NIKKI TESFAI & REFUGEE SAFE HAVEN
Nikki Tesfai greets me in her office at the African Community Resource Center, the only refugee center in L.A. that aids people from African as well as European and Asian countries. It is also the only refugee center in the U.S. with a shelter for refugee women who are escaping abusive husbands.
A beautiful 47 year-old Eritrean woman who speaks five languages and has earned a Ph.D in Economics, Nikki has deep, sparkling eyes that hint at her inner strength. She laments that the September 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. Nikki 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. Nikki 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 childbirth pain. As Nikki tells me her story, I discover that it is one in which Jewish ethics play an important role.
Nikki 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,”explains Niki, “because Ethiopians believe that Jews drink blood. He feared what they would do to us.”
Like most Jewish fathers, Nikki’s father stressed the importance of education. He saved his money for years in order to send her to school in Switzerland. When Nikki did so well that she won a scholarship, he was able to pay for her younger brothers to go to college in the U.S. Nikki eventually joined them, and wound up at Union College, a Baptist school in Memphis, Tennessee.
“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.” Nikki recalls the night the KKK 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.” Nikki escaped the KKK 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.”
Nikki 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, 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.
Nikki’s 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 Nikki bore two children and continued her education. But Nikki’s husband became abusive, so she packed her kids into the car and started driving. She eventually ended up in Los Angles, where she sought help from the Jewish Federation.
Nikki soon discovered that the refugee centers in L.A. County welcome Hispanics, Vietnamese and Europeans, but not Africans. “Eritrean (Ethiopian) 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,” says Nikki.
In 1984, Nikki opened a center that would cater to these refugees. Eventually, with the support of Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, ACRC moved into larger quarters in Vermont. 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, Nikki and her staff discovered that over 75 percent of refugee women are the victims of domestic violence. One reason, Nikki believes, is because women adapt to a new life in the U.S. more readily than their husbands. The men then take out their frustrations on them.
Last year, ACRC opened Refugee Safe Haven for refugee women who flee from abusive husbands. The location is kept secret, and Nikki enlists lawyers to obtain restraining orders to protect them. 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 Nikki for her work. “The victims served by Refugee Safe Haven are truly strangers in a strange land,” says Gordon. “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,'” Nikki says proudly. “They have jobs and their own apartments, but they come back to help the other women.” Niki visits the safe house every Friday. “I always bring the residents a challah.”
Nikki is developing a curricula 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 needs private donations as well. Nikki 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 (Ethiopian) Jews. “They say, that way, I’d be sure to get donations from Jews,”? says Nikki. “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: 213-637-1450; email@example.com
Sharon Boorstin is a journalist who writes often for the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, Food Arts, Conde Nast Traveller UK and Playboy. Her book “Let Us Eat Cake: Memories of Food and Friendship” is due to be published in May 2002 and deals among other things with shiterein cooks. Sharon is also a member of our Megillah family.