For stressed African migrants in Israel, collective farms offer a refuge

Dina Kraft
Ada Gross (l.), the kibbutz volunteer coordinating the resettlement effort of refugees on Kibbutz Maagan Michael, with Yael Eisner, who has 'adopted' one of the families, outside Eisner's home on the kibbutz, Tuesday, July 10, 2018.

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Early this year, Israel announced plans to expel thousands of African asylum-seekers. Under fire, the government put the plan on hold, but kibbutz members, outraged, decided to launch a program to host refugee families in their collective communities. The program offers the refugees housing, health care, education, and “adoptive families” for support. “The expulsion order woke up people in a way that is hard to describe,” says Avi Ofer, a kibbutznik who is overseeing the effort. Rowha Dabrazion, an Eritrean asylum-seeker, crossed the Sinai Desert, partially on foot, to get to Israel seven years ago. A month ago her husband left her and her two daughters, leaving her with no income. But after a week on the lush grounds of Kibbutz Maagan Michael, she's beginning to feel relieved and that she is no longer one step away from homelessness. “I feel better, like I can breathe,” she says. In Tel Aviv, her older daughter was constantly worrying about her. “She now says, ‘Mommy, we have a grandma and grandpa now. We go to the pool here; we go to the sea. You can laugh here.’ ”

Why We Wrote This

A government plan to expel thousands of African refugees elicited an emotional response from many Israeli Jews – and the idea that kibbutz members could host at-risk families.

Under a canopy of jacaranda and eucalyptus trees, Rowha Dabrazion, an Eritrean asylum seeker, pushes her one-year-old daughter in a crib on wheels, a fixture of kibbutz life. Her five-year-old flashes a triumphant smile, enjoying her perch on the back of a kibbutz member’s bicycle.

It’s been a week since she arrived here to this lush cooperative community along the shores of the Mediterranean, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. And the relief is beginning to set in that she is no longer one step away from homelessness.

Just one month ago her husband left her and the children. She had quit her job cleaning to care for her baby daughter, and she found herself with no income and no idea where the money would come from to cover rent and expenses.

Why We Wrote This

A government plan to expel thousands of African refugees elicited an emotional response from many Israeli Jews – and the idea that kibbutz members could host at-risk families.

Then Ms. Dabrazion got word that a kibbutz would take in her and her children as part of a new program in which kibbutzim across Israel are volunteering to take in the highest risk cases of refugee families. Most such families are headed by single mothers struggling with dire poverty in Tel Aviv, where the majority of asylum seekers live. The program offers them housing, health care, education for their children, and “adoptive families” for social support.

“I feel better, like I can breathe. Every day my mind would race and wonder what would be,” she says, sitting in the living room of Yael Eisner, a kibbutz member who, along with her husband, volunteered to host, or “adopt” Dabrazion and her children.

While Dabrazion talks about her life as an asylum seeker in Israel – she crossed the Sinai Desert, partially on foot, to get here seven years ago – her younger daughter fidgets in her lap. “Come to savta,” (Hebrew for grandmother), Ms. Eisner says, sweeping the little girl into her arms. As Rowha continues, recounting some of the harrowing moments in Eritrea that led her to seek asylum in Israel, Eisner takes the girls to visit the kibbutz cowshed.

Outrage at official policy

So far twelve asylum-seeking families have been placed on kibbutzim, and the goal is that 100 families will be hosted by the end of the year. The grassroots initiative was undertaken by individual members within the national kibbutz movement. They were first mobilized to help refugees in Israel early this year, outraged by government plans for a mass expulsion of asylum seekers, whom officials referred to as “infiltrators.”

The plan was to deport the asylum seekers, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, to third-party countries in Africa. Those expulsion plans were at least temporarily thwarted, but the fate and legal status of the asylum seekers, who number some 38,000, remains uncertain. A decision was made by some kibbutzim to host families temporarily, for 12 to 18 months, in hopes of providing them and their children with stability and support during a desperate time in their lives.

Dina Kraft
Rowha Dabrazion, right, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, walks along a path with her children on Kibbutz Maagan Michael on July 10, 2018, with Ada Gross, who is helping settle the family in this communal village.

“Even though the refugees have been here for as long as 12 years, the expulsion order woke up people in a way that is hard to describe,” says Avi Ofer, a member of nearby Kibbutz Maanit who is overseeing the effort. “I’m more proud to be Israeli now. There are people who really are there to help.”

“The plan is to help first those considered high-risk emotionally and economically,” Mr. Ofer says. “There are those who have resorted to prostitution or feel so on the brink of despair that they would take the government offer (a one-time payment of $3,500) to go to Rwanda,” a country Israel has encouraged asylum seekers to go to. Testimonies of migrants who have gone, however, warn of bleak consequences – of being robbed of the payments and even of human trafficking and death as the migrants continue on toward Europe.

The kibbutzim, originally founded as socialist agricultural collective communities in the days preceding Israeli statehood, have a tradition of taking in people in distress, beginning with Jewish children orphaned during the Holocaust. Ofer’s own mother was one of them. In more recent years, kibbutzim have temporarily taken in refugees from Kosovo and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

‘I too could have been a refugee’

Although the kibbutzim themselves are initially covering the cost of hosting the families, to make the effort sustainable they are seeking sponsors.

The Consortium for Israel and the Asylum Seekers, an umbrella group of activists working on behalf of the asylum seekers has launched what they are calling the Kibbutz Resettlement sponsorship initiative to support the work of the kibbutz movement.

Eisner, a nurse, recently volunteered at an Israeli medical clinic in Serbia at a refugee camp for those fleeing Syria and Iraq.

“That is where the story of refugees came into my heart. It was there I understood I too could have been a refugee. That they are like me with homes, careers, and communities, but they lost everything,” she says.

“All of us need to do something to help. And I have everything I need in life, a family, money, a kibbutz, a normal country even if I don’t like the government,” she adds as her one-year-old “adopted” granddaughter naps next to her. “So how can I be quiet and do nothing? And when the story of [the proposed] expulsion began, I thought, how can we as Jews do this?”

‘You can laugh here’

Dabrazion enters her one-room apartment with her daughters. She had just stopped at the sprawling communal dining room with its views of the sea and multiple food stations offering fresh salad fixings, watermelon slices, hot meals, and once a week even sushi. 

In her tiny kitchen, a cooking pan overwhelms a corner of the counter used to make traditional injera bread.

“On the way to the kibbutz, I was fearful, wondering ‘where am I going?’ but when I arrived and saw how I was welcomed by people with all their hearts, I saw that things are good for us here,” she says.

She says in Tel Aviv she was concerned about the role-reversal she saw in her older daughter, who was constantly tending to and worrying about her.

“She now says, ‘Mommy, we have a grandma and grandpa now. We go to the pool here, we go to the sea. You can laugh here.’ ”

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