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An Interview With Our 2012 Voices of Courage Honoree Rim Tekie Solomon

Screen_shot_2012-04-04_at_2.16.23_PMThe daughter of Eritrean parents, Rim Tekie Solomon fled Sudan and crossed the Sinai Desert on foot with her mother and five younger siblings. When she first arrived in Israel, she lived in a detention center, taught herself Hebrew and translated for other detainees.  She is now 20 years old and works as a translator with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC). Rim also volunteers with the Hagar & Miriam project, helping young asylum-seeking women who are pregnant or new mothers through an initiative called “African and Israeli Women in Friendship and Motherhood.”

Can you tell us about your childhood in Sudan?

I was born in a refugee camp in Sudan. When I was still a baby, my parents left the camp and moved to Khartoum, where I lived until I was 15. I’m the oldest child and have three brothers and two sisters. We had a good life in Khartoum: I attended school, and I spent a lot of time with my friends. Then one day, my father told me that we were in danger and that we needed to leave the country. He was raised by a Sudanese man and has a Sudanese name but was born Eritrean; that’s why we were in danger of being deported.

How did you feel about moving?

I was terrified of moving to Israel. I’d lived in a Muslim country, and in the news I’d only seen one side of Israel. So I just didn’t know what to expect.

Can you tell us about the day you left Khartoum?

I was 15 years old at the time and my five siblings were all younger. A car came to pick us up that afternoon, and I left with my siblings and my mother. We left all of our belongings behind. We drove for a long time but didn’t know where we were going.

What was the journey to Israel like?

After we got to Cairo, we traveled on foot to Israel through the Sinai Desert. It was cold and really dangerous. Many times I heard gunshots because the Egyptians were shooting people who were trying to cross the borders to Israel. At night we would sleep on the ground. Every day we were passed to different smugglers. I know many people who’ve since come through in a really bad condition. Most of them had no food or water and were often tortured and raped.

What was the detention center like?

The detention center was Saharonim Prison, on the border of Israel, in the middle of the desert. I lived there for five months and it really was a prison. We didn’t do anything all day—no school, nothing. A guard watched us all of the time. My siblings kept asking me, “Why are we here? Why can’t we go home?” I never knew what to tell them, except, “Tomorrow will be better,” even though I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring.

How did you become a translator in the prison?

There were some Israeli students who came to play with the kids, and I taught myself Hebrew from talking to them. I also got to know other young women there, and it made me feel better knowing that I wasn’t the only person with a difficult life or who had to flee their home. I began translating for women and children so that they could talk to the judge. I’d translate from Tigrinya (the Eritrean language) into English, or from Arabic to English.

It’s hard to believe, but most of these young women were tortured or raped in the desert by smugglers. Hearing their testimonies was really difficult for me; I don’t know how to put it into words.

What happened when you left the prison?

One day they told us that we were being released and going to a shelter in Tel Aviv. We lived at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) for five months. It was really crowded and had poor conditions. There were only eight rooms, and about 48 people lived there. None of the kids went to school.

My mom finally found work cleaning houses, and she eventually got her visa. After she saved enough money, we were able to leave the shelter and rent our own apartment.

What have you been doing since you moved to Tel Aviv?

I graduated from high school, and I currently work part-time at UNHCR and ARDC as a translator between staff members and asylum seekers. I am planning to apply for university next year in Tel Aviv. I want to study medicine so that I can become a pediatrician.

I also volunteer with the Hagar and Miriam project that helps young African asylum seekers who are pregnant or new mothers. Through a program it created (along with the NGO with Messila) called “Sexuality in the Prism of Culture,” I teach Sudanese and Eritrean girls how to stay safe and prepare for life here in Israel, which is totally different than their home country. In Sudan, girls cannot wear short pants and skirts, here they can. We want them to understand how to protect themselves in Israel, where they have more freedom.

You work mostly with girls aged 9 to 13. Why is this an important age to help?

At that age, they don’t know what’s right and wrong. My sister just turned 10 and she behaves so differently than I did in Sudan because she has more freedom. The girls need to know more about the culture to be able to protect themselves.

I left Sudan at 15, and I had nobody to help me or give me advice about these things. Everything I learned, I learned by myself. It’s difficult not having any friends or anybody to help you. I just want to help the girls so they don’t feel alone. I’ve seen my life change without even understanding for how long it would change or knowing what would happen next. I was always worried about tomorrow.

What are your hopes?

For all of my family to be together, it doesn’t matter where we are. Right now my mom’s the only one taking care of us—my father stayed behind when we left Sudan. We don’t know when we will see him again.

But I don’t want to go back to Sudan. It was a different place and a different time. My mom was married at the age of 13. Now she’s 34, and I am 20, so we kind of look like sisters—but I want a different future.

We will be honoring Rim at this year's Voices of Courage Awards Luncheon in New York City on May 4th. Our annual luncheon helps us raise funds to improve the lives and protect the rights of refugee women and children around the world.