|The story of Esther: Empowering African refugees to tell their stories|
|Written by Ruby Ong|
A few short months ago, Esther John could not speak about her tragic past. “Every time I opened my mouth, I would cry,” the 24-year-old refugee from Niger told NIF News.
Today, Esther can not only speak, she can tell her harrowing story in a calm and engaging manner thanks to her participation this fall in the eight-week course, Public Speaking for Refugee Communities in Israel, run by SHATIL in collaboration with Mesila – Aid and Information Center for Migrant Workers and Refugees and ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.
The course trained 21 representatives of the more than 35,000 African refugees in Israel in communication skills and media 101 – including standing in front of a television camera and analyzing their performance -- so that they can participate and contribute to public campaigns for their rights and welfare.
When Esther recalls her life in Niger, she paints a grim picture.
“[Niger was] really bad economically—no work, no food, people dying of hunger, no health care…I just couldn’t' survive there.” This is no surprise considering Niger is ranked by the United Nations as the third least developed nation in the world, behind only Congo and Zimbabwe. Furthermore, living as a single female in Niger was near-impossible due to its male-dominated culture and economy.
“In my country, a woman is not allowed to go out alone to work or to the market,” she explains. So when Esther’s mother—who had been her only close living relative—died, she knew she had to escape. “I was running for my life,” she says. Esther did not know where her final destination would be.
“I didn’t know Israel was a country that exists today. I had read about it in the Bible, but I thought it was just a story.”
When asked about the painful three-month journey that began when she left Niger three years ago, Esther’s old habit of silence takes over. She lets us know in a roundabout way that she fell into the hands of traffickers. When she finally arrived at the Israeli-Egyptian border, she managed to dodge the Egyptian bullets that killed a close friend from Eritrea and her sister, and injured four others attempting to cross the border with her.
“I rolled down to the Israeli side and I passed out,” she says, “[and] when I opened my eyes and I was alive and in Israel the only thing I said was, ‘God, I thank you for bringing me into this land.’“
Esther’s happiness was short-lived. She was taken to Ketziot Prison by the Israeli army and held there for a year and a half. She describes her time in prison as “dark, mentally and psychologically.” Esther was eventually rescued from prison by a refugee-assistance organization and now lives in a shelter for women victims of trafficking and abuse in the center of the country.
“I can breathe now,” she says.
Esther was chosen by the shelter staff to participate in the SHATIL-led communication course. As a result of the course, Esther says life has improved noticeably. She feels more comfortable and willing to share her story, and is inspired to help other women who experienced similar difficulties.
“This course made my life better because in this world communication is very important. Now I know that no matter how difficult it is, I can get my message across… and it’s very good for me.” She adds, “I was so ashamed before, but now I can tell my story, I can talk to anyone because I’ve been taught how to.”
Yesterday, Esther and the other course graduates participated in a meeting with representatives of refugee organizations that Mesila organized in order to connect the graduates to campaigns and activities promoting the rights of refugees that are in need of spokespeople.
Looking to her future, Esther, who has a ninth grade education, now sees a wealth of possibilities. Remarkably, she wants to return to Niger to help others. “I want to help other women who have suffered what I've suffered and to educate women and girls so they will not be victims.”Most of all, Esther appreciates the education and support she has received through this course from SHATIL and its partner organizations. “It’s from your [SHATIL and NIF donors] support that we were able to get this course… It was like a dream come true…[and you] made it possible. I’m so grateful.”