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Dancing African Kids in Israeli Jail

What awaits you after traveling a thousand miles in search of a buck? If you’re from Africa: prison.

It’s New Years Eve and I am exactly where I need to be; halfway across the world from home and inside an Israeli prison. The sun is shining but the prisoners will never see it. White cement walls are on all sides with heavy, oppressive, blue metal doors. Young black faces peer though a bar-covered opening at eye level. The guard opens a door, boys file out, the guard closes the door behind them. He opens another and the boys file into the yard. The “yard” has no grass, or even any windows. It is a cement room with a ping pong table and a picnic bench. Among the thirty-something boys there are two groups, one from Eritrea and the other is a blend from Sudan, The Ivory Coast, Guinea, Nigeria, and Georgia.

Today is a special day for the boys. To celebrate the New Year a drummer from Jaffa has come to teach the boys how to play in a drum circle.

Nelson, from Nigeria, is the first to enter the yard, one of the two rooms that the boys spend time in outside of their cell. Nelson looks tired, he does not want to celebrate the New Year. He tells me that he does not want to eat or talk because he is too sad. Nelson has grown desperate, worse then he has before, and begs me for my phone number as if me giving it to him will be a sign that he will be let out. The guard frowns at me and I hand his phone back to him.

The boys trudge into the yard and sit in a circle, each boy has his own drum. The teacher makes a sound and the boys repeat the rhythm. It takes a couple times for them to catch on, but they are patient and try their best to follow instructions. The sounds of drums echo in my head and I begin to think back to when I first came to the prison.

For the past few months two of my roommates and I have been volunteering with unaccompanied male minors from Africa by creating fun activities to break up the monotony of their days. Nelson was my first friend. His face is finely chiseled with deeply set eyes. At first, he was one of the only boys who could speak English because he had learned it in Nigeria. We spoke between the bars of his cell. In his charming African accent he asked:

‘Excuse me, why am I in prison? I did not do anything wrong, can you please help me get out?’ At that moment he melted my heart and later enchanted me with his love of architecture and his ability to design houses.

Now, a few months later I see before me a broken boy. Nelson was supposed to be released a few weeks ago but his release date continues to get pushed back. I go to the prison every week praying that I will not see him there but am always selfishly happy that I get to spend another day with him. The guards told me that when he was not released the day after Christmas, the day he was scheduled to leave, that he cried in a way they have never seen from a man. The happy-go-lucky, self assured, intelligent young person that I have grown to love broke down after seven months without his freedom.

The drumming stops for a moment as Mozowi walks in. Mozowi had a rough night and the guards had to coerce him out of bed to join the group. Reluctantly, he finds the only seat available next to the teacher. He cannot seem to catch onto the pattern. The teacher gets frustrated and puts his hand on the drum for him to stop and listen to the beat. I look at one of the volunteers, both of us wondering how he will react. He is mellow, and sits quietly, disappointed in himself. Mozowi and Nelson were supposed to be released together to live with a family on a kibbutz near the Dead Sea. Someone did not file paperwork in time for Nelson to get out and the government would not issue a visa for Mozowi.

The first time I really got to know Mozowi was during a lesson on geography and map reading. In mid conversation, Mozowi took his shirt off and turned around to show us scars going from the bottom of his neck down his back. The little part of his story that I know keeps repeating in my mind. Mozowi was born in Ethiopia but moved to Sudan as a child. His family’s situation was very bad so he left to save his life and make something of himself.

Mozowi walked through Egypt but was captured near the border. For eight days he was starved and beaten, he was treated in a way that no child should endure and was literally stabbed in the back. He barely made it out alive but managed to cross the Sinai Mountains alone and on foot. Israeli soldiers found him on the ground and took him to a hospital. Three days later he was feeling better and was transported to a prison where he has been for the last seven months.

The drumming has improved. I begin to see a few smiles. Just when the boys really start to enjoy themselves the guards interrupt and send them back to their cells. The first group leaves and the Eritrean group comes in. The Eritrean boys are always laughing and messing with the prison guards, but today they are preoccupied. Last night, Adam, one of their friends, tried to kill himself, and it has clearly effected their mood. The instructor takes a cigarette break but the boys take their seats and begin to play anyway. They pound angrily on the drums, each individual pattern melds into the same rhythm.

I’ve heard the rhythm before. On my first day the prison brought an Eritrean band into the yard. The boys were shy and sat quietly at first, enjoying the music from their home country. Their shoulders were moving but no one had the courage to get up. I went up to Binyam, nicknamed by the guards as “The King” for his charisma, intelligence, and ability to influence his friends, and invited him to dance. Slowly, some of the boys started to join the dance party, as did the other volunteers.

Adam stuck out from the crowd. He has long black eyelashes with eyes that twinkle. He moved slowly and soulfully in the traditional form and invited me to dance with him. He kept eye contact the entire time and was very respectful. He gracefully moved every movable muscle in his body while attempting to teach my two left feet his beautiful dance. In that second Adam made me forget that he was locked away in prison, and for a short while he too was somewhere else.

Our advisor, who is in charge of prison education, told us that Adam’s mother called from Eritrea to see why he was still in prison. She pleaded with him and could not understand why he had not sent money home to his starving relatives. Adam’s younger brother fought with his mother about food and fled to Sudan to try and earn some money. Out of sadness and desperation, Adam’s mother doubted her reasoning for sending him away from the family, and accused him of making it his choice to stay in prison. After the phone call, Adam found a piece of wire and when the guards were not looking used it to strangle himself. He has been in the hospital for the past few weeks recovering, and we have not heard from him since.

The Eritrean group has a hard time understanding the English commands of the Drum teacher but they have never been fond of following instructions anyway. They attempt to appease the teacher, but time out of the cell is short, and they have their own agenda. Drum beats override the teacher and they begin their own melodic patterns. The oldest boy gets up with his drum, dancing in a circle in the middle of the group. He drums as he dances and sings with a call and response. A few other boys get up to dance. The instructor, inspired by the boys, creates his own melody to compliment theirs. The boys shush him so as to not interrupt their song.

The boys begin to have fun for a few moments and in my mind they are outside dancing in Africa. The clock strikes five and the guards come in. It is only Thursday, but it is time to go back to their cells for the weekend.

Jillian Gerstley