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In Grief, Eritreans in Israel Face a Stark Reality

Mourners gathered in Tel Aviv on Wednesday to remember Haftom Zarhum, the 29-year-old Eritrean man who was mistakenly identified as a terrorist, shot, then lynched by a mob in Be’er Sheba

Rachel Delia Benaim
October 22, 2015

“He’s a man, he’s not a dog.”

So repeated Eden, an Eritrean refugee living in Tel Aviv, where hundreds of mourners like him gathered on Wednesday to remember Haftom Zarhum, the 29-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker who was recently killed in Be’er Sheba. On Sunday night, Zarhum was shot by a security guard after being “misidentified” as the Bedouin assailant who shot up the city’s central bus terminal, killing a 19-year-old IDF soldier and injuring many more.

Zarhum, it turns out, was on his way back home to the village of Ein Habesor where he worked in a plant nursery. He was in Be’er Sheba to extend his conditional release visa, which provides African refugees the right to live in Israel with restrictions.

In Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, a crowd formed a circle around dozens of boxes of Shabbat candles that would be lit throughout the night in Zarhum’s memory. Wailing and screams of anguish could be heard emanating from the center of the circle, even over the deafening airplanes that passed overhead. Salah, an Eritrean woman who fled to Tel Aviv in 2011, noted “I am here because in [Eritrea], when someone dies, especially like this, this is what we do to show respect.”

Joe (L) and Howard (R), two Eritrean refugees, hold memorial candles in memory of Zarhum in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park Wednesday evening. (Image: Rachel Delia Benaim)

Joe (L) and Howard (R), two Eritrean refugees, hold memorial candles in memory of Zarhum in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park Wednesday evening. (Image: Rachel Delia Benaim)

At twilight, three men laid down a wreath delicately made of forest green leaves and vivid orange flowers, with a green banner through the center reading “Jerusalem African Community Center,” an Israeli-African NGO that promotes the rights of African refugees in Israel.

After he was shot, Zarhum lay on the filthy bus station floor wounded, bleeding out, when a group of Israelis, including a soldier and two prison wardens, beat him, chanting “break his head” in Hebrew. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called it a lynching.

Since October 1, a wave of violence has washed over Israelis and Palestinians. Some are wondering if a third intifada is nearing. But this wasn’t Zarhum’s conflict; his was a different one that stretches many miles away to the horn of Africa, where Isaias Afwerki rules over Eritreaa country that remains in a “state of emergency” after gaining independence from Ethiopia—with an iron fist. The U.N. estimates that 400,000 Eritreans, or 9% of the country’s total population, have fled, according to The Wall Street Journal. Eritreans began pouring into Israel through the Egyptian border in 2007 because of the unbearable situation. They fled poverty and forced military service for the regime.

Howard, 30, arrived in Israel seven and a half years ago. “In 2007 I came,” he said in Hebrew, shaking his head. “In Eritrea, we have problems, and we think in Israel it will be different. But here we have new problems: we are not free.”

“We come here and try to just work and be,” said Effy, another refugee. “We learn the language, but they treat us like the worst,” he said. If Israel is going to do [what they did to Zarhum], and treat Eritreans like garbage, he wondered: “Why do they take us? Send us to another country! Lock us out!”

An Israeli man, Uri Shmilovich, holds up a sign that reads “Enough with the racism!” (Image: Courtesy of the author)

An Israeli man, Uri Shmilovich, holds up a sign that reads “Enough with the racism!” (Image: Courtesy of the author)

Israel has tried. In 2012, it erected a border fence with Egypt specifically to block African migrants from entering. But even though new refugees are hindered from entering the country via Egypt, the most viable path, Israel must manage the estimated 45,000 African refugees already inside. Official Israeli sources, however, refer to them exclusively as “African migrants” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even gone so far as to call them infiltrators.

In 2013, Israel began detaining thousands of migrants in Holot, a detention center for African asylum seekers next to a prison on the Egyptian border. “It is the most disgusting place,” said Effy, now 29, who spent two years there. Holot has come under scrutiny regarding due process and its apparent carte blance power to detain Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

It is unrealistic for Eritreans to expect to leave Israel any time soon. They have nowhere else to go, and no means by which to even get there. And not all of them want to, either. “It doesn’t matter if the color of our skin is different, we are people like Israelis are people and Palestinians are people,” Eden said. Though there is systemic racism, he is hoping a modernized country like Israel will combat it. At the end of the day, “We want to live here in peace, in peace with everyone,” he said.

The Israelis at the memorial—few and far between—agreed. Dror Mizrachi, a native Tel Avivian, insisted adamantly, “We need to change our ways.”

Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.

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