Sunday, December 5th | 2 Tevet 5782

August 9, 2016 12:09 pm

The New York Times’ Grim Tale of an African Refugee Turned Away From Israel

avatar by Ira Stoll

The entrance to Holot immigration detention center in the Negev. Photo: Wikipedia.

The entrance to Holot immigration detention center in the Negev. Photo: Wikipedia.

The “Lives” column of the New York Times magazine features an account by one Tedros Abraha, “as told to Ryan Lenora Brown.”

It features the rather grim tale of a man from Eritrea who says he was smuggled by car through Sudan and Egypt to Israel:

I went to a hospital and told them that I was a midwife, and that I had come to apply for a job. But they told me that I didn’t have the papers needed to do that job in their country, so I went to work in a shawarma restaurant instead. …

Finally, some months ago, the government told me I had to go. … I could go to a camp in the Negev Desert called Holot. It’s a funny thing to call it — a camp. I’d heard that at Holot, you stayed in a crowded room and you had to check in three times a day — in the morning, the afternoon and again at night. All around you there is only desert — no people, no shops, no town. So really you can’t go anywhere at all. You’re trapped.…

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The Israeli government said if I wanted, they would give me $3,500 and a plane ticket to Rwanda. [There] it was like Holot. We were guests, but we could not leave. At night, a guard sat by the door with a gun. After two days there, the man told us that we could go on to Uganda…I gave that man $250, and we drove for 14 hours.

Given the narrow perspective of a single person through which this story is told, it’s hard for a Times reader to know what to make of it. How many other African immigrants to Israel are in the same situation? Is Israel’s treatment of these people unreasonably cruel, or exceptionally generous, or pretty much the same as that of other countries? The Times doesn’t explain why Mr. Abraha headed for Israel rather than Sudan or Egypt or some other country. It also doesn’t provide any context about all the Ethiopian Jews that Israel has absorbed over the years.

One wonders, too, how the Times knows that Mr. Abraha’s story is true.

The magazine article reports that Ms. Brown “traveled to Uganda with the International Women’s Media Foundation.” One wonders what that means, exactly.

I wrote to Ms. Brown with some of these questions and she was kind enough to respond. She replied, “I was on a fellowship with the IWMF and they paid my travel expenses (airfare, hotel, transportation, etc) to do nine days of reporting in Uganda. They did not offer a stipend or any additional money.”

She also said,

The New York Times fact-checking process is by far the most extensive I have ever encountered as a freelance journalist, and particularly given the sensitive political nature of this piece, which required a large amount of cross-checking of information, consultation of existing research (such as this report, among many others), and liaising with the Israeli immigration authority. In the end, information that could not be verified by outside sources was not included in the piece. For what it’s worth, the spokesperson of the Israeli immigration authority did not dispute the parameters of the story (i.e. the sending of Eritrean asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda or the conditions under which it is carried out) but refused to comment on the specifics of Tedros’ case.

This additional information from the author is useful. It would have been nice if it had been shared with all Times readers, rather than just with Algemeiner readers. It also suggests that the most suitable forum for the Times to explore this issue might not have been the magazine “Lives” column, with its first-person, one-source perspective, but rather a news article that could have done a better job of providing context and of including a variety of viewpoints.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.  

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