January 19, 2020

From the Ivory Coast to the Holy Land

Recounting his first trip to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Alhaji Alpha Fofana radiates joy and gratitude. A devout Muslim who came to Israel in 2006 as a refugee from the Ivory Coast, Fofana’s first name, Alhaji, honors his grandfather’s hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. In his community in Ivory Coast, it is customary for pilgrims to first journey to Mecca and then to Jerusalem before returning home.

Fofana was raised in a Muslim-Christian coexistence community in the major city of Abidjan. Today he is a graduate student at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and the programs and communications manager for the African Students Organization in Israel (ASO). ASO aims to empower members of the African asylum-seeking community in Israel by helping them realize their educational and career dreams and become change ambassadors in their communities. 

A leader in his community, husband and father of two boys born in Israel, Fofana’s life today is a far cry from that of the refugee who arrived in Israel via illegal smugglers through the Egyptian desert in 2006.  

When asked to talk about his journey to Israel, he didn’t say much. The trauma is too raw. “They said, ‘OK we are leaving tomorrow [for Israel].’ And I was so excited. I thought I would get in a car and cross the border, like from Ivory Coast to Guinea. We went through the desert. I was in the desert three days. I wouldn’t even wish this on my enemy.” 

Fofana hasn’t seen his family since he escaped. His mother and two brothers also are displaced and currently live in Guinea, another French-speaking African nation to the northwest of Ivory Coast.  

He knows he will return to Africa with his Hebrew-speaking sons, and optimize these experiences for the betterment of his homeland and adopted land.

Arriving in Israel, he started to work grueling hours at a restaurant. “I’m someone very, very curious,” he said. “When I arrived, I tried to learn a lot about the place I was living, to see how the society is; how I would be able to find my way in.” 

Proving himself to be a hard worker, a loyal employee and a quick learner, Fofana impressed himself upon his Israeli boss, whose mother his children call savta (grandma) to this day. His boss encouraged him to study, helping arrange his work schedule around his courses and even forwarding him the money for tuition against his salary each month.

After studying online and at various technical programs in Israel, Fofana became certified in various computer programs but was unable to work because of the restrictions on his visa. So he went to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from the IDC. He currently is finishing his master’s degree in organizational behavior while working at the ASO. He is building bridges between Israelis and African asylum seekers, between the startup nation and a continent with 1.1 billion people. He knows that one day he will return to Africa, with his Hebrew-speaking sons in tow, and optimize these experiences and relationships for the betterment of his homeland and adopted land.

“Before the war, it was the best place ever,” he said of Ivory Coast. After two civil wars in the past two decades, he lost his faith and hope in the leaders of his country. Until he is able to return to Africa, he is making the most of his time in Israel, helping African asylum seekers obtain valuable educational and work experience while displaced in Israel. And while Fofana may have no idea what his future holds, he has used his time in Israel to develop into the kind of leader his homeland so desperately needs.