Out of ugliness, sometimes there emerges something beautiful. That is what happened when human rights activist Sigal Avivi came across the photography of Noureldin Musa, a refugee from Darfur, former pastry chef and current detainee at Holot, whose work is now the subject of an exhibit at Tel Aviv’s Parasite Gallery entitled “Waiting – One Year at Holot Detention Center“.
Some background: The modern State of Israel was founded on Jewish immigration, offering shelter to Jews fleeing the horrors of antisemitism. Some would say this experience has made Israelis more sensitive to the plight of refugees. Others would argue that it has had the opposite effect, desensitizing Israeli policy-makers who, with no clear approach in mind, put any number of ad hoc solutions into place thus creating the current situation: 47,000 asylum-seekers as of 2014, (according to Israeli refugee aid organization ASSAF citing Population Immigration and Border Authority statistics), of which Israel has recognized under 1 percent.
These circumstances, according to the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, came into being some 30 years ago. “Since the early 1990s, Palestinian work permits have been increasingly restricted while foreign migrant labor, which is considered a more secure alternative to Palestinian labor, has been encouraged… A migrant labor policy adopted in the 1990s brought workers from Asia, Africa, and South America on limited work permits”.
Since 2006, with the war in Darfur, Israel experienced a wave of African asylum seekers, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, crossing the border from Egypt into Israel. If apprehended on the Egyptian side, these foreign nationals could be convicted of illegal entry and spend several years in prison. “Egypt has also been widely condemned for implementing a ‘shoot-to-stop’ policy targeting migrants crossing from Egypt to Israel”, the Global Detention Project notes.
In Israel, detention policy operates under two laws: the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law and the 1952 Entry into Israel Law. If apprehended while trying to enter Israel, “non-citizens are either detained under the authorization of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) or immediately turned back to Egypt as part of an unofficial ‘Hot Return’ policy, a practice that has been criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as contrary to international law…”
Detainees are held at the Saharonim Detention Center, a closed facility, or at the Holot Detention Center, a so-called “open” facility where inhabitants are not allowed to work outside the center, and must report for roll call three times a day.
Exhibition curator and noted Israeli photographer Michal Heiman writes, “For a year, Noureldin has been locked in Holot, a facility in the middle of the desert, purposefully removed from society. Prior to his detention, Noureldin had lived in Israel for several years. In addition to his activities for his own community, he had worked for a living and was integrated into the local culture”.
“Once a productive man, Noureldin is forced to spend his days sitting idly. And so he began to document his environment through photography. This exhibition is comprised of these photographs from Holot, taken on Noureldin’s mobile phone”.
In his artist’s statement, Musa writes, “I got interested in photography in May 2014, in the desert in the south of Israel. It is there that I started to figure out the beautiful scenery of the desert. It is a place where I am waiting for the hope to deepen inside my heart, waiting for the nature to create the pretty beauty of the scene of daily life in the quiet desert.
“Everything changes very slowly but beautifully in a very promising way”.
If there is a bright spot, it is the ongoing activity of NGOs and activists working Israel’s democratic system, lobbying government, petitioning the courts and raising public awareness — including through art exhibitions like these — about the refugees’ plight.
“Waiting – One Year at Holot Detention Center” is funded by the Emile Zola Chair for Human Rights, the Israel Winnicott Center and private donors. All photos are for sale with all proceeds going to Noureldin Musa. For more information, visit the Parasite Gallery website.