This year, I am celebrating my first Passover in Canada, far away from my family and friends in Israel. While observing the holiday away from home will not be easy, it allows me to reflect on the story of Passover and its meaning.
Pesach is, after all, the movement of the Israelites from Galut, exile, to freedom in the land of Israel. This reality transforms the story of Passover from a simple and miraculous tale of the Jewish People’s delivery from slavery to a contemporary and universal lesson.
Eight months ago, I was accepted to the prestigious Jeanne Sauvé fellowship and decided it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. I left the beaches of sunny Tel Aviv and moved to a house in Montreal, where I currently live and work with 11 other activists from around the world. Every morning, I prepare my French homework with my Bosnian roommate, debate current affairs with a political consultant from Romania, attend public speaking workshops with a communications expert from Yellowknife, and finish the day with a heated debate on interculturalism in Montreal accompanied by a spicy curry dish made by a grassroots Nepali activist. The days are never dull, to say the least.
We have been collaborating on a team project devoted to the timely issue of refugee integration within Montreal. My eyes have been opened to the generosity and goodwill of the Canadian people, particularly the Jewish community. I have learned about several synagogues and their members who have been organizing to help sponsor and support Syrian refugees, and that prominent institutions, such as the Jewish Holocaust Museum, are raising awareness of their plight. The community’s genuine concern for people that they have little in common with, apart from a shared humanity, has been truly inspiring.
However, while the Syrian crisis has captured Canadian public attention, voices speaking out about other refugee situations are muffled. As a social worker and activist working with refugees in Israel for over nine years, I was shocked that only a handful of people I’ve met have heard about African refugees currently residing in Israel. My friend Adam lost his family when his village in Sudan was burned down by Arab Janjweed militias. In Eritrea, my friend Tesfay was subjected to brutal torture after refusing to comply with the totalitarian regime’s policy of lifelong military draft. Both fled to Israel in search of a safe haven, only to find themselves in a country that doesn’t want them. These are just two of many, many similar stories.
In Israel, 50,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea are currently stuck in a legal limbo – granted protection from deportation but denied the most basic human rights. They can’t access health care, social services, or formal work permits, let alone any opportunity to participate meaningfully in Israeli society. And these are the lucky ones.
Thousands of others are detained at a detention centre located in the desert. This is one of the most controversial parts of Israel’s management of African asylum seekers. The plan appears to be to make their lives so unbearable, so unimaginably miserable, that they will “voluntarily” return to Africa.
The situation of refugees in Israel is intolerable. “How can I decide between dying slow psychological death in a desert prison or to return home and risk torture and death? I’m not a criminal,” my refugee friends ask me. I look into their eyes and I am speechless.
Israel, my country, was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, built by refugees and immigrants searching for a safe haven. It is now failing to protect the people who seek shelter within its borders. Israel was one of the first signatories to the United Nations convention on refugees, which provided international protections to European refugees following World War II. Israel, therefore, is both legally and morally bound to protect refugees.
As I prepare to celebrate Passover with my international group of friends, I am determined not to forget my Jewish heritage as well as the refugees who are close to my heart. After all, the Exodus narrative is not just about the suffering and flight of the Jews – it delivers a universal message about the Jewish commitment to human rights and refugee protection. Indeed, the Torah restates no less than 36 times versions of the commandment to love the stranger as ourselves, for we know the heart of a stranger, as we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
So this year, as we celebrate Passover with our family and friends, I urge us all to think of our neighbours from Eritrea and Sudan who have survived the perilous journey through the Sinai Desert only to cross the border to Israel and find themselves in a detention centre on the other side.
Maya Fennig is a Jeanne Sauve Fellow and PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal.