Written by Steven, first published in Devarim Dec. 2011, Brazilian Jewish publication
Greetings from the state of Israel. My name is Steven Beck and I am a second year rabbinical student at the HUC-JIR, currently living in Tel Aviv. I was born in the United States but I have had the privilege of living all over the world—Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Africa. I have seen amazing things during my travels and been immersed in dozens of different cultures during my years living abroad.
I was also witness to several tragedies while living in Africa, including two elections that turned violent. I saw masses of people being forced from their homes, and I witnessed the potential for cruelty that can exist when the rule of law is forsaken. The sight of people being forced to flee for their lives is an image I will never forget. There is nothing that can replicate the shock you see in the eyes of someone—man, woman or child—whose world has been turned upside down.
All around the world today there are millions of people living in terrible situations simply because they were caught in the middle of a conflict in which they played no active role. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Uganda, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, and of course Sudan, millions of vulnerable people survive in refugee camps in the most dangerous conditions. They are completely dependent on the goodwill of the international community, individuals, and foreign state governments for their survival.
When I first returned to Israel after several years’ absence, I noticed a distinct demographic switch in the area around Tel Aviv’s central bus station. What was once an area full of Eastern European immigrants had become home to a large number of Africans. I soon learned that this area was now the center of activity for refugees from the conflict in Darfur. Many other Africans from other parts of Sudan, Eritrea, the DRC, and Somalia had also made their way to Israel as refugees. The number of refugees living in Israel now numbers around 36,000; close to 8,000 of them are from Sudan and an estimated 1,200 are from Darfur.
As someone who lived for over three years in sub-Saharan Africa, I was immediately interested in this situation. After seeing so closely the trauma many of these people had experienced, I initially felt proud that the Jewish state would take in refugees. It made sense that a people who wandered stateless for so many centuries would reach out to those in a similar situation today. I wanted to learn more about the situation and perhaps become involved.
In the United States, Jews were intimately involved with efforts to end the genocide in Darfur and supported many initiatives to help the nearly 2.8 million people displaced by the conflict. I felt there was nothing more “Jewish” than reaching out to other peoples who had suffered similar tragedies to our own. I quickly learned that the reality in Israel for the refugees from Darfur was a completely different story.
Where did the come from and why would they come to Israel?
The African nation of Sudan has experienced civil war in one form or another since the 1950s. The tragedy finally reached the attention of the international community in 2003, when the world was forced to confront the reality that genocide was happening in plain view. As is too often the case, the world woke up too late. By the time many westerners had even heard the word “Darfur”, hundreds of thousands of civilians had been murdered and millions of people were to flee from Sudan. The story for many of the refugees in Israel starts here.
Sudan shares a border with Egypt, which made it, along with the nation of Chad, one of the logical escape points for people from Darfur. Even before 2003, there was a large Sudanese exile community in Cairo and in a few other population centers in Egypt. The refugees were largely young men without their families. As the community grew, the conditions in Egypt were becoming more and more dangerous. Thanks to agreements between the Egyptian and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, Egypt began refusing entry to, or sending back, Sudanese refugees coming from Darfur. Many of these refugees knew that it was time to find a new haven and they thought their salvation was up the Sinai desert towards Israel.
What is their status in Israel?
The situation for these now stateless people is complicated by the fact that they are coming from countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel. As a result, the Israeli government classifies them as coming from an “Enemy State.” When they began arriving, Israel had no clear policy on non-Jewish asylum seekers. Over the last seven years, Israel has been dealing with the refugees through a series of ad hoc procedures. That is in the process of changing.
Israel is now debating in the Knesset a piece of legislation that they are calling the Anti-Infiltration Bill. This law, if it goes into effect, will mean that people fleeing war and genocide could be given the same treatment as Fedayeen terrorists or other potential security threats. If any infiltrator (as defined by this bill) enters Israel from Sinai, he or she will face up to three years in Prison. If the offending person comes from a state that is defined as an “enemy” state, he or she can be held in detention for an indefinite period of time.
What is life like for the refugees?
It is all too easy for Israelis to view the influx of refugees as yet one more threat to state security or the unique Jewish character of the state. However, I think that it is the ability of a strong and independent Israel to reach out a helping hand to people who are suffering that really defines its true Jewish character.
I recently had the privilege of spending an evening with a family from Darfur as they welcome me into their home to join them for a meal at the end of their daily Ramadan fast. I asked to meet with them to try to put a human face on the refugee issue in Israel and for a chance to get a small glimpse into their difficult lives. It turned out to be an evening I will never forget.
We sat down in the modest studio apartment that houses all three of them, the husband Yasin, his wife Fatima, and their son Zanoon. Sitting on chairs next to their bed, the smell of food cooking in the background and their one-year-old son desperately trying to gain our attention, Yasin began his story. He took us back to his life in Sudan before the fighting, before the war, and before he was forced to become a stateless wanderer in search of safety and a way back to the life he lost.
Yasin is a university educated man from Darfur who never dreamed that one day he would be forced to flee his home country. He told me about the work he used to do as an engineer in the oil fields and he painted a picture of a life that was full of promise. The life he left does not fit the image that many westerners have concerning life in Africa. He even described his wedding to Fatima, an event that was only attended by close family. It numbered around a thousand guests!
Everything changed for him in 2003; the civil war that had been raging for some time forced him to flee for his life. He went from Darfur to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and from there he entered Egypt. He spent years in Egypt with other refugees and even became one of the organizers of the Sudanese exile community. During this time he had no contact with his wife and other family members. He spoke about the constant pain from not only living without them, but also not even knowing if they were alive or dead.
When conditions worsened for Darfur refugees in Egypt, Yasin and some of his fellow countrymen left Cairo and made the dangerous journey up the Sinai towards Israel. They used Bedouin smugglers as their guides. Once they had crossed the Israeli/Egyptian land border, they were discovered and put into detention for nearly two years.
When Yasin was let out of prison, he was sent to a kibbutz to work for a while. He eventually made his way to Tel Aviv, where he settled in South Tel Aviv around the central bus station. He worked a series of odd jobs and started the process of trying to rebuild his life and seek out ways to reunite with his wife.
When word that Yasin was alive and well in Tel Aviv finally reached Fatima, she began the long journey to find him. Traveling in the Sinai for a young women alone is dangerous under any circumstances, but the Bedouin smugglers are all too aware that these Sudanese women have no one to protect them and any abuse they would show to them would most likely go unpunished. For this reason, it became common for them to take the money from the women traveling towards Israel (usually several hundred dollars) and, once they were close Israel, hold the women hostage until the Sudanese community on the other side of the border would pay many times that amount just to have them released. Stories of violence and rape are widespread.
Yasin would stop as he recounted his wife’s terrible journey to meet him. He’d seem lost in his emotions, looking off into the distance. I did not push him on the details, but it become quite evident that Fatima experienced hell on earth traveling from Sudan to Israel.
After many years apart, the two are thankfully reunited now in South Tel Aviv. A little over one year ago, they welcomed a son into their family. Little Zanoon is a friendly and precocious toddler who is clearly the center of their world. Because of the ambiguous status of his parents in the state of Israel, Zanoon has no nationality and no legal connection to Yasin.
Seven years after Yasin first entered Israel, the couple struggles every day to earn enough to support their family while also fighting to become legal residents in Israel or elsewhere. Since they are from Darfur, which is in North Sudan, they cannot go to the newly independent South Sudan. Because North Sudan continues to have no diplomatic relations with Israel and the North is still classified as an enemy state, they are stuck in limbo. If the anti-infiltration bill becomes law Yasin and Fatima face indefinite incarceration. Zanoon’s fate is unclear, as he has no other family in Israel.
Opponents of refugee rights will say that is it not Israel’s responsibility to take in every person who comes from a nation in conflict. They will claim that this jeopardizes the unique character of the Jewish state. So many of the fears are baseless or are a result of the Israeli government’s own inaction. Fortunately, many individual Israelis and Israeli non-governmental organizations are stepping up to fill the gap in services that still do not exist. Without the goodwill of many Israelis not blinded by fear and xenophobia, the situation for the refugees would be even worse.
While it is true that a large refugee population presents challenges economically and socially, the price of doing nothing is even worse. Under the best of circumstances, refugees’ lives will be hard in Israel, but human beings who have been through the trauma of fleeing from genocide should be able to expect some level of empathy from the Jewish state. The government must develop procedures and policies that lead to refugees’ eventual integration into Israeli society, or the orderly transfer to a third-party country that can guarantee them the safety that refugees are entitled to by UN convention.
Jews were once stateless, wandering from place to place. Our physical survival often depended on the kindness of those who had no real reason to show kindness toward the Jews living among them. From the tragedies of Europe and elsewhere, the Jewish people built an independent state and are masters of our own destinies for the first time in two thousand years.
I still believe that in spite of its daily struggles, Israel as a state and Israelis as a people truly want to live up to a higher ideal. After all we Jews have suffered in achieving national autonomy, Israel must be a “light unto the nations.” One of the most important lessons from our own history is that injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone. The Jewish state must show comfort and compassion to these refugees in the name of our own Jewish values.