The day we came out of Egypt….. LASOVA

This Pesach I was mindful of the command to “Remember this day that you came out from Egypt.” (Shemot 13:3) Of course, the concept of the seder is designed for us to tell and retell the story, and to understand it as though we were there ourselves.  All the elaborate symbols are tools to bring it to life.

However, this Pesach, the coming out of Egypt was brought to life for me in a very unexpected way. And it happened, not during the Seder, but while cleaning and dusting and purging the house of chametz. The woman who helps me clean the house, Salam, and I were together in the kitchen, unpacking all the contents of the cupboards on to the floor. I on a chair and she, reaching up and helping me unload. She was utterly bemused at these antics and I explained why we were upending the entire kitchen ….To remember the day that we came out of Egypt.

She laughed and proceeded to tell me her exodus story.

She and her husband David come from Asmara in Eritrea. Life is so difficult there that they made a decision to leave. There is no food, no jobs, no prospects. People disappear on a daily basis and live in fear of the military. She told no-one of their decision to leave for fear of reprisal. Then, one night, they tearfully hugged their then-2 year old son, Sammy, and Salam’s mother, possibly for the last time. They said goodbye and got a lift to the Sudanese border. There, they paid their way through the border and reached Khartoum. Salam managed to find a job as a cleaner in Khartoum where she stayed for a year.  After one year, she had managed to save $3000:  the price to be smuggled through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel.  Libya would have been the preferred option as it is the gateway to Europe, where better prospects for refugees exist, but they didn’t have the money, and conditions in Khartoum were too hard to stay any longer. And so they decided to go to Israel. The Promised Land.

They were taken by agents to the border of Sudan and Egypt. There they met the Rashaida, a local Bedouin tribe that smuggles refugees to Israel.  At the border, Salam discarded her burka which she had been required to wear in Sudan, and changed into comfortable clothes. She was to wear these clothes for the following month. The month that followed, she recalls, was the hardest in her life. Had she known what it would entail, she would never have left Eritrea. And Salam, by all accounts, was one of the lucky ones.

There were about 20 trucks of 20 people each. They traveled during the night so as not to be seen by Egyptian soldiers and to avoid the heat of the day. They had hardly any food, and the little water they had was shared out of a gasoline container. The Rashaida treated them brutally and guarded them with guns. Many of the men were beaten and the women raped. There are horrific accounts of refugees being chained to each other and being held hostage in the Sinai until they pay more money to the Rashaida. Human Rights organizations report that there are currently 250 Eritrean refugees, including eight women, who are currently held by the Rashaida in the Sinai. Some of Salam’s companions died along the way. But she survived.

At last the Rashaida told them they were close to Israel. Salam and David paid them the $3000 each that they had kept on their bodies over the last month.

They were told to get out of the trucks and to walk the last few miles to the border, in small groups so as not to be seen by the Egyptian border patrols. The Egyptians notoriously use refugees crossing the desert for target practice.

They waited until the next day and then a group of 12 of them walked together in the direction that they had been told. It took a whole day until they saw the fence that was the border between Israel and Egypt. When they saw it, with their last resources of energy, they charged it and cut through the barbed wire with knives, supplied by the Rashaida. Once on the other side, they saw tanks and soldiers coming towards them. Panicked, some of the men in their group ran away believing these were Egyptians. But the soldiers shouted over megaphones: “It is ok, you are safe, you are in Israel.”

Salam was in shock. Her flight out of Egypt had ended.  She ran to the Israeli soldiers who lifted them into trucks and gave them water and biscuits. They had made it to the promised land. They were safe.

At this point Salam and I had stopped unpacking the kitchen. We were both sitting on the floor and crying. “I cried when I arrived in Israel,” she told me, “from happiness.”

Of course Israel has not exactly been the land of milk and honey, and her ordeal was hardly over. But she has found safety, protection and some work, albeit quasi-legal. Salam’s son Sammy is still in Eritrea. He is 5 now, the same age as my son. She speaks to him regularly but doesn’t know when she will see him again. Since being here, she has had a baby girl, Lulia, now 8 months old. Lulia will be assured an education in Israel. This is one of the few rights that the Israeli government grants to asylum seekers. Salam is lucky in another sense. Because she is from Eritrea, she is granted automatic asylum status. There are hundreds of similar people,  (approximately 2000) sitting in prison facilities in Israel trying desperately to prove that they have fled “fear or persecution” so that they can attain asylum status– until then they are simply illegal immigrants. Even if they do prove asylum, the have very few rights – no access to health care, no legal right to work and no prospect of any kind of residency status. Currently there are said to be 40 000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Israel.

During our pesach seder this year – I was surrounded by family who had come to spend the holiday with us from South Africa. Together, we retold the story of our ancestors who were once “strangers in the land”, and together we tried to reenact coming out of Egypt. But never did I feel it as strongly, as when Salam, who had left her entire family in Eritrea to start a new life,  recounted her story to me.  Leaving Egypt and aspiring to belong in a land of peace is not just a story from our ancient past;  it is something that is happening every day.

On March 29 my friend Celia Gould, founder of “Visits and Volunteers”, a group and online resource to help co-ordinate volunteering projects in Israel, visited a project called Lasova and wrote the following:

I visited Gilad Harish, the Founder and Head of Lasova in Tel Aviv. Lasova’s activities are aimed at those in desperate need, who in the worst cases find themselves in Tel Aviv with no shelter, food or means of support. Among the very many things that Lasova does to help the needy in Israel is operating a soup kitchen, homeless shelters, 19 after-school clubs, tent shelters in Levinsky Park for African immigrants, food reclaiming (from hotels and events), providing support to impoverished Holocaust survivors and distribution of clothes around the country to institutions that need them. 

I visited a homeless shelter for women, the (beautiful) soup kitchen in a converted synagogue, an after-school club for children of immigrant workers and the tent shelter in Levinsky Park for Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants. It is hard to single out which activity moved me most or seemed the most worthwhile. It is amazing to think that each of these places was no less than five minutes from the other and there are so many problems in such a small space.

Jews are joyous on Pesach because we celebrate not only our freedom from the yolk of Pharaoh, but because of the wondrous new life that our escape brought us.  Once a people enslaved, we are now a prosperous and fulfilled nation. Modern day African refugees in Israel have completed the first step in this long and painful process, but it seems only fitting that we would now help them in the second.

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