Feature: Out of Africa: A One-Armed Embrace
Darfur has become a symbol of burned villages, rape and murder, but the region of western Sudan that gives its name to genocide in Africa is part of a wider problem that includes southern Sudan and Eritrea and has flooded neighboring countries with refugees. Some of those refugees have reached Israel, where fears about overwhelming numbers, security concerns and Jewish memory have kindled debate and angst over how to receive the refugees. In this special section, Hadassah Magazine presents a series of reports on Israel’s African influx.
At a mid-September gathering outside the northern city of Haifa, a group of Christians from southern Sudan sang, “You have come out of the dark/ You have come out of danger/ God is in your heart, Hallelujah.” The sentiments expressed in the song were not just religious yearnings, but a reflection of the desperate journey these men, women and children have undertaken.
Many of these Sudanese had witnessed the burning of their villages by Muslims from northern Sudan. Fleeing persecution, they ultimately found refuge in Israel. Their reunion was held in a women’s shelter where a number of the Sudanese women had lived while awaiting their husbands’ release from Israeli prisons; the men had been detained after crossing illegally into the country.
“This was originally a shelter for battered women,” explains Rita, director of the shelter, who prefers not to reveal her full name or the shelter’s precise location. “But in March 2006, I received a call from the Hotline for Migrant Workers [notifying me] that the immigration police were seeking a place for a young, pregnant Sudanese woman with a child.”
Since then, Mama Rita, as she is called by many of the refugees, has received numerous requests to assist women and children from southern Sudan as well as from Darfur in western Sudan and, most recently, Eritrea in northeast Africa. Refugees from these regions are designated by the United Nations as asylum seekers, a term for those who are in danger of death or imprisonment if returned to their native country. “The Army would notify us from the border and send them to us a few hours later,” says Rita. “Everyone knows about Darfur, but Israel must confront the issue of other refugees fleeing persecution as well.” Rita has been recognized for her humanitarian work by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a nongovernmental advocacy group for foreign workers.
At the reunion, Sudanese children dressed in jeans and gym shoes ran and played on the grass, shouting and laughing. Women hugged each other and took pictures. It was indeed a strange sight, as if the Jewish state had been established in black Africa, as was once suggested.
The peaceful scene recalled the many cultures that have found a home in Israel. Yet it also raised the question of how the country can remain a Jewish state, with a Jewish majority, if it takes in thousands of non-Jewish refugees. At the same time, the memory of the Holocaust still haunts the nation, and many feel they have a moral imperative to offer asylum to those being persecuted.
It is estimated that there are today around 13,000 asylum seekers in Israel, of which 4,400 are from Sudan—1,400 of them from the Darfur region. There are also 4,900 from Eritrea.
“Genocide has existed in Darfur since 2001, with Arab Muslims killing African Muslims, while there was also civil war in the south, with Arab Muslims raiding the fertile lands of Christian Sudanese,” explains Romm Lewkowicz, a Hotline spokesman. The stories of those who fled the war-torn region are harrowing.
Eliza, 32, a reserved woman who prefers not to use her full name, relates how she taught Bible to jailed Christians in southern Sudan but was accused of converting Muslims; she was imprisoned, tortured and raped. When Eliza was released, her family dressed her like a Muslim and smuggled her into Egypt with her husband.
Yasin Mussa is a Muslim in his late twenties. With fellow refugee Ismail Ahmed (see story, page 22), he founded and heads the Sons of Darfur refugee organization in Israel. “My parents were farmers in the small village of Bora,” Mussa relates. “Since I was young, I saw Arab Muslims moving through our farms destroying them. In 1997, the leaders of Darfur began gathering arms and went into the mountains to resist, but in June 2003, the Sudanese government sent 4,000 Janjaweed, Arab militia, who surrounded our villages and massacred young and old. My family reached the mountains, but helicopters bombed us out. There were hundreds of body parts all over. My father, uncle and cousins were killed. I was arrested, beaten, held for hostage. When there was a cease-fire agreement, I was released and escaped first to Khartoum and then to Egypt in 2003.”
The story of persecution in southern Sudan is similar. “For years, the northern Arab Muslims raided the villages of southern Christian Sudanese,” says refugee Gabriel Kuol, 25. “The land in the north is desert and they wanted our resources…lands, water and oil. The children had to go to Muslim schools…. I was captured, imprisoned for five years.” Missionaries helped Kuol escape to Egypt; he crossed to Israel in 2007.
“The refugees from Darfur and south Sudan originally didn’t think of coming to Israel,” explains Elisheva Milikovski, 25, a student at the School of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who founded ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees. “They had been taught to identify Israel with Satan. They fled to Chad and Egypt, and there was some resettlement in the U.S. and Europe. The turning point came when the resettlement was discontinued in 2005. There was a big demonstration of Sudanese in front of the U.N. High Commission in Egypt. Violence erupted and 26 Sudanese were killed and many imprisoned. Seeking a safe haven, they began paying Bedouins to smuggle them across the Israeli-Egypt border.”
The border crossing is a traumatic experience: Egyptian soldiers shoot at those crossing in an attempt to control the border. “We hid in the trees for a week,” says Yemima, 14, Eliza’s sister. Eliza’s husband was caught and imprisoned in Egypt and never heard from again.
Once he crossed into Israel on July 12, 2005, Mussa recalls, he suddenly felt safe—despite his being jailed for 14 months because Sudan is considered an enemy country.
There is no consistent asylum policy for non-Jews in Israel, and what refugee-assistance infrastructure it does have is collapsing under the weight of all the arrivals. It cannot afford, either socially or financially, to have an open-door policy. But it is difficult to control the numbers coming in illegally. If the refugees make it to Israel, it is deemed inhumane to throw them out. And it is against international law to deport asylum seekers.
For the past three years, Israeli soldiers on patrol in the Negev Desert have picked up infiltrators almost daily. Most are placed in detention at the Ketziot military prison near the Egyptian border where they are housed in tents, though some are taken to one of the refugee shelters in Tel Aviv and other cities.
Those in prison usually stay from three months to a year, until they are taken before a committee to decide their status. On release from Ketziot, most become the responsibility of overburdened NGOs and social service organizations that try to find them housing and work. Many find jobs in Eilat hotels, which have nurseries for children and cover their health insurance. Others end up sleeping in parks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Those who do find work and housing still face uncertainties. The document recognizing them as asylum seekers, given on their departure from Ketziot, is only good for six months. Then they must get a migrant worker’s permit, which has to be renewed every three months. “People live in fear of being deported,” says Mussa.
There are, however, 600 Darfurians who have been given resident status in response to public pressure.
In January 2008, Israel freed 800 detainees from Ketziot and sent them to Tel Aviv. The government consequently passed the Hadera-Gedera clause, which states that to get a working permit renewed, refugees must move from Tel Aviv to south of Gedera or north of Hadera. “But nongovernmental organizations have developed an infrastructure in Tel Aviv, providing medical help, jobs, schools,” says Mussa. “If people have to move, at least they should be provided with similar services elsewhere.”
“Israel wants the message to get out that it’s not worth coming,” says Milikovski. “But new refugees risk their lives at the border, claiming it’s still better here.”
Yossi Edelstein, head of the Section for Foreigners in the Ministry of the Interior’s Population and Immigration Department, says that the situation is different today: “They are not fleeing a civil war in southern Sudan. They’re crossing the border seeking jobs. Many have been in other places for years. We do not return those groups the U.N. has declared as asylum seekers, but we can’t allow everyone in.”
Recently, the government has also begun a policy of “hot return,” returning refugees to Egypt without checking if they are asylum seekers. Soldiers who once fed and cared for refugees now must blindfold and handcuff them and send them back to Egypt.
In contrast to the ambivalence of their government, Israelis themselves have been welcoming. In addition to organizations such as HMW, Physicians for Human Rights and ASSAF, there are many individuals who help. Every week, volunteers gather for Fugee Fridays, when they bring fruit from the Carmel Market to homeless refugees in Tel Aviv.
Kuol relates that he had dreamed of coming to Jerusalem, but once there, had no place to live or work. “A woman saw me wandering the street and helped me connect up with the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where I found work and became a coordinator, finding jobs for other Sudanese,” he says.
Students at Ben-Gurion University, in particular, have banded together to help the refugees. “In February 2007, we heard that there were refugees that had been brought to Beersheba and had no place to go,” Milikovski recalls. She organized a group of students to help find housing, jobs, food and clothing for the refugees there. She later founded ASSAF, which has 6 employees and 100 volunteers and is supported by the New Israel Fund, the Joint Distribution Committee, Refugee Rights Clinic of Tel Aviv University and private donors.
“The refugees have no health insurance; they are cared for by the Physicians for Human Rights, who are overwhelmed by the increasing numbers,” she says. “We help the sick who can’t work as well as single mothers, and we have taken youth off the street…who are here by themselves.”
And refugees are trying to help themselves. The Sons of Darfur is developing vocational training, teaching Darfurians Hebrew and English.
“At the moment, they don’t see their way back to Darfur,” says Mussa. “They want to be part of Israeli society. I know Israel’s demographic issue. It is not my goal to undermine the Jewish state…. The Darfurians also want their own identity. But I don’t think that a couple of thousand refugees will change Israel’s character.”
At the same time, says Mussa, “I want to take the model of the pioneers building Israel from nothing and apply it to Darfur.”
Milikovski sees a three-part solution to the challenge. “We can allow one group to stay,” she says. “But we should also initiate a solution on the international level. We’re afraid of becoming a country of transit, but Israel can transfer people to Canada and the U.S., who take 80,000 refugees a year. There are also those willing to return to Africa, if it is done in an organized way, so that they can get a vocation here and have tools to build a better life there.”
“In any case,” says Mama Rita, “Israel must deal with the refugees who are already here. Doesn’t the Bible teach us to be good to the stranger?” H