L. left her home in Ethiopia more than a decade ago, when she was still a teenager, hoping to find work in neighboring Sudan. But instead she was kidnapped, taken into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula by human traffickers, and finally apprehended by Israeli officials on the border with Egypt.
“I am still haunted in my head from this whole ordeal, everything that happened in the Sinai,” she told me, declining to give more details.
After being released from detention, she went to work cleaning houses in Tel Aviv, where she later had a daughter. With her daughter’s father out of the picture, she struggled to make enough to pay rent in their cramped and rundown quarters in south Tel Aviv, where many of the approximately 36,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel live. Her daughter cried when she left her each day in an overcrowded day care center so she could work as a cleaner.
So she jumped at the opportunity to learn about moving to a kibbutz, which she found out about from a friend of a friend. After visiting Kibbutz Gezer for the first time this past summer, her daughter kept asking when they were going back, back to the place with the big green lawns dotted with houses, and friendly people eager to play with her.
In August, L.—who asked that she not be identified by her full name due to her ongoing unclear legal status in Israel—moved with her daughter to Gezer, under a Kibbutz Movement program to give asylum-seekers and their families better living conditions. They moved into one of the kibbutz’s small houses, along with another single mother who was also kidnapped in Sudan and trafficked to the Sinai. Their children joined the other children of Gezer in the local kindergarten.
“I feel like everyone is my family here,” said L., now 28. She sat on a couch on the porch of her new home while her 5-year-old daughter ran on the surrounding lawn. “It is also so good for my daughter here. She is finally happy.”
The people of Kibbutz Gezer have had to start over many times.
The first version of the kibbutz was founded in 1945 by European immigrants who had fled the Holocaust. A few years later, dozens of kibbutz members were killed and the property largely destroyed in Israel’s War of Independence. They rebuilt, but by the 1960s the kibbutz collapsed due to social difficulties. It was founded again in 1974 by a group of Americans from the Habonim youth movement. Then financial stress forced Gezer, like many Israeli kibbutzim, to end its communal economic system in the 2000s, and to finally reemerge as a privatized kibbutz, where everyone makes—and keeps—their own salary.
Now back on its feet, Gezer is helping other people start over.
Gezer is one of about a dozen kibbutzim that have taken in African asylum-seekers, most of whom ended up in Israel after fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution in places like Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The Kibbutz Movement, an organization representing about 230 kibbutzim and overseeing their relations with the government, aims to place 100 families of asylum-seekers on kibbutzim by the end of the year, helping them leave crowded, impoverished, and unsanitary living conditions in Tel Aviv. While kibbutzim have helped many Jews build or rebuild their lives in Israel, from children orphaned by the Holocaust to new immigrants, this program—focused on non-Jewish refugees—is also a chance to express Jewish values.
“It’s the right thing to do, to welcome the stranger in our midst,” said Julie Fisher, wife of former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, who recently founded the Consortium for Israel and the Asylum-Seekers and is also involved in the project. While the flow of these migrants has largely stopped since Israel completed a fence along its border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 2013, about 36,000 people in Israel remain without any legal status or social rights as the government debates how to handle them; the issue has become a politically controversial and heavily debated topic. While Israel grants citizenship to those who qualify under the Jewish Law of Return, as well as to others who have close relatives living here, the system for granting asylum or refugee status, “is not functioning,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy director at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli nongovernmental organization advocating for the legal rights of foreigners here.
The idea for the kibbutz project developed last spring, when an Israeli government plan to deport thousands of single male asylum-seekers sparked public outcry (as well as some vocal support) across the country. Although that deportation plan was eventually canceled, the future of the asylum-seekers is still uncertain.
“We can’t just stand here and do nothing,” said Avi Ofer, head of the Kibbutz Movement. “And who is in a better position to help than kibbutzim? We are all over the country and many of us still have socialist values and extra space.”
Ofer also sees the project as a chance for kibbutzim—which played a key role in founding and developing the country—to once again make an impact on Israeli society, something they have not really done in a significant way in more than two decades, following their financial downfall and loss of population in the 1990s.
“After years of turning inward, concentrating on their own problems, now the thought of the kibbutz movement leaders is that it’s time to come back to social missions,” said Shlomo Getz, head of the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz at the University of Haifa. The project to take in asylum-seekers is only one of many small social initiatives, including educational programs, that kibbutzim are involved in, Getz said. But given that kibbutzim now constitute less than 2 percent of Israel’s population, he said the Kibbutz Movement is still far from the outsize influence it had on society and politics in the early years of the state.
“It’s not something that will change the state like before,” Getz said.
But the project is changing lives, for both asylum-seekers and kibbutz members.
In addition to providing living space at no or low cost, the kibbutzim arrange education for the children and help the adults find work and improve their Hebrew. A team of social workers and psychologists is also involved.
“It’s a complicated process and it takes time, and not everyone wants our help,” Ofer said.
L. was one of the asylum-seekers who desperately wanted help. Z., the woman she shares a house with on the kibbutz—a single mother of a 5-year-old son—was another. The two women have known each other since they met in an Israeli detention center near the border with Egypt nearly a decade ago.
“We don’t lack anything here,” said Z., as she joined L. on the porch on a recent evening. “It’s like the Garden of Eden here.” Both women still work cleaning houses, but say their children are happier in the kibbutz kindergarten, which is just next door to the house.
“My daughter runs there every day,” L. said.
Her daughter has also come to love Lia Livney, a 28-year-old who grew up on the kibbutz and spends about an hour each day visiting the women and their children, making sure they have everything they need. That means everything from helping them schedule medical appointments for the children to driving them to the bus stop outside the kibbutz so they can catch the bus to attend Sunday services at an Ethiopian church in Jerusalem, about 25 miles away.
“I’m like a sister, a friend for them,” Lia said. “I do it because it’s important, they haven’t had an easy life, so it’s the right thing to do to help them.”
Lia’s aunt, Varda Livney, a member of the kibbutz’s social action committee, said the kibbutz really values the help it can give.
“It may be a drop in the bucket,” Varda said. “But it’s our drop in the bucket. It is really making lives better.”
After the kibbutz lost many features of communal life, like the dining hall, in the privatization process, this project has also helped foster a renewed sense of community.
“People have really come out of the woodwork to help,” Varda said.
But it also isn’t easy for the kibbutz. For now they have committed to hosting the two women and children for a year, but will need more financial donations to let them stay longer.
“We are a relatively poor kibbutz,” Varda said, with the only communal income stemming from a small herd of dairy cows, olive trees, educational programs, and renting out its baseball field, one of only a handful in the country.
And things are still very uncertain for the women. They said they hope to eventually get better jobs and to stay at Gezer forever. For both of them, going back to Ethiopia is impossible now because their children are thoroughly Israeli, they said. But L. admitted she has no idea what will happen when their year on Gezer is up—or after that.
“I don’t know what will be in the future with my life,” L. said. “But it’s also not about my life anymore, it’s about my daughter and what’s best for her. It doesn’t really matter how I feel.”
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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.