The British kibbutzniks who welcomed African refugees into their family

Two young asylum-seekers fled Eritrea in fear of their lives. Now they have been given a new life in Israel

By Nathan Jeffay, January 3, 2013
James Grant-Rosenhead (top row third left) stands next to John Fshaye, with Dawit Ogbai (standing centre), at a kibbutz wedding

James Grant-Rosenhead (top row third left) stands next to John Fshaye, with Dawit Ogbai (standing centre), at a kibbutz wedding

Just over four years ago, a squad of soldiers arrived at John Fshaye’s school in the rural town of Senafe, in southern Eritrea. They had come to forcibly remove students to serve in the country’s army. It was perfectly legal — Eritrea operates open-ended military draft that often means decades in uniform for those unlucky enough to be conscripted.

Fshaye, who was 15 at the time, did not fancy being one of the unlucky ones. So he jumped out of the classroom window when he saw the soldiers and hid until the coast was clear. Then he ran, and embarked on a journey that would end with him becoming part of a family of British-born kibbutzniks in Israel.

“I had never heard of a place called Israel,” says Fshaye, now almost 20, and a Christian who is thoroughly at home among the residents of Kibbutz Mishol in Upper Nazareth.

When he fled Senafe he had no plan other than not to get caught by the army. He managed to make contact with a group of 28 other young Eritreans who were also on the run from the military. They crossed the border to Ethiopia, and then walked on to Sudan, which involved at one point going three days without food or water.

Several members of the group died during this stretch. Having reached Egypt they carried on across the Sinai desert, and on a dark night more than three months after leaving Eritrea, they sneaked across the border into Israel.

As Fshaye was undertaking his hazardous journey, on Kibbutz Mishol, James Grant-Rosenhead was becoming aware of the extent of illegal African immigration into Israel. Current figures put the total of immigrants and asylum seekers who have found their way across the Egyptian border at over 50,000. Grant-Rosenhead was already involved in an initiative to place asylum-seeking minors in Israeli boarding schools. Now he started thinking about their need for a sense of family.

It was a move that ultimately resulted in him adopting Fshaye, along with another Eritrean Christian, Dawit Ogbai, who comes from the capital Asmara. The pair live with Grant-Rosenhead and his London-born wife Emma, a fellow Habonim graduate, and their three young daughters.

“‘Adopting’ a refugee sounds terrifying but it’s really not,” says Grant-Rosenhead, who is involved with the non-profit ROI Community, an international support network of “Jewish innovators” which seeks to aid vulnerable children.

The Grant-Rosenheads share responsibility for the boys with several other members of Kibbutz Mishol, including Anton Marks, a Mancunian. Marks says he is proud to have turned them in to Manchester United fanatics who sit with him glued to games on television.

Fshaye and Ogbai vividly remember their arrival in Israel as bewildered teenagers. At the border, Israeli soldiers gave them food, water and clothes, and transferred them to Ashdod, from where they moved on to Tel Aviv. “I was tired, hungry and thirsty — but it was nowhere near as bad as being in the desert,” recalls Fshaye.

They heard of a camp for young asylum seekers that the Grant-Rosenheads were helping to run, where they enrolled in the boarding-school placement programme. Then came the offer of informal adoption. “I was happy,” says Fshaye. “I didn’t understand the language when I met James but we smiled together.”

He thinks that the Grant-Rosenheads have played a major part in his growth from an intimidated new arrival in to the confident, well-educated, Hebrew-and-English-speaking trainee car mechanic he is today. “I was shy, not able to express what my problems were at first,” he says.

‘The reality is that its very normal and easy. They are just kids who want a place to be'

While the Grant-Rosenheads use the word “adoption”, the process has been unofficial, and they have encouraged both young men to keep in contact with their parents at home and with their siblings, several of whom have fled Eritrea for various countries.

Now, after leaving their homes to avoid serving in their own country’s army, Fshaye and Ogbai both yearn to serve in Israel’s military. They are in their final year at the Kadoorie Agricultural High School in the Galilee and want to enrol, just like their classmates, in the Israel Defence Forces. “I want to give to the state that helped me — like every Israeli citizen, I want to give something back,” says Fshaye.

Both young men fear violent punishment if they ever return to Eritrea. They hope to make their futures in Israel, but it is unclear whether government policy will allow them to do so — it oscillates between turning a blind eye and planning large-scale deportations. As long as they are in school there is an understanding that the state will not detain or deport them, but their studies end in just over six months.

“Now, with them finishing school, there are lots of big questions,” said Grant-Rosenhead.

He recollects the long discussions he had with his wife and kibbutz members about the challenges involved in adopting Fshaye and Ogbai. “The build-up and decision were a really big deal but the reality is that it’s very normal and easy… they’re just kids who want a place to be and it’s surprisingly simple,” he says.

The Grant-Rosenheads admit, however, that there has been the odd difficult moment that has exposed the gulf between their background and the asylum seekers. On one occasion they travelled to Tel Aviv to see Fshaye, who had a holiday job there, and to meet Emma’s sister who visiting from Britain. They realised that both were at the same hotel — Fshaye as a worker and Emma’s sister as a guest.

Emma says: “It was definitely awkward — in the social relationship between the rich white family from London next to the black refugee there’s an awkwardness that’s unavoidable.”

The Grant-Rosenheads say Habonim ideals were influential in the decision to add Fshaye and Ogbai to their family. James also cites episodes from Jewish history — such as Jews’ reliance on righteous gentiles to take them in during the Holocaust.

The family, while not religious, place a lot of emphasis on “cultural Judaism”. Fshaye and Ogbai join in with Shabbat celebrations and festivals — and sometimes find that they have deep personal meaning. Fshaye says that Pesach Seders, which recount the ancient Israelite exodus from Egypt to Israel — the very journey that he made — have been especially emotional. “I feel like it’s my story,” he says.

Last updated: 2:01pm, January 3 2013