Meeting Ambesagir – an illegal migrant to Israel.

The baggy hospital pyjamas and the pale blue hoodie he wears on top of them at first disguise just how painfully frail and thin Ambesagir is. There is a worried, introverted look about him which makes him appear older than his 18 years until he suddenly bursts into a broad engaging smile. He has reasons for both the worry and the smile. 

Ambesagir is from Asmara in Eritrea and has been in Israel since November 2011. I wanted to hear first-hand about his four month journey to Israel and the reasons so many of his countrymen choose to make it.  He told me that he left Eritrea on foot and crossed into Ethiopia, despite the fact that continuing tensions between the two countries mean that had he been caught by the Eritrean authorities trying to leave, he would have been liable for one to two years of imprisonment. 

From Ethiopia, Ambesagir crossed into Sudan on foot. It was at that point that he abandoned the clothes and belongings he had brought with him, being unable to carry his luggage on the ten-day walk northwards. He and his group of 54 people then travelled by bus to the Nile, where they caught a boat which took them into Egypt. There the journey continued on foot, walking day and night without food or water. One member of the group died along the way. 

Upon reaching the Sinai Desert, Ambesagir had to pay $3,500 to the local human traffickers. For migrants who have relatives either already in Israel or in Europe the price is even higher, with the traffickers able to demand up to $10,000 to guide them to the border with Israel because they know the families will pay. 

Over 60% of the migrants arriving in Israel come from Eritrea, with around 30% originating in Sudan and the remainder from other African countries. What causes so many to be prepared to risk that nightmare journey? 

Ambesagir explained that unemployment is high and wages low in Eritrea. If, like him, a young person does not achieve good grades on their school matriculation certificate, then there is little chance of getting into higher education and securing a profession. He did study irrigation at agricultural college for one year, but his prospects seemed dismal to him. “Not enough money”, he explained, adding that everyone in Eritrea knows that Israel is a rich country and relatively close. When I enquired whether people leave Eritrea for reasons other than economic ones – perhaps political or religious – Ambesagir said that is not the case.

Since the revolution in Libya, migrant Eritreans are finding it considerably more difficult to get to Europe and so, according to Ambesagir, Israel is now an even more attractive destination.  

I asked him if Israel lives up to his expectations and he replied that it is much harder to find work than he thought it would be, blaming his limited knowledge of English. His dream, he told me, is to work in Israel for ten or twenty years and then return to Eritrea a rich man, but then quickly added that one year or two would also be something: “one dollar in Israel is like one hundred dollars in Eritrea”. 

A month ago, whilst sleeping rough, Ambesagir became very ill. He was taken to Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba by the Israeli employer of a friend with whom he had made the journey from Eritrea and since then has spent four weeks in the hospital. Quickly realising the complexity of Ambesagir’s situation, and despite his not having medical insurance or valid paperwork, the hospital has allowed him to remain on the ward – rather than discharging him after two weeks to continue treatment as an outpatient as would usually have been the case for a person in his condition – by recruiting funding for his hospitalisation. 

Upon his release from hospital scheduled for next week, Ambesagir will continue to need medication for six months and have regular check-ups. The department’s staff are already liaising with a Tel Aviv clinic which takes care of illegal migrants lacking medical insurance in order to ensure that he gets the follow-up treatment he needs, have offered their continued help in carrying out tests and will even provide him with six months’ worth of medication in advance.

Ambesagir is visibly touched by the care he has received at Meir Hospital. His wide smile lit  up his face as he told me “hospital very good” and then went on to mention that the Israeli man who brought him to the emergency room has also been visiting and doing laundry for him. 

I asked if his family in Eritrea know that he is ill. Although he is in contact with them by telephone, he hasn’t yet told them about his hospitalization and his smile turned wistful as he talked about the food he misses from home, his nine brothers and sisters and the millet, maize and peanuts his family grow. For a moment, he looked like what he is: a young man barely out of childhood, alone in a strange country with no money, no job and nowhere to live. 

His medical condition means that he will probably not be able to work full-time for at least part of the next six months and he feels uncomfortable about the prospect of sharing an apartment with friends without being able to contribute fully to the costs. But, he pointed out, he has already been very lucky because his friend’s boss brought him to Meir Hospital and he is now, literally, back on his feet. 

“Maybe I’ll be lucky again”, he said, once again bursting into his broad smile. 

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