When an average person thinks about an asylum seeker in Israel (whether he is for or against promoting their rights), they think of a black man.
It's true that in Israel there are more male asylum seekers than female, and this is largely due to cultural and practical difficulties in fleeing their country and making it through the difficult journey. Even so, there is an entire population of women asylum seekers living among us, hidden from view, swallowed by the sea of incitement and fear. Aside from the regular difficulty inherent in being an asylum seeker in Israel, female asylum seekers are also forced to deal with the built-in discrimination one faces as a woman – both within their communities and outside of them in Israel's reality.
Ganet (not her real name) is an Eritrean asylum seeker and a member of Assaf's support group for women victims of torture and human trafficking. She fled Eritrea three years ago and lived on her own in a refugee camp in Sudan. One day Bedouin trucks arrived at the refugee camp and they kidnapped her together with 8 other women and 28 men. "There's nothing you can do, they just take you," she says. Like most victims of torture and trafficking in Sinai, Ganet didn't intend to come to Israel, and certainly not to the Sinai desert. On the long trip from Sudan to Sinai, many of the men managed to escape during vehicle changes or during the drive. "As a woman," she shares, "you can't do anything. To escape you need to run faster than them, to physically protect yourself." For 5 months, Ganet lived in a torture camp in Sinai. Five months of harsh torture and unending sexual assault, until she was able to raise the ransom that led to her release. "The difference between men and women in the camp? It's totally different. When they come to a man with an electric shocker and beat him, it has a purpose. It's clear that it's being done to raise the odds of him being able to collect the money faster. For women, you no longer feel any purpose. Any man can pass by you by chance and decide to rape you on the spot, just because he feels like it."
After 5 months, Ganet's relatives were able to collect the money. She was released from the torture camp for tens of thousands of dollars and, together with 7 Sudanese men with whom she didn't share a language, she found herself 300 meters from the border fence between Egypt and Israel. The second they got off the truck Egyptian soldiers started shooting at them. The 7 men ran in every direction, fleeing the bullets. Ganet, after 5 months of daily torture, living in slavery, could not run. "I just walked slowly towards the fence, I thought I was going to die. I don't know how I stayed alive." She doesn't remember much from that day, she only remembers not knowing that she was in Israeli territory after crossing the border. She walked from 6 in the evening until 5 am the next morning inside Israel, until an IDF jeep came across her. "I saw the soldier coming out of the jeep," she recalls, "and I fainted."
She woke up in Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva. Her physical condition was extremely bad. She was very thin and had bruises all over her body as a result of the torture and crossing the barbed wire fence at the border. Nobody was appointed to accompany her at the hospital, and Ganet was unable to communicate with the doctors in any way; they in their turn didn't know who she was, what her status was in Israel and what treatment she was entitled to. After 4 days in the hospital, the doctors decided to release her. "They released me at 8 in the morning. At 8 in the evening the doctor finished work for the day and saw me sitting in the hospital entrance. He didn't understand what I was still doing there and thought maybe I had misunderstood. But I had understood, I just didn't have anywhere to go." The next day, Ganet managed to track down a friend of her brother's, an Eritrean asylum seeker who had been living in Israel for some time. He picked her up from the hospital and she was a guest in his home. "A man in my position would have slept on the street, there are quite a few asylum seekers who are forced to do so when they're released from prison with nothing. But what could I do? I was a woman after months in Sinai. I couldn't walk down the street."
Asylum seekers that come to Israel are immediately imprisoned in Saharonim Prison and receive their residence permits only upon their release (following an arbitrary period that can last from a few months up to a few years). Ganet entered Israel in August 2012 and was released directly from the hospital. Therefore she was never issued a residence permit. Today, after a year and a half of repeated efforts to convince the authorities to issue her the permit she is entitled to, she still lives in Israel without a permit. At the end of our conversation, Ganet spoke about the difficulties inherent in being a female asylum seeker in Israel. "It's hard to separate out the difficulties, because life is impossible for all asylum seekers in Israel. A man released from the hospital would not have received a residence permit either. Men also don't have any basic rights. For example, I can't find any regular work because I have no papers of any kind. So at first I was told to go live in a cheap apartment, where 10 men are squeezed in together. I can't do such a thing, I am not comfortable in that situation." Asylum seeker communities are usually communities with built-in traditions of exclusion of women, and in the Israeli reality where female asylum seekers aren't counted and their existence is all but unknown to the general public, they are harmed by the lack of protections or legal reference towards them by the State of Israel.
One of the amazing things about Ganet's story (and the stories of many others) is the way she lives and speaks today. She tells her story with humility and speaks of her continued attempts to receive a residence permit as if this were a normal situation. Many of the female asylum seekers in Israel are single mothers and some are battered women. They live under the shadow of intense discrimination and deal with impossible lives. And yet, most are graced with enormous emotional strength that allows them to get up in the morning, get through the day and fight for their rights in Israel. After the long hell Ganet survived, she supports herself with temporary jobs in a permanent apartment, tries hard not to break and insists on talking about the future.