First IDF Officer from Guinea Began Life in Israel as Refugee

Second Lieutenant Avi Bari, first IDF Officer from Guinea

Second Lieutenant Avi Bari

<Cross posted from the IDF French Blog> Arriving illegally from the Republic of Guinea to Israel in 2005, Avi Bari overcame all obstacles that once stood in his path and became an officer in the IDF. He tells of his journey passing through Morocco to the Egyptian Sinai desert, to a brief stint in prison, to Tel Aviv and finally to an IDF base.

Second Lieutenant Avi Bari, known to his family who all remain in Guinea as Ibrahima, already enjoys a certain notoriety that he owes to his self-proclaimed status of “the first illegal immigrant to become an officer of the IDF.”

Born in February 1990 in the city of Labé, the Republic of Guinea to Muslim parents, 2nd Lt. Bari was orphaned at a very young age and adopted by his uncle when he was 11. At age 15, armed only with his will to “live a better life”, he decided to travel the 5,500 kilometers from his native Guinea to Israel, his now adopted country.

Crossing the desert in pursuit of good fortune

In 2005, Avi decided to leave his home along with a group of other Guineans. “In Africa, there is no work. I decided to change my life and go to another country,” he explains in the simplest way he can. After a brief stop in Morocco, he arrived at the Egyptian capital of Cairo, where he spent a few days before being driven to the Sinai desert. He then waited for the rest of his group to arrive to Sinai so that they could cross the Israeli border.

“I remember very well the desert. We were in a tent, two boys aged 15 stood guard. It was forbidden to get up the day. We were sent tomatoes, tuna, rice by the smugglers. We made a water filter, because the water was full of earthworms. I will never forget this point in time.

The wait was very long. At one point I started to panic, believing that I was ripped off. But the long-awaited day of crossing the border finally arrived. The smugglers packed us like sardines in a car. Once we got to the Israeli border, the car stopped. We got out and started running. Israeli taxis were waiting on the other side, which drove us directly to Tel Aviv.

First impressions and first steps in Israel

Upon his arrival to Tel Aviv, he established contact with other illegal immigrants who taught him about Israel, a country virtually unknown to him. They also helped him take steps to acquire official political refugee status.

At first I was just in shock. I had 700 dollars in my pocket. I did not speak the language and it was the first time I saw so many people with white skin in a country.

However, he managed to enroll in the Beit Shanti school which specializes in educating children of illegal immigrants and Israeli children in need. There, he obtained the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree in Israel, studying agriculture in French and simultaneously trying to get a work visa. He was initially denied a work visa under a child labor law because he was a minor at the time. Meanwhile, he became friends with Abraham, one of the volunteer teachers from the school, who became a key figure in his career. Indeed, it was Abraham, a French man of Algerian origin, who helped him by finding a host family in March 2007.

Life in the Israeli army as a catalyst for integration

It was Abraham who helped make every effort for Second Lieutenant Bari to acquire Israeli citizenship. In 2008 he was officially adopted by an Israeli family living in northern Israel and finally fulfilled all the conditions necessary to obtain Israeli citizenship. His status was legalized at the end of that year.

My family celebrates Jewish holidays and makes Kiddush on Friday nights. Now I think in Hebrew, I eat Israeli food, I am used to the rhythm of life. I feel 90% Israeli. It took time.

His assimilation was catalyzed when he joined the IDF in October 2009. From the outset, the IDF offered 2nd Lt. Bari to fill a role as an officer responsible for managing human resources, however, he preferred to train as an IDF truck driver. After being disqualified from driving for health reasons, 2nd Lt. Bari decided to take on the initial opportunity offered to him by the IDF.

It was in the army that I started to feel Israeli. I learned the culture and history of Israel. We organized trips to Masada and elsewhere, and that made me love the country. In the army, I made friends for life. During my classes, I vowed that I will defend this country. I would do everything to defend Israel, my life is here.

The issue of discrimination and racism

Personally I did not feel that I had to be Jewish to succeed in Israel. The first time I was called a derogatory racial term, it was during my officer training. This hurt me because I’m here like everyone else, a member of a large family. I complained to my commanders who immediately fixed the problem. It warmed the heart and it never happened again.

I also once thought that being Jewish meant being a genius like Einstein. I realized later during officer training school that Judaism is a religion.

Today, 2nd Lt. Bari acts as bridge between the two peoples. He tells his family in Guinea about his new life. He wishes to visit his family at the end of his military service. And the future?

I want to work on the diplomatic relationship between Guinea and Israel. There are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. I want to be the first to do this.

Once again, the first.

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