A personal perspective by Helen Hemley

From Left to Right: Avital Banai, R., Gila Oshrat, Sharon Harel |

Sitting in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at the Women’s International Zionist Organization’s (WIZO) annual convention and listening to R. tell her story about leaving Eritrea and finding asylum in Israel, I felt as though I was hearing someone speak in a different language. This was strange because R. was the only person at the convention giving her speech in English, and my Hebrew is juvenile at best. I could, of course, understand what she was saying. However, her experiences were just so outside of anything I had experienced.

My internship placement, Brit Olam, was invited to speak at the convention about the Hagar and Miriam program in order to inform WIZO’s members and volunteers about the plight of refugees in Israel. Throughout most of the speeches I spent my time writing down the facts that my supervisor was translating for me. Sharon Harel, UNHCR’s assistant protection officer, informed the crowd on laws in home countries against entering Israel where, if asylum seekers are deported, they may face up to 10 years in prison, as well as how military draft begins at age 17 and can last for 20 years. The manager of Hagar and Miriam, Avital Banai, talked about asylum seekers having no clear legal status in Israel and being denied medical care. The list of issues continued to pile up and it was a challenge for me to process all of the information.

When R. told her story, all of the pieces came together into a coherent picture. She explained what it is like being a young Eritrean woman deciding to leave her home and the rational behind it: In order to escape military service, women are typically forced into marriage from age 15 to 17. Some of the ones who escape these two confining futures come to Israel. “In Sinai they say you’re going to Israel, but they sell you to different places,” she stated. She described how young women come to Levinsky Park (in Tel Aviv) looking for domestic work, and often leave with men that they don’t know who offer them jobs.

The objective of the Hagar and Miriam program is to empower young pregnant women and it does so in a variety of ways: providing support during their pregnancies and first months after they give birth, offering sexual education courses and supplying information that will equip the women to become self-reliant and therefor enable them to navigate their lives and the lives of their children in their new country.

There are many daunting facts and issues concerning the status of refugees in Israel.  I am continuing to absorb and learn as much as I can to become an agent of change in this world. When we put a face to a fact or relate a story to our own life we can have the desire to do more than let the information run through us.  We can begin to process the stories and to learn to give people the help that they are searching for.

** Helen Henley is interning with Brit Olam in the framework of the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students).