Amid the street parties, light shows and dance music of Tel Aviv’s annual White Night events, several African women heated coffee over coals and arranged colorful hand-sewn baskets on a table alongside posh Rothschild Boulevard.
They are members of the Kuchinate Collective, a group of women who fled their home countries in Africa to seek asylum in Israel. The group aims to economically empower the women by sewing and selling colorful cloth baskets, said Diddy Mymin Kahn, one of the founders of the collective. Creating art and connecting with each other and the public is also therapeutic for the women, many of whom suffered trauma before fleeing their countries and during their journey to Israel, Kahn said.
White Night in Tel Aviv, held on Thursday into the wee hours Friday morning, is an all-night, yearly event featuring street parties, art installations and music performances across the city, and was a good opportunity for the group to connect, Kahn said.
“We want people to know us, we want people to meet asylum seekers. We want them to know about the plight of asylum seekers and we want to meet the public,” Kahn said.
Kuchinate means “to crochet” in Tigrinya, the language spoken in Eritrea. Most of the women in the collective are from the East African nation as well as from South Sudan and Ethiopia. They fled violence, government oppression and genocide in their home countries to seek asylum in Israel.
“It was hard in Eritrea. There are problems between Ethiopia and Eritrea. You have to go to the army, there’s no democracy,” said Abadit, a member of the collective from Eritrea who arrived in Israel seven years ago.
Israel is home to about 45,000 asylum seekers, almost all from Eritrea and South Sudan, according to ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. The vast majority of African migrants living in Israel claim asylum-seeker status, but the state has recognized almost none of their claims since they began arriving in the mid-2000s. Israel contends most of the migrants who are currently in Israel came seeking new economic opportunities, not because they were fleeing danger at home.
Kahn, originally from South Africa, co-founded the collective with South African artist Natasha Miller Gutman in 2011. Kahn is a clinical psychologist with a background in treating trauma. Many of the women experienced trauma before arriving in Israel, including the notorious “torture camps” in the Sinai where refugees were held for ransom and abused by Bedouin traffickers. The collective empowers the women financially, socially and psychologically, said Kahn, who manages the group with the Eritrean nun Sister Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, who Kahn calls the “spiritual mother of the refugee community.”
“It all came out of a desire to help the women that were in a state of survival, that came from a culturally very different milieu, where their understanding of what helps someone whose being a bad situation, that is to say, Western therapy, was not something that was very obvious to them,” Kahn said.
The group started with five women and a small grant from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Now, over 90 women are involved.
Selling the hand-woven baskets also generates income for the women, many of whom are struggling financially, Abadit said, in Hebrew, while selling baskets at the event. She and her three children were once thrown out of their apartment when they could not come up with their rent money, she said.
“There are people from Africa, they have problems, they have kids. Not everyone can work,” said Abadit, who declined to give her last name out of privacy concerns and who said she earns about 500 to 600 NIS ($145-175) a month selling baskets. “It’s not enough but there’s nothing we can do,” she said.
Israel’s government also recently instituted a tax on asylum seekers and their employers. The state deducts 20% of the workers’ salaries, and 16% from their employers. The workers can collect the money only if they leave the country. As an employer, the law applies to the collective, putting them in a desperate financial situation, Kahn said.
Thursday night’s events, with crowds of Israelis thronging the streets, provided an opportunity to make up for the lost income. White Night, a play on the Hebrew expression “laila lavan,” meaning a night with no sleep, and Tel Aviv’s epithet, the White City, is a night-long celebration across the city featuring events organized by the municipality, which invited the collective to participate and provided funding. It was part of a larger effort organized by south Tel Avivians, called Outlets, to connect the center of the city to their area with a trail of music performances, food, video and light installations leading from Rothschild Boulevard to the derelict area surrounding the Central Bus Station.
Kuchinate Collective members set up their table, stools and coffee pot on Betzalel Yafe Street, just off of luxurious Rothschild Boulevard, between the city center and the working class south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where the women live. The group served Ethiopian coffee in small ceramic cups and sold baskets to passersby. The Yatana Band, Eritreans from the nearby neighborhood of Neve Shaanan, played music next to the coffee circle.
“It’s normally kind of north Tel Avivian,” Kahn said of White Night. “It doesn’t involve the periphery of Tel Aviv, south Tel Aviv. It’s more centered in these more classy areas and the municipality wanted to bring a bit of south Tel Aviv here, the reality of south Tel Aviv here,” she said.
Events like White Night and visits to the group’s offices on Har Zion Street in south Tel Aviv can help change the public perception of asylum seekers in Israel, Kahn said.
“It’s making these people that are very often invisible in Israeli society visible and not just visible, but elevated in a kind of way, dignified,” she said.