My mother only puts her head in water if it is coming from a faucet. My grandfather, haunted by the drowning of his twelve-year-old son, became nearly hysterical when driven past the Potomac River nearly thirty years later. My uncle, only a few years older than his six-year-old niece, was unable to save her as she also drowned in a river.
I have only once felt unsettled in water. While on a work assignment in Jordan, I signed up for a scuba diving course. I have been swimming since I was a little girl but the first time I descended into the Gulf of Aqaba I had this feeling that I had trespassed and that it would not go unpunished. The darkness below the water’s surface was made ominous by a quiet that I had never heard on land. While the other students drifted ahead, I treaded in place, flinching at the fish that swam on either side of me. I did not want to quit but the second time I descended my unease only intensified. It was irrational but I just had this feeling that I was not supposed to be there.
I told this story to my family in Tel Aviv during our recent reunion for my cousin’s wedding. I have at least thirty relatives there who are among the 35,000 Eritrean asylum seekers who began arriving through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 2006. Eritreans do not want to settle in Israel. Some are smuggled to Libya in the hopes of boating to Europe and others take circuitous routes to Latin America and cross the Rio Grande into the United States. These arrangements take time and money and Eritreans stay in Israel for years without legal protection, struggling to secure menial jobs and housing in a country that does not want them.
Tel Aviv felt like Asmara. It wasn’t just because of the dry warmth, modernist architecture, and palm trees that lined the streets. It was because there were so many Eritreans.
The day before I arrived, hundreds of migrants fleeing Libya drowned after their boat heading to Italy capsized. The day after my cousin’s wedding, nearly nine hundred Arab and African migrants, including an unconfirmed number of children, drowned in the worst migrant sea disaster in the Mediterranean. I watched the news with my cousin John* who has been living in Israel for nearly five years. After serving as a soldier in Eritrea for twelve years, he abandoned his post to flee to Ethiopia and then Egypt, where he was arrested for seven months. He then returned to Ethiopia and paid to be smuggled to Libya, where he was arrested again, before journeying to Israel. He does not understand English but I knew he could recognize the news on the television: Brown bodies on boats and some in the water.
Later, en route to Jerusalem, my uncle asked John what he planned to do. The other big story that broke two weeks before I arrived was the Israeli government’s announcement to deport the nearly 50,000 African refugees to African countries that are not their own, likely Rwanda and Uganda. He looked back at us from the passenger seat and then faced the road ahead. “Africa,” he said. “And then what?” I asked. He paused, not out of uncertainty, and replied, “I’ll go back to Africa, wherever they are going to send us, cross the Sahara, and go to Europe from Libya.” I did not bring up my fears because he knows them better than I do. Two of our relatives drowned in the Mediterranean and his own brother, after being imprisoned and tortured in Libya, survived the capsizing of two boats before making it to Europe on his third journey.
There were other things to talk about anyways. Joining me from the West were my two uncles from Maryland and two cousins from London. The delegation from Eritrea included my step grandmother and the wives of three of my relatives, all of whom left Eritrea for the first time in their lives to reunite with children they had not seen in years. John took responsibility for us tourists and showed us around. A self-taught Biblical scholar, he explained the significance of nearly every site in Jerusalem’s Old City, running his hands over the ancient stone. Even as he lectured, he was always concerned with our comfort. If the sun was in our faces, he switched positions. If we sighed, he asked if we were tired. He bought us bottles of water but did not drink them himself. He wiped down chairs before we could sit in them, patted our backs when we stopped to catch our breath, and at night, I could hear him singing gospel songs from the room next to mine.
I was taken aback by these brown babies, my own blood, who spoke Hebrew as if it was intended for them, as if it was their mother tongue.
Tel Aviv felt like Asmara. It was not just because of the dry warmth, modernist architecture, and palm trees that lined the streets. It was because there were so many Eritreans – they were riding their bikes, boarding buses, and working in restaurants and markets – so many that they did not even acknowledge each other on the streets. It also felt like Asmara because I have so many relatives there. There are at least 30 relatives who share the same great-great grandfather as mine, which is close by Eritrean standards, and plenty more who are my relatives by marriage.
We went from apartment to apartment, each decorated as they would have been back in Eritrea. The walls were covered with religious tapestries featuring pale-faced Jesuses and Virgin Marys staring dreamily off into space, as well as colorful banners with pictures of happy couples and babies celebrating weddings, baptisms, and first birthdays. We watched Eri-TV as communal platters of injera and stewed meats were set before us and then replaced with sugared and salted popcorn, sliced fruit, and thimble-sized cups of espresso.
The elders gave their blessings that we would be reunited again soon and in hushed tones, the younger cousins talked about their predicament. They had largely left Eritrea not in fear for their safety but because they wanted better lives for themselves and their families. Most of them could not speak English well but they knew words like temporary, restrictions, and rights. They knew that Scandinavian countries are preferred destinations but that Canada and Australia have more welcoming policies. They knew that to cross the Rio Grande did not cost much but that getting there was the hard part. A few of them have wives who made it to Europe, they were planning to join the wives soon. One cousin told me that he paid $23,000 just to get his pregnant wife to Norway and that he would finally get to meet his eight-month-old son when he would leave to join her the following week.
Just like in Eritrea there were so many children. They ran in and out of rooms, stole bites of food, and begged to play with our smart phones. I was taken aback by these brown babies, my own blood, who spoke Hebrew as if it was intended for them, as if it was their mother tongue. I understood the loss my grandfather must have felt when, in 1985, he met me for the first time in Northern Virginia and I could not speak to him in Tigrigna, revealing that distance was not the only thing that kept us apart. My cousin’s wife, meeting her Israeli-born grandchildren for the first time, told me that these kids were wild and badly-behaved and her son defended his parenting by explaining that children are taught in school to call the police if their parents discipline them too harshly, that Eritrean parents have actually been arrested, but she just shook her head in disbelief. I am sure the same was said of my generation born in the United States and Europe but it was my turn to bear witness to the displacement that has plagued Eritreans since the 1970s and I too shook my head.
I saw a child sinking ahead of me, her arms raised as if she was waiting to be picked up, and I shook my head to make her disappear. I told myself to just swim faster so I could finally get out of the pool.
On the morning of my cousin’s wedding, the boat carrying those 900 passengers who would later drown went out to sea. Her wedding, like all Eritrean weddings, was a traveling, well-documented circus. From church, nearly 100 of us headed to a popular park to take pictures and dance around the bridal party’s stretch limo in the parking lot. Dressed in traditional clothing, we entered the grounds like an invading army, with singing and jumping young men leading the charge. The Israeli park goers snapped shots and cheered “Congratulations” in Hebrew and English and I assumed they had gotten used to our ways – that day alone there were at least six other Eritrean weddings. We then returned to our homes to change into our evening attire and reconvened in another park to take more pictures with the bride and groom before joining the nearly four hundred guests at the reception.
Throughout the day, family members asked what I thought about Israel and I struggled with how to respond. Do I only say that it is a lovely country with a gorgeous coastline? Or am I supposed to comment on the precarious circumstances of their lives there? One cousin answered his own question and told me that Israel has messed with his head, that they are trying to bring him down, but then jumped into a group photo being staged by the Russian photographer. He is handsome with a big curly Afro and a few of my other cousins told me that white women like that kind of hair and that I should find him one from America. Another relative with kind, squinted, eyes told me that he recently flew to Russia but returned when he was denied a visa to Brazil. He confirmed that he would try for South America again, wind his way up Central America, and cross the Rio Grande into Texas. Despite our grim conversations, the wedding felt like it could have been anywhere in the Eritrean universe – Asmara, D.C., San Jose, Stockholm, Frankfurt – and we clapped as the bride and groom were lifted up on shoulders and waved for the camera.
After our farewell dinner, a cousin walked my uncle and I to the bus stop for the last time. He was a week from reuniting with his family in Norway and told me, with the same dreaminess my girlfriends and I reserve for the latest Beyonce release, that he wants to be a human resources manager. I offered words of encouragement, he is sharp and speaks English well, but he has been out of school for eleven years and I feared that the challenges of being an adult migrant with a family to support would make his humble dream unfeasible. Back at the apartment, we turned on the news to see men in orange jumpsuits kneel before masked men holding automatic weapons. The scene looked to be out of a movie. The beach was pristine and the camera panned over the stoic expressions of the soon to be massacred. I watched with John and like him I did not hear the English. I just saw people who looked like me. My uncle translated for the both of us: ISIL slaughtered thirty Ethiopian migrants on a Mediterranean beach. No one said anything else.
The day after my return to New York, I resumed my twice-weekly cardio swim class at the NYU Coles Sports Center. It was aerobic, not instructional, and I was desperate to burn some calories after one week of carb-loading on injera and hummus. For the first time in class, we swam with fins and the momentum of their long, tapered surfaces created a force stronger than our feet could. The first drill was not taxing, five sets of 100, but water came in through my mouth and nose and when I turned my head after every third stroke, I was gasping for air. I could not see the swimmer ahead of me, only the churning water that whipped white and slapped against my body, and I had to stand in the shallow water to catch my breath. After two sets, I stopped and leaned my head against the wall, nodding as my coach told me that I was just having an off day, when I knew that it was something else. I eventually resumed the drill and when someone accidentally grabbed my feet, I felt even more panicked, racing forward with jagged breaths.
I could not help but think about what those final minutes must have felt like for the 1,500 migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean since January. In some cases, the boats capsized because the passengers saw rescue boats and rushed to one side to get their attention. I wondered how long it took for the boats to flip over, if some died trapped inside or if most broke free, only to wrestle themselves to their deaths. I saw a child sinking ahead of me, her arms raised as if she was waiting to be picked up, and I shook my head to make her disappear. I told myself to just swim faster so I could finally get out of the pool.