Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees: Photo project is chink of light for trafficked women

By Leila Segal, January 12, 2014

Trafficked: ‘I want to portray how a person is blinfolded, beaten, and taken away’
Trafficked: ‘I want to portray how a person is blinfolded, beaten, and taken away’

The Eritrean and Ethiopian women sheltering in the refuge in Petach Tikva, central Israel, have stories so upsetting that they are difficult to relate in words.

They are victims of traffickers, kidnapped in their home countries and taken to the Sinai via Sudan, often “bought” and “sold” many times along the way. In the Bedouin camps, they are held captive, often raped and tortured. This abuse is relayed to their families via video and phone calls until ransoms of thousands of dollars are paid — punishingly high for the rural communities from which most come.

The women sheltering in Israel are among a lucky few who managed to get over the Sinai border.

Voice of Freedom, a project run by UK charity PhotoVoice in partnership with Jewish human-rights organisation René Cassin, is using photography to offer the women a way of expressing and dealing with their traumatic experiences.

Women living in the shelter are encouraged to document their lives, feelings and experiences through the camera lens, and create texts in their own words to accompany the images.

Participants are taught how to use cameras so they can define, communicate and improve their situation.

Shelter director and lawyer Yasmin Confino says: “The photography project was a therapeutic process. Those women who couldn’t express themselves in any other way opened up and started defining and reinventing themselves. It helped the staff to know the women in a different way.”

Tizalu Brahan, who was trafficked to Sinai from rural Ethiopia, says: “In Sinai, there was no water but here they give us water, and new clothes. Here I have improved a lot, and I remembered that and I took a picture of it. The future will be improved and better. I very much like being in Israel — it’s comfortable. I really like the people in Israel.”

Through innovative anti-trafficking legislation, Israel has largely stamped out trafficking from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc — but now a new “trade” brings women from Africa.

The Ma’agan shelter, where the project took place, is run by the Israeli Ministry of Welfare. After interviews and legal processing, the women are given “trafficked” status and a place in the shelter, usually for a year. They receive social, medical and emotional support throughout their stay, after which they move into independent housing or, if possible, return home.

Leila Segal is director of Voice of Freedom

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