Come and Kuchi­nate with me

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - PAMELA PELED For more de­tails: www.kuchi­ The writer lec­tures at Beit Berl Col­lege and the In­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary Cen­ter Her­zliya. peled­

Over 400 years ago, when Shake­speare wrote his “Jewish” play, no­body in Eng­land had ac­tu­ally seen a Jew. They had all been kicked out, or mur­dered, by Ed­ward I, in 1290, 300 years be­fore The Merchant of Venice hit the Globe The­ater. Yet El­iz­a­bethans still loathed Jews with a pas­sion. While I was dis­cussing this with my stu­dents some years ago, one raised her hand. She re­lated a crazy story: In the 1970s she was a young fresh­man at a pro­vin­cial univer­sity in Eng­land. Each night a dif­fer­ent boy asked her out for a drink; each boy sub­se­quently leaned across the pub ta­ble and stroked her hair. Even­tu­ally, one of the dates ex­plained. The stu­dents had heard that she was Jewish; the cam­pus chal­lenge was who would find her horns first.

As Jews, we know a bit about prej­u­dice and xeno­pho­bia; as Is­raelis, the is­sue of our own black refugees cuts very close to home. Are they bring­ing crime and chaos to our coun­try’s streets, and should we chuck them out forth­with? Or do we es­pe­cially have the mo­ral im­per­a­tive to re­mem­ber the stranger within our midst?

For those of us who grew up un­der apartheid, the dis­cus­sion is even more fraught. Im­ages of poverty and pri­va­tion are etched indelibly in our cere­bral cor­tex, com­pli­cat­ing the ar­gu­ments rag­ing in Tel Aviv to­day. Half a cen­tury down the line, I vividly re­mem­ber throw­ing cooked chick­ens and day­old cheese sand­wiches out of our train win­dow, en route to Habonim camp. Our moth­ers (and maids) had piled food for weeks into ham­pers for the trip; af­ter the first meal, we ate in the din­ing car. So we doled out the left­overs to crowds of hun­gry pick­anin­nies on the plat­forms of dusty Ka­roo towns, their teeth flash­ing whitely at the un­ex­pected bounty.

IT TOOK just one step into a drab south Tel Aviv street to cat­a­pult me back into the aw­ful mixed feel­ings that Africa elic­its. So beau­ti­ful, so ma­jes­tic, so calm and so sad. And now Africa has come to Is­rael, with ap­prox­i­mately 40,000 refugees still here. And among the weak­est and most vul­ner­a­ble of them are the 12,200 Eritrean women, many of them sin­gle moth­ers. Some of these women are ill, some have sick chil­dren; many of them are des­ti­tute and lonely, and lost.

But, as Maria told Cap­tain Von Trapp: When God closes a win­dow, He opens a door. En­ter Diddy Mymin Kahn, surely God’s door in a di­lap­i­dated ten­e­ment build­ing on the ap­pro­pri­ately named Mount Zion Av­enue. Buzzed in through an iron gate, one climbs up through an un­pre­pos­sess­ing stair­well to en­ter Kahn’s king­dom of cro­chet­ing heaven. And I don’t say that lightly.

Kuchi­nate, “cro­chet­ing” in Ti­grinya, the lan­guage of Eritrea, is a col­lec­tive of African asy­lum-seek­ing women who crochet col­or­ful bas­kets and car­pets in a stu­dio puls­ing with chil­dren and hot food and vol­un­teers and nuns. The work­ers, es­cap­ing their drab and lonely liv­ing quar­ters for some heal­ing hours of com­mu­nity and pro­duc­tive la­bor, earn a ba­sic salary. Ex­tra cash comes from the sale of the prod­ucts, tra­di­tional cof­fee cer­e­monies, and workshops for the pub­lic.

Beau­ti­ful Kahn, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and an elec­tri­fy­ing 53-year-old mother of three, was born in Is­rael, grew up in South Africa and lived for years in Lon­don. In 2009, back in Is­rael, she tried to give ther­apy in a shel­ter funded by the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner Project for refugees, run by the African Refugee De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter.

“I was work­ing in a pi­lot project to of­fer as­sis­tance to women who sur­vived tor­ture camps in the Si­nai; women who had been raped and tor­tured,” re­calls Kahn. “They had no idea how to re­act to ther­apy; there was not even a word in their lexicon for ther­apy. It was cul­tur­ally alien for them to talk about neg­a­tive events in their past to a stranger.” A sur­vivor of a tor­ture camp in Si­nai ex­plained: “Think­ing and think­ing – you can spoil your mind.” What they needed, Kahn un­der­stood, was food for that day, a job, some­where for their kids to sleep.

It was at this point that Kahn met Sis­ter Az­iza Ki­dane, an Eritrean nun and nurse, and Natasha Miller Good­man, a South African im­mi­grant artist, who were both in­volved in the shel­ter. In 2011 they started Kuchi­nate, a non­profit, with five women on their books. To­day over 200 women weave and crochet and chat and heal in the cen­ter, 70 of whom take home a reg­u­lar pay­check.

Just imag­ine han­dling heart dis­ease and can­cer, or kids with dis­abil­i­ties, on top of hunger and fear of what to­mor­row holds. Then sud­denly you find your­self in a se­cure space, cro­chet­ing with re­spected artists such as Gil Yef­man (a cro­chet­ing man!), pro­duc­ing vivid life-size bas­kets, con­tain­ing the col­lec­tive sto­ries of the refugees, and be­ing ex­hib­ited in the Haifa Mu­seum of Art and the Feld­man Gallery in New York City. It sounds too fan­tas­ti­cal to be real. Visit the “Women and Geno­cide” ex­hi­bi­tion and see for your­self how dreams can come true.

Not that sur­viv­ing geno­cide is re­motely dreamy. The en­su­ing trauma is enough to gut any­one for a life­time, but the prob­lems of refugees never seem to end and must ap­pear to­tally in­sur­mount­able to vul­ner­a­ble sur­vivor women who land up in Tel Aviv. Their sta­tus is un­cer­tain and, ac­cord­ing to Kahn, even the few ben­e­fits doled out come with night­mar­ish bu­reau­cracy.

The best so­lu­tion, and the one most refugees pray for, is to be re­set­tled in a friendly coun­try such as the US or Swe­den or Canada. Kahn works with the UNHCR to get her women re­set­tled; so far, dozens have found new homes.

In the mean­time Kuchi­nate pro­vides bi­cul­tural ther­apy to help deal with trauma – a “good­ness of fit be­tween what they need and what we can of­fer,” ex­plains Kahn. And a net­work of ma­hazut – Is­raeli “friends” who ferry moth­ers to hos­pi­tals to visit sick chil­dren, or help with English or le­gal prob­lems – pro­vides some much needed sup­port.

In a stark jux­ta­po­si­tion, Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher Miriam Al­ster fol­lowed the Kuchi­nate women for three months and ex­hib­ited her pho­tos along­side those of fa­mous Swedish pho­tog­ra­pher Anna Rivkin of Jewish refugees work­ing in a toy fac­tory in Swe­den dur­ing World War II.

Is­rael can­not, of course, cater to all the refugees of Africa. And gov­ern­ment poli­cies have ef­fi­ciently en­sured that no more are en­ter­ing our coun­try. Yet it be­hooves us to con­sider our own past while we con­sider what to do with those drift­ing souls who have al­ready made it to our shores. Don’t you think?

It took just one step into a drab south Tel Aviv street to cat­a­pult me back into the aw­ful mixed feel­ings that Africa elic­its

(Miriam All­ster)

KUCHI­NATE, ‘CRO­CHET­ING’ in Ti­grinya, the lan­guage of Eritrea, is a col­lec­tive of African asy­lum-seek­ing women who crochet col­or­ful bas­kets and car­pets in a stu­dio puls­ing with chil­dren, hot food, vol­un­teers and nuns.

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