Why I’m Inviting an Asylum Seeker to My Seder

March, 22 2018
Image: Usumain Baraka on the evening when he spoke with the author.


At every Passover seder of my childhood, my father Gershon Glausiusz would break the middle matzah, as the Haggadah instructed, place one half in an embroidered bag, and fling the bag over his shoulder, saying, “This is how we carried our possessions when we went into exile.” He was talking of his own deportation, with his mother and four brothers, from his home town of Szarvas in Hungary in June 1944. He was nine years old and beginning a journey that would end in Bergen-Belsen on December 6, 1944—the day before his tenth birthday.

In March 2000 I visited Szarvas with my brother Yehudah, and snapped a photo of Vasut utca, or Railway Street, through which my father and his family were marched to the railway station. They were surrounded by gun-toting local Hungarian police, who, my father recalls, were shouting, shooting and threatening the Jews of Szarvas and neighboring villages.

I thought of my father’s terrible exile several weeks ago, as I listened to the story of an asylum seeker who had, at the age of nine, fled genocide in Darfur and made his way to Israel. Speaking in rapid Hebrew to an audience in my town of Modiin, Usumain Baraka described a “day of catastrophe” in 2003, when the Janjaweed—the Sudanese militia responsible for the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese civilians—descended upon his village in Darfur. They slaughtered the men and the boys, including Baraka’s father and brother, and raped the women. He survived when his mother dressed him in his sister’s clothes to save him. Together with his mother, two sisters and a brother, they fled to a refugee camp in Chad. In 2007, he left the refugee camp and undertook a perilous journey through Libya and Egypt, where he heard that the government was sending Sudanese migrants back to Khartoum.

“I heard the story of the children of Israel, how they wandered in the desert for 40 years. I heard that the Jews now have their own state. We were also in the diaspora, and I really identified with that story,” he told us. In 2008, when he was 14, Baraka paid a Bedouin smuggler to guide him across the Sinai desert into Israel; when he crossed the border into Israel, he was shoeless. The Israeli soldier who intercepted Baraka gave him his own shoes and socks.

How should we, in telling of the Exodus on Passover, relate the story of someone who literally left Egypt, crossed the desert, and came to Israel seeking asylum? As the Haggadah says, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Just as it says, ‘You shall tell your child on that very day: It’s because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt.’”

My father has fulfilled this obligation and many times over: He has told his children of his liberation from the Nazis on April 23, 1945, when soldiers of the Red Army removed the locks from the wagons of the “Lost Train,” on which my father, his mother and surviving brothers were being transported from Belsen. (His baby brother, 21 months old, had died of starvation in the concentration camp.) In listening to his memories and writing them down, I feel my own obligation to share his experience, so that his suffering shall not be forgotten. But I also have another, overriding feeling: that the lessons of history are worthless if we ourselves do not extend the hand of friendship and protection to those in danger and in need of our protection, as the Torah commands us to do: “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know the soul of a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.”

In Israel today, there are some 38,000 African asylum seekers, plus another 4000 children. About 72 percent of them are from Eritrea, a totalitarian country with an “abysmal” human rights record and indefinite, compulsory army conscription, according to Human Rights Watch. Another 20 percent are from the Darfur region of Sudan, where government forces have attacked, killed and raped civilians and looted and destroyed their property. About 8 percent are from other African states including Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

When I first read in mid-December of the Israeli government’s vote to expel some Eritrean and Darfurian asylum seekers, I felt not just a splintering rage and despair at this move but an overwhelming urge to speak up and write about it. In that mid-December vote, 71 members of the Israeli Knesset approved a bill ordering the expulsion of African asylum seekers; if they refuse to leave willingly, they will face indefinite imprisonment.

As a party to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection. Israel is required to grant refuge to anyone who is unable to return to his or her country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” But of the 15,400 asylum claims submitted by African asylum seekers to the Population Authority in Israel, only eleven have been approved for refugee status. Under the Refugee Convention, Israel cannot return Eritrean or Sudanese asylum seekers to their home countries where their lives are in danger (a principle known as non-refoulement.) Instead, they are to be sent “voluntarily” to either Rwanda or Uganda. Both Rwanda and Uganda deny that they have a pact with Israel to accept expelled asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, in early February, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority began issuing deportation notices to Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, “telling them that they would be sent to an unnamed African country that enjoys a relatively “stable government.” Seven Eritreans have already been imprisoned in Saharonim after refusing to leave the country.

I have no doubt that my father’s history impels me to speak up about the plight of asylum seekers in Israel. But I am not comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. I know from my own experience of interviewing asylum seekers at The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv that many are grateful for the welcome that some Israelis have offered them. As the members of the Darfurian rap group Dream Boys told Haaretz, “We thank Israel that we are alive.” Usumain Baraka described how he himself was enrolled as a pupil at Yemin Orde Youth Village and that, as a student there, he had laid tefillin, worn a kippah and learned Torah.

I am deeply disturbed by the constant denigration of asylum seekers in Israel as “infiltrators,” criminals, “draft dodgers.” As a January 25, 2018 statement by Yad Vashem noted, the issue of asylum seekers in Israel requires “compassion, empathy and mercy.” The statement stressed that “Israeli authorities must make every effort to ensure that no person that has arrived in Israel and whose life is in danger, shall remain without refugee status.” In order to gain this refugee status, an asylum seeker must file a refugee status determination application form. For several Sundays past I have joined a group of volunteers helping Eritrean asylum seekers in the neighboring town of Lod to complete this eight-page form. One man told me that his wife and eight-year-old daughter had drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Italy from Libya. Another described how Bedouin smugglers had held him captive in the Sinai desert, beating and burning him until friends raised money to ransom him.

On Passover, I want to teach my children this lesson of compassion, empathy and mercy for asylum seekers. That’s why I, along with other residents of Modiin, plan to invite asylum seeker families from the neighboring town to come and join us for a symbolic seder, so that they can share their stories with us and with our children too. In this way I hope to fulfill my own mitzvah to “tell your child,” as Exodus 13:8 commands.

To quote Primo Levi’s poem, “Passover”:

Each of us has been a slave in Egypt,
Soaked straw and clay with sweat,
And crossed the sea dry-footed.
You too, stranger.

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