Thirty-eight-year old Halofom Hagos has a B.A. in history from Eritrea, his native country, but works whatever odd jobs he can find in Tel Aviv. His real passion is organizing and helping the thousands of Eritrean 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 there 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 in 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, which can be a difficult 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. 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 it was better to leave.”
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 High Court.
Recently, he became one of 15 representatives elected by the Eritrean community to an umbrella organization whose goal is to organize the community, bring harmony to it, encourage community activities, and to improve the lives of the children who are growing up in Israel. The group turned to Shatil for guidance. Shatil developed a six-month leadership training course with these representatives. The process challenged both the Eritreans and Shatil’s staff.
There were cultural gaps and suspicions that Shatil and the Eritrean organization managed to bridge while planning and implementing the course. The Eritrean planners were able to assert their opinions without being influenced by the Israeli facilitators. It was a meaningful learning experience for all.
Shatil staff members were moved by the Eritreans’ commitment to the project. In the words of Maya Layton, a consultant from Shatil who helped plan and organize the course, “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.”
Hagos 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 Hagos.