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They Were Silent About Their Suffering. Then They Began Making Baskets

Serekalem Alemu is crocheting a basket.

Wearing a grey fleece jacket and a long grey skirt speckled with blue flowers, Alemu sits on a sofa on the second floor of a former warehouse in the industrial section of Tel Aviv. A damp Mediterranean winter breeze blows in through the open window. Traffic whizzes by on the boulevard below. With her thick black hair held back in a ponytail, the 28-year-old winds long, narrow strips of teal-colored fabric into a ball, which will eventually become a basket.

When she's finished — it takes her about three hours to make a basket about 10 inches in diameter — her handiwork will go on sale for $25 in a boutique. She'll keep half of that and the rest goes to keep the program going.

But for Alemu, the basket isn't just about earning some money. It's therapy. It makes her feel better. And she has a lot of reasons to feel bad.

Alemu is one of 43,000 African asylum-seekers, mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, who traveled by foot and vehicle many hundreds of miles to reach Israel. They're part of the largest global wave of asylum seekers since World War II.

Many of these migrants suffer along the way. Alemu says she was tortured by her smugglers but will not elaborate. When she reached Israel in 2011, she fell into depression and was hospitalized twice in a psychiatric ward.

Other migrant women have reported rape and human trafficking, saying they are passed from one group of smugglers to another, who torture them until they pay large sums of money for their freedom. They often ask family members or friends abroad to send the money. Humanitarian aid groups estimate that some 4,000 to 6,000 of the Africans who've made it to Israel have been victimized.

But when they were offered the chance to talk with a therapist in Israel, it didn't work.

"I soon realized that wasn't an appropriate approach," says psychologist Diddy Mymin Kahn, who has worked as a therapist for the Tel Aviv African Refugee Development Center.

Women often didn't show up for their appointments. Those who did would not share their stories, says Kahn.

So she teamed up with an art therapist to found the Kuchinate African Women's Collective, funded by grants and donations from organizations and individuals. Sister Azezet Kidane, a Roman Catholic nun from Eritrea and a registered nurse, soon joined to help develop the program.

Kuchinate means "crochet" in Tigrigna, an Eritrean language, and that's what the participants do. There are 40 members of the collectives. Twice a week, many of these female asylum seekers come to the refurbished Tel Aviv warehouse to crochet baskets, using long strips of colorful polyester fabric. Back home, they used to weave baskets from the flexible fronds of the doum species of palm tree, but the tree is rare in Israel.

There's something about the experience of crocheting that encourages them to open up.

As they make the baskets, they talk about dealing with the stress and trauma of their migration as well as the uncertainty of life in Israel. Most of them currently live without any official status or rights until a government policy is established for the asylum seekers.

"Many of them are traumatized when they come here, but this group gives them strength to bring it out, to talk about it," says Kidane. "It's a process of healing."

She and Kahn sit and talk to the women while they crochet, sometimes steering conversation to topics like how to handle stress or traumatic memories. When one participant shares her difficulties or feelings, others speak up, either telling the group or going into a side room to speak privately with Kidane and Kahn.

"Our people, they don't do counseling one-on-one, you need a group, a circle," Kidane said. "Many of the asylum-seekers were raped, and they often keep it secret because they think it's only them and they are ashamed. But here they meet other people with the same experiences and feel, oh, I am not alone."

"It's a major crisis," said Kim Yuval, coordinator of psychotherapy at Physicians for Human Rights, who has also studied the prevalence of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder among asylum seekers as part of his doctoral research at the University of Haifa. "Many people are resilient, but as a community the situation is very bad, and it's important that we deal with these problems." In one study involving 116 Sudanese asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv, Yuval found that 60 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and roughly a quarter suffer from depression.

These problems are not isolated to those from Sudan or those in Israel, Yuval said, but are seen among asylum-seekers globally.

"When I am at home I cry all day," said 31-year-old Lula Gebrekidan, who left Eritrea five years ago hoping to eventually pave the way for her three daughters and husband, who is currently jailed for political opposition to the regime there. "When I am here, I don't cry. I talk to others."

Her eyes swell with tears as she describes scenes she witnessed in the two weeks she spent in the Sinai, where she paid a smuggler $3,000 to drive her to the Israeli border.

"I saw rape, a woman who had sex with six men all right after each other. I also saw a 5-year-old boy buried in the dirt up to his neck, with men throwing rocks at his head until his family would pay more money to their smugglers," Gebrekidan said. "Talking about it brings some relief."

She said she was only able to talk about her experiences after hearing similar stories from others. "At home it is forbidden to discuss things like this," Gebrekidan said.

Kahn and Kidane say that many of the women here need help beyond this program, but this is a start to pulling them out of depression and assessing their needs.

"They see, ah, I am still alive, I am still capable," Kidane said. "For them it is a door opening."

The room is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves, full of hundreds of baskets made by these women. In the corner of the studio, Gebrekidan roasts cardamom-scented coffee beans over hot coals in a metal box. The studio's kitchenette is equipped with electric burners, but she prefers to make coffee in this traditional way, the aromatic steam and smoke from the smoldering coals floating out the nearby open window. She is preparing the coffee for a group of Israeli mothers from a suburban Tel Aviv school who will soon arrive for a crochet workshop taught by the women of the collective.

For a couple of hours the asylum-seekers teach the Israelis how to crochet, then serve them Gebrekidan's coffee along with injera, a flat sourdough bread common in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and dips made of lentils and chickpeas. The mothers leave, most of them with baskets they purchased. The African women again gather in a circle of chairs and continue making more baskets and talking.

For Alemu, the two days a week when she comes here are critical.

"I still have a problem in my head," she said. "But my head is better here."

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