Skip Navigation


Bodies in the DesertMisha Vallejo

Bodies in the Desert (continued)

"Tell Everyone"

Merhawit declined to talk about the month she was held by traffickers in the Sinai. I can only imagine what horrors she endured in the torture houses. Instead, she continued her narrative after she made it across the Egyptian-Israeli border.

She spoke fervently for more than an hour, and often seemed unable to register the questions that I asked her. As she shared her story with me, she cried. She told me she feels vulnerable, depressed and anxious and often dreams of her sister. Now a young mother in her early 20s living in Tel Aviv, with a husband in detention, Merhawit struggles to raise her child without support.

I did my research and translation work in Tel Aviv from November 2012 until September 2013. After my interviews and translation work ended every day, I would walk or bike the seaside route home. I always felt sad, angry and anxious. What could be done to break the trafficking chains in the Sinai and elsewhere? My feelings were heightened by the knowledge that such atrocities would not be tolerated if the victims were citizens of a nation that advocated effectively on their behalf.

Throughout my time in Israel I was constantly reminded that so much of what I have is based on timing, immigration policies and the geographic location of my birth. Luck. This struck me often when I saw asylum seekers, my age or younger, sweeping streets, working in restaurants and at construction sites. I often ran into community activists whose intellectual vitality rivaled that of people I had met in the most prestigious universities in the U.S.—and they were cleaning toilets to earn money to survive. When our eyes met and we greeted each other with “Selam,” pangs of guilt flooded me.

“Tell everyone. Tell everyone.  
I am expecting you to do so. Write it online. Write it everywhere.”

Memories of these encounters still keep me up many nights.

Once, while I was in Tel Aviv, I was talking with a young friend whom I will call Gebre. He told me about his hopes for the future. When he said he wanted to open a bar, I told him that it was a dangerous line of work for a teenage boy like himself. He gave me the strangest look that said, “Do you know what I have been through?” He showed me his wounds, where he had been burned in the torture houses. At work every day he is insulted because he is African. His boss and co-workers tell him, “You are stupid and black. You are dirty.”

Gebre is a tall and thin 18-year-old, but with the persona of a grown man who is as hard as a rock. He has no choice. To survive, he has to be hard. Then he started to talk about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years. In that moment he looked vulnerable, like a little boy. “Before the desert, I was different. I don’t recognize myself now,” he told me.

I am back in the U.S. now, working on my dissertation, but I am not the same. I too have been transformed. The experiences that so many asylum seekers shared in interviews, in conversations, in late night phone calls broken by sobs—they are a part of me now. What do I do with these narratives?

The narratives illustrating the many barriers faced by asylum seekers clarified for me the importance of contextualizing behavior within the wider political, economic and historical framework in which people live. I have resolved to complete the study about access to reproductive health care and to disseminate my findings. I hope my work will serve as an evidence base for improving female asylum seekers’ access to reproductive health services. But I also want to do more. I must speak out about the atrocities that they continue to face. African migrants, including those seeking asylum, continue to be tortured in the Sinai today. It is now, more than ever, essential for my life and work to advance human rights. I will find a way to join researchers and activists who are working toward dismantling this human trafficking chain—and calling attention to the circumstances that force people to take risks that can lead them into the hands of traffickers.

Merhawit’s words during one of our conversations come back to me.

She exhorted me to do something, to use the skills, knowledge and resources I have to make a difference. She told me she didn’t know how to use a computer and that I did, that I could reach many more people than she ever could. This is your responsibility, she told me. Then crying, she said, these words:

“Tell everyone. Tell everyone. I am expecting you to do so. Write it online. Write it everywhere.”

Tsega Gebreyesus is a doctoral student in the Social and Behavioral Interventions Program in the Department of International Health. She wishes to thank the people who made her research possible: Samuel Vidal, Emma Williams, Dena Feldman, Britt Fremstad, Laurie Lijnders Tikue, Kidane Isaac, Azezet Kidane, Habtom Mehari, Zebib Sultan, Mutasim Ali, Nadav Davidovitch, Nora Gottlieb, and Peter Winch. And all of those who shared their experiences with her.

For more information or to volunteer, contact:
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel
Eritrean Women’s Center
African Refugee Development Center
Amnesty International Israel 



  • arif

    Karachi 08/26/2014 01:59:52 AM

    I don't have the words to describe my feelings after reading about the horror asylum seeks endure. Power to you for highlighting this on going atrocity.

  • Saher

    Amman 10/21/2014 06:05:14 PM

    Great work Tsega, God bless you

* = required field

Read about our policy on comments to magazine articles.

design element
Online Extras
Still Waters

Still Waters

This gallery by photojournalist Kuni Takahashi illustrates key preventative measures initiated by Bloomberg Philanthropies in Bangladesh where 12,000 children drown annually.

View Gallery

Talk to Us

Amazed? Enthralled? Disappointed? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts on articles and your ideas for new stories:

Download the PDF

Get a copy of all Feature articles in PDF format. Read stories offline, optimized for printing.

Download Now (3.3MB)