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Story Publication logo January 27, 2016

A Poor Kenyan Dreams — and Dreams Again — of Going to the Promised Land of Israel

Illustration by Chuck Todd.

As more Africans risk their lives trying to leave their homelands, people in one area of rural Kenya...


GATHIGA, Kenya—Just outside of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, high-rise office buildings and posh homes give way to a plots of corn and potatoes, dissected by rows of napier grass.

Save for a few permanent buildings, homes here are constructed of brightly painted, corrugated metal sheets.

About 10 shops, most vacant, line a road near a primary school, which has bare openings instead of finished doors and windows. Motorbikes, the main form of transport here, tear through town on a dirt road, leaving a cloud of dust behind them.

This is Gathiga, a village that has remained underdeveloped for decades, despite its proximity to bustling Nairobi. But things are looking up. The village's earthen road has been freshly dug, a sign that it will soon be paved. Villagers hope that the road will open up the area for economic growth.

Even so, Douglas Maina, a resident here, hopes for a better life, somewhere far away. His dream is to go to Europe, or return to Israel, where he once saved 1.7 million Kenyan shillings ($16,618) over five years by working as a dishwasher.

"What I need badly is to get out of here," he says.

Maina, 45, is jobless and broke. The only jobs available, he says, are for stonecutters, and he says those are snapped up by younger, more energetic men. He's been waiting for six months to hear from a Nairobi job recruitment agency. That agency took his passport, he says, and promised to find him work in a Persian Gulf country.

"I would love to return to Israel or go to Europe, but the people who can help me travel want a lot of money, which I don't have," he says, pacing the unkempt courtyard of his ramshackle home.

Maina lives here alone. His wife left him, and his son, 19, lives with his maternal grandmother.

"One agent asked for 400,000 shillings ($3,910) to take me to Italy. I don't have that kind of money."

Maina sold nearly all of his property in 2014 when he saw a chance to go back to Israel. A local church organized a trip for Christians to visit the Holy Land. Maina signed up for the trip and paid the church 140,000 shillings ($1,369), money he'd saved after selling his car, electronics and some furniture.

"I knew I could always buy more and even better furniture once I got to Israel," he says.

But when he landed in Israel in November 2014, customs officials there discovered that he'd lived in the country before, and doubted his intentions for coming again.

"They asked me what I had come back to see that I didn't see during the five years I had lived in the country," he says. "And, just like that, I was deported to Kenya."

Maina has been depressed since he returned.

"He spends most of his time drinking," says his friend Samuel Hugui. "His wife left him and went to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia. I keep telling him to forget about going abroad and rebuild his life here in the village, but he has refused."

Maina is determined to leave. Israel gave him a taste of a better life, he says — a life he would do anything to get back.

It was eight years ago that Maina began his first odyssey to Israel. A family friend promised that if Maina could get to Egypt, the friend would pay the rest of his way.

At the time, Maina worked as an assistant at a phone repair shop in downtown Nairobi. He cobbled together his savings and flew to Egypt. He expected to arrive in Israel within a week of landing in Egypt, but the journey lasted more than three months.

It took his friend longer than expected to send the money he needed for the trip. Then, he waited for smugglers to gather enough clients to make their efforts worthwhile. All the migrants lived together for three months in one house. Each paid $300 for food.

Finally, there was a group of 15 migrants ready for the journey: six women and nine men, mostly from Africa. One woman, a Georgian, was pregnant.

"We were all excited as we took our seats in the van," Maina says. "We bought a lot of food and drinks, as we were not sure how long the journey would take. The smugglers were rude and only spoke in Arabic, so it was useless to ask them questions."

The van stopped after several hours' drive, a few kilometers from the Egyptian border. It's a dangerous spot: Egyptian forces killed more than 30 migrants near the Sinai border with Israel between July 2007 and October 2008, sometimes employing a "shoot to stop" policy, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report. That's around the time Maina made his trip.

A pickup truck pulled over next to the van, Maina says.

"They told us to board the truck and lie flat on our stomachs," Maina says. "Some people had to lie on others because the space was limited."

Even the pregnant woman had to lie on her belly, Maina says, and the smugglers stacked wood on top of the migrants.

"Anyone who saw that truck might have thought it was transporting wood," he says.

The group traveled that way for three hours, he says.

"I could barely breathe," he says. "The weight of the wood on top of me and the strong smell of sweat was suffocating."

After crossing the border, the smugglers off-loaded the wood and told the migrants to start walking. Some of them could not stand, let alone walk, due to fatigue.

"The two smugglers cocked their guns and ordered everyone to move. We all suddenly gained strength and started moving," Maina says. "They walked behind us with their guns pointed at our backs."

The pregnant woman lagged, and the smugglers tired of waiting for her. They left her behind.

The group walked into what is known as no-man's-land, a largely ungoverned section in the Sinai Peninsula. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have received reports of migrants taken hostage, extorted and tortured in this area. Maina's smugglers were armed and hence were able to protect them, he says.

They stayed there for a week, while the smugglers surveyed the Israeli border.

"At this place, we found tens of people from all nationalities waiting to cross to Israel. Some told us they had been there for months," he says.

One morning, as the sun rose, Maina and his group crept toward the border on foot, where they found a bus waiting to take them to Tel Aviv.

"We arrived safely, but totally exhausted," he says. "I left Nairobi with brand-new shoes, but by the time we got to Tel Aviv, they were completely worn out."

Israel has since put up a fence bolstered by surveillance equipment to keep out migrants and militants from the Sinai Peninsula.

For Maina, the risks he took crossing the border paid off, at least at first. He reimbursed the friend who gave him money to travel to Israel, and he made enough cash to start a public transport business back home. Ten shekels (now $2.57) per hour as a dishwasher in restaurants grew to enough to buy two secondhand vans. When he was ready to return home to run the business, he gave himself up to authorities, who deported him.

But a few months after Maina returned to Kenya, the business collapsed. The cost was high, as the vans kept breaking down and hence needing repairs, and police kept asking for bribes, he says. Maina sold the vans, and in a few months he was back to being poor.

He now wants a second chance.

"If I leave, I will never come back," he says.


teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees

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