Thirty-eight-year old Halofom Hagos has a B.A. in history from his native Eritrea, but works at whatever odd jobs he can find in Tel Aviv. His real passion, though, is organizing and helping the thousands of Eritran asylum seekers in Israel.
He hails from a pastoral village in a hilly part of Southern Eritrea with clean air and open spaces. After being imprisoned for his political activity numerous times, Hagos risked the army’s shoot-to-kill policy at the Ethiopian border and escaped.
His parents are no longer alive and his five siblings, all also escaped, and live Israel, Jordan and Ethiopia. His wife and two children whom he hasn’t seen in eight years, also live in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, not the most welcoming place for Eritrean refugees.
“Eritrea is a place where there is no normal life,” he says. “Everything is controlled by someone else; others make all decisions for you – where and how to live, where to work…And it’s forbidden to say what you think. I know people who got taken from work, from the street, and disappeared. I knew this could happen to me too someday, so better to go…”
Hagos reached Israel eight years ago after a perilous eight-month journey. He was imprisoned here too, for a year in the government’s Holot Detention Center, which was closed at the order of the Supreme Court.
Recently, he became one of 15 elected by the Eritrean community to an umbrella organization whose goal is to organize the community, bring harmony to it, encourage educational, cultural and sports activities, and to improve the lives of the children who are growing up in Israel. The group turned to Shatil for guidance. Together with them, Shatil developed a six-month leadership training course that challenged both the Eritreans and Shatil staff.
Interesting cultural gaps needed to be bridged and mutual suspicions dealt with while planning and implementing the course. Shatil staffers say it took a special kind of work to enable the Eritreans to express their true voices without an overlay of Western assumptions or expectations. It was a meaningful learning experience for all.
Shatil staff was also moved by the Eritreans’ commitment. Says Shatil consultant, Maya Layton, who helped plan and organize the course: “The situation here gives people no hope. No opportunity is awaiting them. Yet, here they are speaking of change, of the future, of meaning. It’s inspiring that people in a very complicated and hopeless life situation are not getting stuck, but are devoting themselves to a vision of bettering life for their community.”
Halofom says he is grateful for Shatil’s help. “From the very beginning of our work with Shatil, our minds started to think in a different way,” he says. “We knew what we wanted but Shatil taught us how to get there in a practical, almost scientific way. It was good and important.”
Hagos considers himself a political activist who wants to improve the situation in his home country. Indeed, the vision document the group wrote with Shatil’s help talks about learning about Israel’s democratic model so they can one day bring this model of democracy home to Eritrea.
“I’m fighting to make a change inside Eritrea too,” says Halofom. “And once it happens, I’m ready to go back and make my country better.