April 4, 2002
Providing Save Haven
A Jewish refugee comes to America and helps women like herself find support.
Nikki Tesfai greets me in her office at the African Community Resource Center (ACRC), the only refugee center in Los Angeles that aids people from African as well as European and Asian countries. It is also the only refugee center in the United States with a shelter for refugee women who are escaping abusive husbands.
A beautiful 47-year-old Eritrean (Ethiopian) woman who speaks five languages and has earned a doctorate in humanities, Tesfai has deep, sparkling eyes that hint at her inner strength. She laments that the Sept. 11 tragedy shook her faith in America. This, after all, is the country that welcomed her after she was abused, raped and tortured in Africa. She says now she fears her people will be harmed by repercussions. I ask her why -- is she a Muslim?
"No," she replies. "I'm Jewish."
Suddenly, instead of being journalist and subject, we are two Jews sharing our fears about anti-Semitism and the fate of the world. Tesfai has seen the worst of human behavior and has been the victim of evil. When we talk about the nightmarish year she spent in an Eritrean prison, she stops and takes several slow, deep breaths, like the Lamaze breathing technique I learned years ago to take my mind off pain. As she tells me her story, I discover that it is one in which Jewish ethics play an important role.
She grew up in Addis Ababa, the oldest of six children in a middle-class family that attended the Coptic Christian church but secretly celebrated Yom Kippur. "My father told us never to tell our friends we were Jewish," Tesfai explains. "Ethiopians believe that Jews drink blood. He feared what they would do to us."
Tesfai's father stressed the importance of education. He saved his money for years in order to send her to school in Switzerland. When Tesfai did so well that she won a scholarship, he was able to pay for her younger brothers to go to college in the United States. Tesfai eventually joined them, and wound up at Union College, a Baptist school in Memphis, Tenn.
"I didn't know anything about racial prejudice when I came to America," she says. "In Ethiopia -- and in Switzerland, too -- foreigners were differentiated by the country they came from, not by their color." Tesfai recalls the night the Ku Klux Klan gathered outside the college library, where she was studying. "I had no idea what they were -- even if they were human. The boy next to me told me to run, that they had come to kill me." She escaped the Klan that night, but spent the rest of her year in college in fear. "All I wanted to do was graduate and go home to Africa."
Tesfai returned to Ethiopia in the midst of a civil war, and she joined the Eritrean liberation forces. They imprisoned her because she criticized them for their inhumane treatment of women, among other injustices. When she finally got out, she escaped on foot across the desert to Khartoum, Sudan, where she spent a year in a refugee camp that was nearly as horrific as the prison. Her father implored her to go to America -- and to use the education that she had been blessed with to help others.
Her path to fulfilling her father's dream for her was a long one, and involved her marriage to a man who was instrumental in the relocation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. They settled in Houston, where she bore two children and continued her education. But Tesfai and her husband became estranged, so she packed her kids into the car and started driving. She eventually ended up in Los Angeles, where she sought help from The Jewish Federation.
She soon discovered that the refugee centers in Los Angeles County welcome Hispanics, Vietnamese and Europeans, but not Africans. "Eritrean Jews and other Africans who don't speak English had nowhere to go. They were turned away because the centers claimed they lacked staff who spoke African languages," Tesfai says.
In 1984, Tesfai opened a center that would cater to these refugees. Eventually, with the support of Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, ACRC moved into larger quarters on Vermont Avenue. Here, they offer resettlement assistance, family support and counseling, employment placement, education and English language training, not only to refugees from African countries, but also from Bosnia, Iran, Central America, Armenia, Vietnam and Russia.
In the course of interviewing refugees, Tesfai and her staff discovered that over 75 percent of refugee women are the victims of domestic violence. One reason, Tesfai believes, is because women adapt to a new life in the United States more readily than their husbands. The men then take out their frustrations on their wives.
Last year, ACRC opened Refugee Safe Haven for refugee women who flee from abusive husbands. The location is kept secret, and Tesfai enlists lawyers to obtain restraining orders to protect the women. Because it has a separate kosher kitchen, the 22-bed safe house can accommodate Jewish and Muslim residents.
Deputy District Attorney Scott Gordon, the former chairman of the Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Council and a member of the Board of ACRC, lauds Tesfai for her work. "The victims served by Refugee Safe Haven are truly strangers in a strange land," Gordon says. "They have come to the United States after losing their countries, their friends, and in many cases, their families. The losses caused by domestic violence are then added to their pain."
At Refugee Safe Haven, counselors help build the women's self- esteem and teach them the skills necessary to lead independent lives. "Three of the residents have already 'graduated,'" Tesfai says proudly. "They have jobs and their own apartments, but they come back to help the other women." She visits the safe house every Friday. "I always bring the residents a challah."
Tesfai is developing a curriculum for the safe house that she intends to take to Israel next year. "I want to train the Ethiopian Jews in Israel to establish a shelter for their own people."
ACRC receives federal, state, and local government funds, but it relies on private donations as well. Tesfai hopes to receive support from the Jewish community. She admits that many of her Jewish friends have asked why she doesn't limit ACRC and the shelter just to Eritrean Jews. "They say, that way, I'd be sure to get donations from Jews," she says. "I answer them: 'I'm Jewish. Part of being Jewish is helping as many people as I can."
For more information on the African Community Resource Center, call (213) 637-1450 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .