How theatre helped African asylum seekers explain their plight to Israelis
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In Israel, African asylum seekers are used to having their fate hotly debated in the media and by politicians, some of whom accuse them of coming to steal jobs. But with the help of Israeli actors, a group of asylum seekers have been able to tell their own stories, in their own words, on the theatre stage – and show Israeli audiences the difficulties they face.
While Israel has signed the UN Refugee Convention, it is almost impossible for the approximately 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to get refugee status. Over the past nine years, Israel has approved only 0.09 percent of all asylum requests. The rest live in a legal limbo. They are granted temporary visas that they must frequently renew, or they risk being sent to prison. These visas clearly state that they are not allowed to work in Israel, but the authorities do not enforce this. Most work low-paid jobs in restaurant kitchens or hotel cleaning.
>>READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Israel denies African migrants the chance to apply for asylum
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has tried different tactics to get them to leave the country. First, starting in 2013, it instated a secretive and controversial “voluntary departure” program that left asylum seekers stranded in Rwanda and Uganda with no protection, contrary to promises they had received. Then, in January 2018, it announced asylum seekers might forcibly deported, but abandoned that plan after failing to find a country willing to take them in. Most recently, on April 2, it reached an agreement with the United Nations that would have seen a large portion of the asylum seekers resettled in the West, and regularize the status of those remaining in Israel. However, faced with criticism from his base, Netanyahu reneged on the deal hours after it was announced.
This is just the short version of the long, complicated story of African asylum seekers’ journey in Israel, which the actors of the Holot Theatre troupe – who are Eritrean and Sudanese, but also Israeli – try to convey in just under an hour.
The project started in 2014, at the Holot detention centre, in the middle of the Negev desert, when Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi and Chen Alon drove out to Holot, hoping to start a theatre project. The detention centre was closed down in March 2018, but back then, thousands of asylum seekers were detained there. They were locked in at night, but allowed to roam the desert during the daytime, with check-ins several times a day.
A recent rehearsal in which Holot Theatre actors portray guards and detainees at the (now-closed) Holot detention facility.
“We often switched between roles: the African actors played Israeli roles, and the Israeli actors played asylum seekers”
Noureldin Musa, 41, from Darfur, Sudan, is an actor with the Holot Theatre troupe. In 2014, he was among those detained in Holot. He explains:
At first, it wasn’t easy: Avi Mograbi, Chen Alon and a few Israeli actors drove out once a week, but sometimes the Israelis were more numerous than we were. When you’re in prison and you don’t know when you’ll get out, sometimes you don’t want to see anybody, sometimes you just want to say ‘leave me alone’. But they were committed, and they kept coming, every week. That was very touching for me. Meeting such good people opened our minds to Israeli society – and they became very dear friends.
In rehearsals, we started acting parts of our personal stories: about fleeing from Darfur, or from Eritrea, and crossing the Sinai desert. About the difficulty of getting a temporary visa, and of finding work. About how we weren’t allowed to work in certain cities or move around the country freely. About how they randomly sent us to Holot. We also performed parts of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Avi filmed all our rehearsals. [Editor’s Note: He made a documentary featuring the theatre group, “Between Fences”, which came out in 2016.]
During a recent English-language performance, the Holot Theatre troupe broaches the topic of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory.
We often switched between roles: the African actors played Israeli roles, for example bosses or officials from the immigration authority, and the Israeli actors played asylum seekers. It was really interesting to try to put ourselves in the shoes of Israelis who had only heard negative things about us in the media.
“The theatre gave us a few hours of freedom”
When you don’t have anything to do, when there’s no hope on the horizon, you lose your creative abilities. But with the theatre group, we became creative again. We stopped being so depressed, because we would think ahead to the next meeting, and talk about what we would create. The theatre gave us a few hours of freedom. It changed our mental health and our physical health.
We preformed our first play just outside of Holot, in 2015. That year, I was released; soon after, several other African actors were released as well. We soon had two theatre groups: one in Holot, and one in Tel Aviv. This year, after everyone was released, we merged together. Since the start of the project, we’ve performed dozens of shows; thousands of Israelis have heard our story. [Editor’s Note: These performances have been held in theatres, at schools, at universities, in kibbutzes, and even on the street during protests]. It’s a story that’s evolved over time: recently, we added new parts about how Israel wanted to forcibly deport African asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, but eventually had to cancel the deportations.
A scene from the play that mentions many of the problems asylum seekers have faced, including the Holot dentention centre, the term "infiltrators" used by politicians to describe them, and the "voluntary departure" scheme that sent asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda.
What is important for me to show through the play is that we did not come here to take Israelis’ jobs. We had problems in our countries and we came here looking for safety. We miss our families, and we love our countries – if I could, I would go back right this minute. I never got to say goodbye to my mother, when I had to flee nearly 20 years ago, and this kills me every day.
“It’s changed Israeli society’s understanding of our situation, and created greater acceptance”
In our performances, there’s a part at the end where the audience participates. We ask them if they want to act out what they might have done differently in one of the situations we’ve just performed. They often come up with good ideas, for example, by giving great arguments to convince their boss to give them [acting as asylum seekers] one day off work, or to the interior ministry to give them a visa. But these are rarely ideas that could really work for us in reality: they have mastery of Hebrew, they know the law in Israel, and they’re not afraid of ending up on the streets. We don’t have the same power.
I believe that the change that has happened recently in Israeli society – the solidarity we saw when thousands of people went out on the streets to protest our forced deportation – was in part because of our theatre. It’s changed Israeli society’s understanding of our situation, and created greater acceptance.
Musa will soon be moving to Canada, where he’s been granted permanent residence. He’ll be joining his wife, who is Canadian-Sudanese, and their young daughter. He hopes to one day invite the Holot Theatre to Canada for a performance.
The three videos below show a scene inspired by Noureldin Musa's real life in Israel, from his difficulties obtaining a temporary visa to his success as a pastry chef - a job that was cut short when he was sent to the Holot detention centre. Most of Holot Theatre's performances are in Hebrew, but this recent one was in English.
All videos by Doron Lev.
Article by Gaelle Faure.