By Leah Garber
Some choose to tie their fate to the fate of a country that is not their own, a country that goes through upheavals, like a shipwreck fighting stormy water, battered between waves and cliffs.
Norlin (Natalie) Ajojo, originally from the Philippines, joined her Israeli husband, Gideon, to visit close friends for the 70th anniversary celebration of Kibbutz Nirim in southern Israel. On October 7, Gideon was murdered by Hamas terrorists as they rushed into the kibbutz, and Norlin was kidnapped to Gaza. “There were six terrorists who started arguing about what to do with me. I understood from their hand movements that one wanted to kill me and the other wanted to kidnap me. I told them: ‘I’m Filipino, I’m not Israeli, don’t kill me,’ and I showed them the cross on the chain around my neck.”
Norlin’s nationality and faith didn’t mean a thing, and like 240 others, she was loaded into a van that rushed her into Gaza and through the gates of hell. Piled in the van with her were others kidnapped during the attacks and, in the back seat and on the roof, bodies of murdered Israelis.
Like others, Norlin suffered hardships in Gaza. She was released after 53 days, and only once in loving hands in Israel, did she learn that her husband had been murdered. The thought of him and the hope of being reunited with him is what kept her sane during the horrors of captivity. “Despite everything, I didn’t think of leaving [Israel],” she says. “I don’t want to leave Gideon. It’s hard. I talk to him every day, asking him to make it easier for me, to help me from above.”
Norlin is among dozens of foreign nationals who were kidnapped or murdered on October 7, many of whom were migrant workers.
In Israel, the phenomenon of foreign workers, in search of alternate sources of income, is well known. They leave their homeland, community, and families and move to a foreign country where the culture, language, and customs are different from those they know. In Israel, foreign workers are divided into two main groups: caregivers and agricultural workers.
Although they live in the West, their hearts are in the East—at home with the elderly parents they left behind, with the children they have not seen in years, and with their spouses, from whom they live apart, left behind to manage the family. The workers live in groups or with Israeli families, and although some have been here for many years and become part of the family, they always are labeled as foreign citizens.
About 30,000 Thai citizens work in Israel, most of them in the agricultural sector. Approximately 6,000 are located in communities near the Gaza border. Hardworking, dedicated, and gentle, they send money home to support their families and finance academic studies for their children to guarantee them a proper education and chances for suitable matches. They sacrifice their lives so those left behind can have a better future. When choosing to immigrate, workers weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their destination: distance from home, language spoken, weather, cost of living, and security tensions, among others. Foreign workers who come to Israel are certainly aware that Israel is in the turbulent Middle East, but overall, they know it’s not bad here, even quite good.
However, on October 7, they unwittingly got into a bloody conflict that is not theirs—with some paying the price as if it was. Thai workers were the largest group of foreign nationals killed that day. More than 30 were murdered, and dozens were dragged into Gaza. Among the hostages captured on that Black Shabbat, 138 hold foreign passports, including many Israelis with dual citizenship. Others are foreigners who were here for work, academic research, or as tourists. Not unexpectedly, the massacre and the war that followed led more than 7,000 Thai agricultural workers to depart from Israel on flights financed by their country’s government.
When an unplowed field is abandoned and when trees with branches heavy with ripe fruit beg to be picked, others step in for the Thai workers to help the farmers. But when elderly people, who depend on their dedicated caregivers who know their habits and don’t shy away from caregiving challenges, are abandoned, our hearts break both for the people who need them and for the murdered or kidnapped caregivers.
Irene, a nursing worker from the Philippines, spent 30 hours in the home shelter of her elderly patients, caring for them without water or food as terrorists roamed the kibbutz and entered their home. “I have a family and two children, ages 6 and 8 in the Philippines. But I kept thinking: if I die, what will happen to the people I nurse? My patients are my family now, and I have to stay here and take care of them.” Despite the trauma Irene experienced with her charges, they were lucky compared to others. Three of her friends, also caregivers, were murdered along with their patients. One of them, Angelon, from the Philippines, too, worked at Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Although she could have escaped, she did not run away during the attack but stayed by her patient Nira’s side. They were both brutally murdered.
Today’s post is dedicated to these foreign workers and to all those who also were in Israel in October as tourists or students and who shared our fate on that Black Shabbat, when Hamas terrorists did not distinguish between Israelis and foreigners or between Jews, Christians, and Arabs. In the terrible massacre 94 days ago, people of all races, with different beliefs and religions were affected. Hamas, the darkest of all evil, took human lives, wherever and whoever they were. Race, heritage, nationality, and religion characterize our identity and distinguish us from one another. But sometimes a cruel fate is stronger than any belief or race, bonding us to each other in an unbreakable tie.
All those innocent victims, for whom this is not their struggle but who paid the ultimate price, will be remembered as heroes, and we will forever cherish their memory.
Together, united, we will overcome.
Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.