My Shabbat at Holot, the Desert Detention Center

December 11, 2017

September and October, in Judaism and particularly in Israel, marks the holiday season. Everything slows down for Rosh Hashanah and shuts down completely for Yom Kippur ten days later; then people travel for Sukkot when the children have a break from school. We took advantage of this time and traveled up north to Haifa, where we were able to relax and adventure before returning to Tel Aviv. While in Haifa, we got a message from an activist and Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv alumni named Elliott Glassenberg. Elliott told us that he was organizing a trip to Holot the Saturday after we returned, and offered us seats on the bus.


We’d heard about Holot before. Omad, the asylum seeker from Darfur who spoke to us in the first week had spent time there after crossing the border. Holot is in the middle of the desert, close to the Egyptian border. It is called an “open” detention center, though the buses to any nearby city cost far more than the amount the asylum seekers are permitted, they get limited time away, and have to check in several times a day. Only men live at Holot, but any man not married or supporting children who is in the country without refugee status can (and currently, is required to) be sent to Holot, often for an indiscriminate amount of time. Holot is surrounded by military bases, full of tanks and shooting ranges. At night, the sound of shelling is, as you can imagine, painful for the asylum seekers, many of whom have PTSD from being shot at and seeing others shot and killed during the war in their home country or their journey to Israel. Near the military bases is a prison, where asylum seekers in Holot can be sent for various reasons. In Holot, instructions are given in Hebrew. Anyone caught teaching Hebrew to others or translating can be taken to the prison. The goal is to isolate asylum seekers, prevent them from gaining the language skills necessary to live in Israel, and, ultimately, provide them with “voluntary” deportation paperwork, in Hebrew, to have them sign without realizing.


 Without even addressing my belief that actions, and not humans, can be illegal, and that legality surrounding immigration is often inherently problematic, it’s critical to note the way Israel maintains the status quo of refugees. Though there have been virtually no instances of people crossing the border without paperwork since the building a wall across the Sinai border crossing in 2012, Israel also refuses to review refugee status applications. While Israel grants “group protection” to certain groups, such as Eritreans, they do not give them the title of refugee, because that title comes with certain rights which Israel hesitates to provide.


The policy surrounding Holot is often in flux; the supreme court of Israel frequently challenges the human rights violations associated with the detention center, while the legislative branch tries to grant Holot additional permissions. Only recently, the Supreme Court ruled the buildings needed air conditioning and heating, to make the freezing desert nights and blistering desert days survivable. The Supreme Court has also ruled Holot must expand its buildings, because currently, asylum seekers are housed in single rooms with a higher human to area ratio than has been deemed healthy. The Supreme Court has also granted Holot time to implement these changes. Holot owns a large swath of land on which they have refused thus far to build. The more uncomfortable the living situation, the easier to it is to get people to agree to be deported, and to tell their families not to come to Israel. This background has been necessary, but remains incomplete. If you want more information, check out the links below; I encourage you to read more information on the subject.


So. My Shabbat. Several of my friends and I met Elliott and others at Levinsky Park, a park in south Tel Aviv where new immigrants are frequently dumped without any information and resources. As such, it’s become a hub where immigrants can frequently find people with similar experiences, sometimes even mutual friends, and the help Israel won’t provide them. As we waited to depart, the police arrived and asked two black men to show them their paperwork. The men obliged, and the police continued walking about and asking. Moments later, we were on the bus.


We drove several hours and watched the landscape change. When we arrived, we saw the military posts and the prison, and pulled up to what looked like a dusty bus stop. There were a few picnic benches spread out, with a few benches and some shade. A dilapidated shelf held dusty books in Hebrew and English. We took over a bench and placed the food we’d brought on the table. Visitors (and food) are not allowed into Holot, unless you are a journalist with pre-approval from the government. Sounds transparent, no?


After a few moments, one of the asylum seekers travelling with us had called his friends to come out. They caught up briefly, and spoke to us all in a group. They spoke of the background I’ve provided above, and thanked us profusely for coming. They asked us to take back their story, and ask Israel for humane treatment, to ask citizens to treat them as humans even if the government would not. After speaking as a group, Elliott suggested we all begin sharing the snacks and chatting.


At first, I wasn’t sure how to insert myself into a conversation, so I turned to a man standing behind the main group, and tried to assess whether he’d want to talk. I settled for introducing myself, and we began talking. We ended up talking one on one for a bit over an hour. Before we’d even conversed, he thanked me for speaking with him. I didn’t know what to say; he told me he felt people often did not see or address his humanity, and that simply having human interaction meant something to him. As we talked, he mentioned that he loved the study of psychology, and learning how and why people behave and think in certain ways. I told him about my psychology dreams and aspirations, and he told me to follow my dream and passions. I assured him that was the plan. He told me of his love for books, and expressed shock that people can buy a book in Tel Aviv for six shekels, and decide instead to spend fifty shekels on a single drink at a club. He told me of his mother who could not read or write, and sent him to university before the Eritrean government closed all universities due to student activism. She always told him, no matter what, “keep living.” When he told her he wanted to leave Eritrea for a better life, she begged him to think of her; she couldn’t bear to live without him. When she passed away, he left. Always keep living.


I asked him what moves him forward, and told him I understood if he didn’t have an answer. He told me all he wanted was for the regime in Eritrea to end. He said his friends and family told him to find a wife and have children, so he’d feel some sense of support and love. He said he always reminded them that if he had to choose between having a family or learning, working for the rights of his people, and the chance to return home, he felt it was an easy decision. I was struck by how, in America, we expect to all be able to have it all. A family, a career, and, if we’re lucky, a passion. This man was no different from me in many ways, but he knew some joys in life were unattainable for him. It seemed, to him, a fact of life. He didn’t know when he was getting out, and pointed out the police watching us all as we talked. He said the guards never let them gather without being disrupted, and were wary of large groups. They aimed to starve the men of social support and prevent collaboration aimed at making their lives better.


I spoke with a few others and eventually we came back into the group. We chatted some more, and eventually to take a group picture by the Holot sign. Elliott told the asylum seekers not to feel obligated to join in the picture, since it can be problematic for them to be seen as activists, although they simply came to converse with us. As far as I noticed, everyone wanted to join in the picture. We took several, and then exchanged hugs, handshakes, and contact information. We asked Elliott to tell us when the next Holot trip was. We’d begun to make friendships, and come to care about several of the men as individuals. Though they thanked us, I felt lucky to be able to meet them. Too many times, people with good intentions see people like asylum seekers as “inspiration porn” rather than as humans. There is nothing desirable about their situation, and ideally, they would be able to live at home in their own country. A theme that emerged while talking is the hate they face in Israel. People insist that asylum seekers just wanted to come to a better country for opportunity. In reality, all those with whom we spoke wished they’d never left, and dream of a day when return will be safe for them. I felt lucky to be able to understand a bit better, and though I knew the history and statistics, to be able to have a human interaction with some of these men. It is important not to think, “how brave,” one of the hallmarks of inspiration porn, but rather to acknowledge the hardships and ask what the individual in front of you needs. From what I heard, the story of an asylum seeker, to them, is rooted in survival. Bravery doesn’t enter the equation, though to any of us used to comfort and safety, their actions and survival itself may appear brave.


"It’s so easy to see injustice without ever meeting the individuals affected; but humanity is such a critical part of social justice work that those who engage in advocacy must make an effort to get to know the people themselves. Learning about issues is important, but only in conjunction with getting to know the humans affected by such issues."


The day left a storm of thoughts swirling in my mind. We talked of Israel’s over preoccupation with demographics; of the percentage of Eritreans granted refugee status in the world (over 96%) and in Israel (under 1%); of the lower percentage of crime among asylum seekers compared to the general population; of Supreme Court decisions and implementation; of friends and families pulled apart by the actions of their country. But what I found myself talking about most in the following days was the man with whom I’d spoken. Donating money is great. Going to protests is wonderful. Lobbying governments for change is excellent. But I keep finding, more and more, that showing up and listening to the individuals I want to help by action is an action in itself. Selfishly, it benefits me by increasing my understanding and drive. But, from what I saw on my Shabbat at Holot, it makes a difference to the individual as well. Especially when people typically avoid them if not silencing them all together. Try it sometime. Don’t focus on what a good deed you’re doing by volunteering to feed homeless people or volunteering as a mentor to children. Focus on what the individual in front of you is sharing about their experience, either verbally or otherwise. Make your work about human understanding. Build relationships where you can, whether they last for 5 minutes, 5 months, or 5 years.

Alissa Charvonia is a participant on Tikkun Olam (Post College) program in south Tel Aviv. Alissa writes a regular blog, in this post she describes her thoughts and feelings on visiting the Holot detention center. 

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