, once we’d all met each other, what were we going to do; suddenly break out in song? Holot is not Glee. Maybe if we’d already been caroling when they’d been coming out. Maybe when we go back for their Christmas on January 7th, we’ll greet them with these songs of love and devotion. But somehow, I doubt it. Just to show up, to connect—to make sure they know they aren’t forgotten, to keep pressure on the Israeli government to remember the values on which Israel is founded and get a refugee policy like every other developed country—this is what we can do.
When we were ready to leave, there were still two unmatched socks that we’d brought as gifts—new, thermal wool; one dark brown, one black—remaining; someone must have taken a mismatched pair by mistake. But still, they were warm, new. Really, we asked—no one wanted them? No, they said; they didn’t match. I tried to remember if my own socks matched that day. But when all of your decencies have been taken, you hold on to what you can.