Knit­ting a Fu­ture For Re†ugees

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Anne Joseph ●

“We don’t have rules. We want the women to feel at home here. If some­one comes ev­ery day or if they haven’t been for a year, it doesn’t mat­ter,” says Sis­ter Azezet Ki­dane, co-di­rec­tor of Kuchi­nate, an African refugee women’s col­lec­tive in Tel Aviv.

The women at Kuchi­nate, which means “cro­chet” in Ti­grinya (the lan­guage spo­ken in Eritrea), de­sign and make eco-friendly cloth bas­kets and other prod­ucts for the home such as place mats, poufs, rugs and hang­ing bas­kets for plants. Kuchi­nate also hosts cro­chet les­sons, tra­di­tional Ethiopian and Eritrean meals and co€ee cer­e­monies to vis­it­ing Is­raeli groups and has now ex­tended these ini­tia­tives to b’nei mitz­vah and their fam­i­lies.

Since its es­tab­lish­ment in ƒ„……, Kuchi­nate has ded­i­cated it­self to help­ing asy­lum-seek­ing women, most of them sin­gle moth­ers, for whom the crafts em­pow­er­ment project is their sole source of in­come. Over ƒ„„ women are in­volved in the project, mainly from Eritrea and Su­dan but also Ethiopia and Nige­ria — many are sur­vivors of the tor­ture camps in the Si­nai, hu­man traŠck­ing and sex­ual abuse.

“All the women who come have prob­lems — phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal. Sev­eral also have sick chil­dren,” Ki­dane says, cradling a baby in her arms. “When they came to Is­rael, they were hop­ing that every­thing would be OK, but their prob­lems in­creased. They thought they would be able to work, pay their debts, but the trauma of their jour­ney and their ex­pe­ri­ences, par­a­lyzes them.”

Ku­ci­nate is lo­cated in­side a fore­bod­ing Bru­tal­ist build­ing on a busy main road in the heart of in­dus­trial south Tel Aviv. The project’s logo, painted in or­ange on a dank stair­well wall next to some graŠti, in­di­cates the en­trance to the bright, wel­com­ing stu­dio. Shelves of col­or­ful bas­kets line the walls and, at the far end, about a dozen women sit on so­fas cov­ered with African fab­rics. Sun­light and ac­tiv­ity flood the cramped space and a num­ber of women cro­chet while chat­ting to one an­other. Oth­ers sit qui­etly. A pot of co€ee is brew­ing and bowls of freshly made pop­corn are be­ing passed around as well as him­basha, an Eritrean and Ethiopian cel­e­bra­tion flat­bread, of­ten served at spe­cial oc­ca­sions — the day of my visit is the Feast of St Michael.

Ki­dane, known as Sis­ter Az­iza, is an Eritrean nun and a mem­ber of the Com­boni Mis­sion­ary Sis­ters and a nurse by train­ing, who has lived in Is­rael for the past nine years. In ƒ„…ƒ, she was hon­ored by Hil­lary Clin­ton, then US Sec­re­tary of State, for her e€orts in com­bat­ing hu­man traŠck­ing — she had ex­posed the ex­is­tence of the tor­ture camps while work­ing as a nurse for the NGO, Physi­cians for Hu­man Rights. Now and again, she breaks o€ our con­ver­sa­tion to help a new mem­ber of Kuchi­nate who is mak­ing her first bas­ket.

Ki­dane works twice a week at Kuchi­nate as an ad­vo­cate and a coun­selor. “We cre­ate this at­mos­phere of be­ing to­gether, to make them feel that they are not alone. They have the op­por­tu­nity to come and share their prob­lems and day to day wor­ries,” she says. “They feel that they are con­soled, that they are un­der­stood.”

The art of cro­chet­ing in and of it­self is med­i­ta­tive — it re­fo­cuses their

thoughts, says Kuchi­nate founder, codi­rec­tor and clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn. “Re­search has shown that knit­ting, not cro­chet­ing in par­tic­u­lar, has ther­a­peu­tic value such as a re­duc­tion in anx­i­ety.”

Host­ing groups and meet­ing Is­raelis — sell­ing, teach­ing and cook­ing for them — is also ther­a­peu­tic, says Kahn, be­cause it em­pow­ers the women. In ad­di­tion, these visits help to break down bar­ri­ers as they en­able Is­raelis to see asy­lum seek­ers in a dier­ent light: “Not as peo­ple do­ing the tra­di­tional work of asy­lum seek­ers, such as clean­ing houses. They are asked how to cro­chet; for recipes; if a dis­count is avail­able. The women learn skills in mar­ket­ing, com­put­ers and how to ne­go­ti­ate.”

All of these things do not nec­es­sar­ily ad­dress the trauma the women have ex­pe­ri­enced, she says, but the project helps build re­silience. “If your re­silience is good

then you’re more able to cope with the hard­ship that you’ve been through.”

Kahn, a trauma spe­cial­ist, orig­i­nally from South Africa, founded Kuchi­nate fol­low­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with East African asy­lum seek­ers who had been trau­ma­tized in the Si­nai. She re­al­ized that a tra­di­tional West­ern ap­proach to treat­ing trauma would not work and a dier­ent ap­proach to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion was needed.

African asy­lum seek­ers be­gan ar­riv­ing in Is­rael in ­­€, the ma­jor­ity com­ing from Eritrea, hav­ing fled life un­der a harsh dic­ta­tor­ship, or from war-torn Su­dan. Many passed through the Si­nai into Is­rael, of­ten hav­ing en­dured dan­ger­ous jour­neys and hard­ship with some …,­­­ asy­lum seek­ers en­ter­ing via kid­nap­pers’ tor­ture camps in the Si­nai desert. But in ­‡ˆ, Is­rael con­structed a ‡€­-mile elec­tronic fence along the Egyp­tian bor­der and since then, the il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has stopped.

Is­rael cur­rently has ap­prox­i­mately ˆ­,­­­ asy­lum seek­ers and many live un­der the threat of de­por­ta­tion. Ear­lier this year the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment made — then re­neged on — an agree­ment with the UN to have many mi­grants re­set­tled to West­ern coun­tries. The gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a pay­out of $‘,€­to ev­ery mi­grant who agreed to de­por­ta­tion. Last year, in an at­tempt to make Is­rael a less at­trac­tive place to stay, a “de­posit law” was in­tro­duced which re­quires em­ploy­ers of asy­lum seek­ers to hand over ­% of their salaries to the state, which then keeps the money un­til they leave the coun­try.

“All of our women are in a state of poverty be­cause they have the ­% taken o their salaries. Be­fore that, they were just about on the bread­line, now they’re re­ally un­der it,” says Kahn. Al­though the women at Kuchi­nate are not un­der the threat of de­por­ta­tion — Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has agreed, for now, that women and chil­dren will not be de­ported — the sit­u­a­tion has had a pro­found eect on them. Many of their hus­bands or male rel­a­tives, on whom they rely for fi­nan­cial sup­port, have been de­tained or de­ported. Ki­dane says she is aware of cases where men have taken the gov­ern­ment pay­out and left Is­rael, leav­ing their fam­i­lies to cope alone.

The women came to Is­rael with an un­der­stand­ing that they would re­ceive the help and ben­e­fits of a west­ern democ­racy, says Kahn. “But the op­po­site hap­pened. We have a lot of women and chil­dren with chronic ill­nesses and dis­abil­i­ties, and be­cause they have no ac­cess or the means to pay for these ba­sic ser­vices, these things be­come mas­sive bur­dens. The sit­u­a­tion has got­ten worse and worse.”

He­wan Desta, who came to Is­rael from Eritrea in ­‡­, is one of the women re­spon­si­ble for teach­ing new

‘We cre­ate this at­mos­phere of be­ing to­gether, to make them feel that they are not alone.’

mem­bers how to cro­chet. Al­though she mar­ried an Is­raeli and has three chil­dren, she does not have the le­gal per­mis­sion to re­main in Is­rael. Like many women in Kuchi­nate, she has to ob­tain a per­mit to stay ev­ery three months. Liv­ing with such in­sta­bil­ity means that many of the women want to leave Is­rael. “They are sus­pended, and feel un­wanted,” says Ki­dane.

Kahn be­lieves that all the women at Kuchi­nate would like to re­turn to the coun­tries of their birth, if it were safe to do so. “They’re nos­tal­gic for home,” she says. “They talk about Eritrea, for ex­am­ple, with a such a sense of long­ing. They don’t want to be de­ported by Is­rael to some third world coun­try where they’ll have no rights. Some of them will prob­a­bly die.”

They would like to be re­lo­cated to a coun­try where they will re­ceive pro­tec­tion, work per­mits and sup­port, says Kahn, and do not con­sider Rwanda or Uganda — coun­tries rec­om­mended by the gov­ern­ment — to be safe op­tions. Kuchi­nate tries to help them re­set­tle by mak­ing re­fer­rals to the UN­HCR and some of the women have em­i­grated to Canada, the US and Swe­den.

De­spite the con­sid­er­able chal­lenges, work­ing at Kuchi­nate raises the women’s self-es­teem. When­ever a bas­ket is made, whether it is sold or not, they are paid, Ki­dane says. Sev­eral women take on roles within the col­lec­tive, such as look­ing after the chil­dren (there is a room next door to the stu­dio which serves as a nurs­ery), cater­ing, prod­uct de­sign, com­mis­sions and sales.

Out­side the work­shop. Kuchi­nate sells their prod­ucts at craft fairs and they have also pro­duced pub­lic art in­stal­la­tions in Tel Aviv, as well as col­lab­o­rated with Is­raeli artists. In April of this year, a group of women worked with Gil Yef­man, to present cro­cheted sculp­tures for “VI­O­LATED! Women in Holo­caust and Geno­cide,” a group art ex­hi­bi­tion held in New York. Around ten women will be col­lab­o­rat­ing again with Yef­man, says Kahn, cre­at­ing new work for his solo ex­hi­bi­tion which opens at the Tel Aviv Mu­seum of Art on De­cem­ber ‘.

As I step out of the stu­dio to ex­am­ine, “We Were All Once Refugees,” a ’.“-me­ter high multi-col­ored mo­saic — a col­lab­o­ra­tion with mo­saic mu­ral artist, Mia Schon which had pre­vi­ously been lo­cated on Roth­schild Boule­vard in Tel Aviv — I no­tice a ner­vous look­ing woman stand­ing alone in the pas­sage­way. She had come to find Kuchi­nate and as I take her to meet He­wan, I re­call the words of Fa­vor Agbo, an asy­lum seeker who had come to Is­rael from Nige­ria eight years ago, to es­cape re­li­gious con­flict. “At Kuchi­nate,” she said, “you meet women who have prob­lems and share. It’s like fam­ily here.”

MIRIAM AL­STER

LIV­ING IN DEBT: All of the women at Kuchi­nate live in a state of poverty that is ex­ac­er­bated by the fact that asy­lum seek­ers are re­quired to hand over one-fifth of their salaries to the state.

MIRIAM AL­STER

CRE­AT­ING A WHOLE OUT OF SHARDS: Kuchi­nate col­lab­o­rated with mo­saic artist Mia Schon to cre­ate this mul­ti­col­ored mo­saic.

MIRIAM AL­STER

MIRIAM AL­STER

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