When Orit Marom of the refugee aid organization ASSAF visited the Reece family in Gambela, Ethiopia, during Passover in April, it took her back to the fall of 2008, when she first met the family taking shelter in a south Tel Aviv church.

“We took them to these bungalows we rented in Gambela and bought them food and they ate like people who hadn’t eaten in ages, like they hadn’t eaten in months. It reminded me of that first day that we took them home and gave them showers and food,” Marom told The Jerusalem Post at ASSAF’s offices in south Tel Aviv on Tuesday, as she flipped through photos and videos from her trip.

Marom described her first encounter with the family five years ago, when she first began volunteering in the refugee community in what she described as probably the first time she’d ever been to south Tel Aviv. She found the family living in the storage room of a Nigerian church on Levanda Street, the mother eight months pregnant, terribly ill and malnourished. She and her partner took the children home and bathed and fed them, and brought the mother to Ichilov Hospital, where she delivered the baby and recovered over a two-month stay.

The family soon moved to Arad, but Marom visited them regularly over the coming years, until they were flown back to South Sudan in June 2012, 15 years after the parents first fled the fighting in the country.

Marom said moving to South Sudan was a shock for the Reece children, all but one of whom had never been there, and had become accustomed to living and going to school in Israel. A few months after they arrived in the capital city of Juba, they realized they couldn’t find work or afford to live there, so the parents decided to move to Gambela in Ethiopia, where they could stay with family.

“The children told me every day they see people dying and that they don’t have food or water,” said Marom.

Over the Passover break, Marom flew with her partner, Ziv, to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, and then a domestic flight to Gambela, where she found the Reeces living with extended family in a one-room house. For her, the experience drove home the human cost of the government decision last year to deport the South Sudanese.

“We had the fate of these children in our hands, we had the ability to take in these 500 children, and instead of deciding that they would have normal lives and the basic rights children have everywhere, we took them and we threw them to hell. We turned their world upside down, tossing them to a fate of hunger, sickness, and death.”

The family was deported from Israel on June 25, 2012, a little over a week after the first deportation flight left Israel for South Sudan on June 17. In the weeks and months to follow, most of the South Sudanese in Israel – who numbered between 700 to 2,000 – were deported back to Juba as well.

The experience of the family that Marom visited is consistent with that of returnees, who were sent to one of the world’s poorest countries, one rife with disease and unemployment, with little if any infrastructure.

Prices are also notoriously high in South Sudan, which is solely reliant on imports. The high cost of living has positioned Juba as the second most expensive city in Africa behind Luanda, Angola, according to the organization ECA International.

According to a report in Ma’ariv earlier this month based on testimony from returnees and human rights agencies, at least 22 people who were returned to South Sudan from Israel died over the past year, among them children.

The experience of South Sudanese returnees is the only precedent Israeli planners will have to examine when considering reported plans to deport thousands of Eritreans and north Sudanese to a third country. Such plans were announced at a hearing at the High Court of Justice earlier this month, but authorities have not disclosed further details about the third country.

The one-year anniversary of the first flight coincides with this year’s World Refugee Day, which was commemorated in Tel Aviv Thursday night with a party and concert at Gan Hahashmal at 7 p.m. In the year since that first flight, the African migrant community in Israel – numbering between 50,000 and 60,000 – has been dealt with a series of setbacks.

The government has begun enforcing the anti-infiltration law, locking up migrants in detention centers in the South for indefinite periods of time without trial for the crime of entering Israel illegally. Also earlier this month, the Knesset passed a law severely limiting the transfer of money out of Israel by African migrants. In recent months, the Interior Ministry announced that around 2,000 North Sudanese have already been willfully deported home by way of a third country, though a large percentage of them were in prison when they agreed to be sent home instead of remaining imprisoned. In the meantime, those who remain in Israel live in uncertainty, without legal asylum seeker status, and unsure for how long they can stay before they will be deported or put in a detention center in southern Israel.

Speaking to the Post this week from Juba, Amos John described his life since returning to the South Sudanese capital last July with this wife and five kids, after four-and-a-half years in Israel.

“Here in Juba we have no jobs, no clean water, no hospital, the children are always sick and people are going hungry.”

John said he’s made it through five bouts of malaria since returning, and has only been able to provide food for his family by relying on money sent to him by friends in Tel Aviv.

“We’ve already lost twenty of our people since the return, none of this used to happen when we were in Tel Aviv.”

Another deportee in Juba, Khaled Lurla, described in Hebrew a life of unemployment and poverty with no real options. Lurla – who lived in Tel Aviv for six years with his wife and two children – is now staying with friends in Juba, still looking for work. He sent his children, aged 10 and 13, to Uganda for school while his wife remains in Tel Aviv, since as a native of North Sudan, she cannot yet be deported.

The South Sudanese who lived in Israel still speak Hebrew to one another, Lurla said, chatting in their adopted tongue whenever they meet up.

“We lived there for years and we felt like Israelis. We felt like home there.”

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