The slave who found freedom

A young West African on how he survived human traffickers and prison to find a safe home with an Israeli family.

By Nathan Jeffay, July 1, 2011
Avi with his adopted Israeli family, the Oshris, at their home in the Galilee.

Avi with his adopted Israeli family, the Oshris, at their home in the Galilee.

Six years ago, Avi Be'eri- or Ibrahim as he was known then - was a broken, lonely street child, sleeping in a market in his native Guinea, West Africa. He had been orphaned, and had left the home of his uncle, where he was meant to be living, because of abuse.

Then somebody offered him a way out. He had worked for a businessman who ran an electrical shop, who told him tales of prosperity that awaited him in Israel. The businessman said he would pay for his travel, in return for half of his earnings indefinitely.

Fifteen-year-old Avi saw only the possibility of a new life, and did not grasp that the businessman intended to exploit him. "At first, I didn't understand that it's a sort of slavery," he says.

Avi is telling his story during a rare interview, which takes place on an Israeli army base where he serves today - and where he has just graduated from the officer training course. On July 13, he will receive his stripes in an official ceremony - the first illegal infiltrator on record to become an army officer.

It is a far cry from his arrival in Israel five years before as a slave labourer after a dangerous journey from Guinea to Tel Aviv.

Avi in his army uniform. He graduates as an officer later this month

Avi in his army uniform. He graduates as an officer later this month

Human trafficking from Africa to Israel is big business. Since 2005, more than 35,000 illegal African immigrants have reached Israel via Egypt, and most arrived with the help of traffickers. Some pay their own way while others are sent by people who hope to profit from them once they arrive in Israel. The traffickers are notoriously cruel and violent.

Avi's journey lasted 13 days, the most frightening part being once he and eight others being smuggled completed the stretch from Morocco to Egypt and reached Cairo. "They put us in the back of a pick-up truck, packed us in like sardines, and covered us up," he recalls. When they stopped, they were led to a Bedouin tent, where two 15-year-old boys with Kalashnikov rifles enforced strict discipline. "If you stood up, they pointed the weapons at you," he says.

They were denied food, and the water they were given was infested with worms. Much of the time they were not allowed to leave the tent, and if they needed to relieve themselves, they had to use a bucket in a corner. The traffickers stole his passport.

Eventually, Avi and the others were taken to the border between Egypt and Israel, where a hole was cut in the fence. Cars were waiting on the Israeli side to take them to the central bus station in Tel Aviv. There, he was bewildered and lost - while people came to meet the rest of his group, nobody met him. "Everyone was white, I didn't know anyone, I didn't know what to do," he recalls.

Avi believes that whatever delayed the person sent to meet him - he suggests that perhaps it was a traffic jam or Tel Aviv's notorious lack of parking spaces - it was one of the best things that ever happened to him. This person was the designate of the Guinean businessman, who would have assigned Avi work and sent half his wages back to Guinea.

So Avi wandered away from the bus station and found himself in nearby Levinsky Park, which has become the hangout for African immigrants. He started talking to people. A man from the Ivory Coast offered him some floor space to sleep on, and eventually he found a job washing pots in a restaurant. He was advised to write to the United Nations about refugee status, but was told that as there was no war in Guinea, he was not eligible - though the UN offered to help him get into an educational establishment. With its assistance, he moved into Shanti House, a refuge for homeless youngsters in Tel Aviv, and started studying at a school for at-risk children.

A few months later he heard rumours of immigration crackdowns, and fearing he would be arrested, he fled Shanti House. On the street again, he was picked up by police in March 2007 and sent to a prison in Hadera. He was not allowed to be in Israel, but lacking a passport and travel documents, could not be returned to Guinea. He was told that he could leave the prison only if an Israeli citizen became his legal guardian until he turned 18.

Soon after he was jailed, Susanna and Etzion Oshri, a couple from the Galilee village of Masad, read media reports of a Guinean minor languishing in an Israeli prison cell. Moved by the story, they stepped forward, interested in providing a home, only to learn that this youngster had already found one. Instead, the prison introduced them to Avi. "They came to visit me and we sat and chatted, and then the prison warden said: 'You can go home with them'."

Susanna Oshri recalls that she decided to open her home to Avi after reading about charity campaigns to sponsor a child abroad, and deciding that she could do the same thing locally in a more hands-on way. "I'm a bit of a Zionist and I feel strongly that Jewish people should reach out to others and open doors," she says, adding that her whole family "fell in love with him" immediately.

Joining the Oshri family - Susanna, Etzion and their five children - was a pivotal moment for Avi, and especially moving as his arrival coincided with their Pesach celebrations. "Suddenly I was with a family and celebrating Passover - it was amazing," he says.

The Oshris became his guardians and arranged for him to complete his education and take bagruts, the Israeli equivalent of A-Levels. "I feel they are like my biological family - whatever they did for their own children, they have done for me," he says. The Oshris also lobbied the Interior Ministry to give him legal status, and in April 2008 after meeting then-Minister Meir Sheetrit, Avi received temporary residency, which then became permanent residency, and will become citizenship this month.

Avi says he is a great admirer of Jewish culture but is unsure whether he will convert. Either way, he says: "I live here, it's my state, I received a lot from it, and so I see it as my duty to serve it." His sense of indebtedness to Israel is so strong that back in April 2008 he went straight from Sheetrit's office to the army enlistment office. He hopes to help the country beyond military service as well. "My dream is to study international relations and promote ties between Guinea and Israel."

Last updated: 8:38am, July 1 2011