The angel of Beersheba

Despite muddled gov't policy, a young woman is spearheading the struggle to care for Sudanese refugees.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
August 30, 2007 13:53
The angel of Beersheba

angel 88. (photo credit: )

t was almost evening, growing dark. The family of five - mother, father and three young girls - stood on the sidewalk in Beersheba, near the police station. Thirsty, hungry and well beyond exhaustion, they had nowhere to go, so they stayed in the exact spot where the army had left them. Months before, the family fled their home in Darfur to escape the murderous rampages of the Janjaweed, horse-mounted Muslim militiamen, and had survived the treacherous journey to Egypt. But once in Egypt, they found that - for Africans - life was almost as difficult and dangerous as it had been in Sudan. They fled again, this time into Israel, outwitting the rifle-toting Egyptian soldiers who'd shoot them if they were caught. All five clambered over the low border fence and ran, but were spotted by the IDF almost immediately. The Israeli soldiers took them into custody, but had no governmental directive as to what to do with them. Israel's jails were already packed with refugees, and lacking any other options, the soldiers drove them into Beersheba, the nearest city. There they simply dropped them off on the street. The family had no money, no friends, nothing but the clothes on their backs. They did have one small treasure: a scrap of paper with the cellphone number of Elisheva Milikowsky, a 25-year-old student of social work at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Among the Sudanese refugees, Milikowsky is known as "The Angel of Beersheba." "I'd dealt with a lot of refugees by the time this family's call came in," says the curly-haired Milikowsky, who may be an angel, but whose feet seem to be planted on solid ground. "This family touched me, somehow. They hadn't moved from where the army had dropped them off, and the little girls were clinging and afraid. I looked at them and wondered what would it be like to be standing on the street in a foreign country, and have no idea at all how you'd take care of your children? What would it be like to be at the mercy of whatever would happen next? To have no control over your life? I talked to the father, asked him why they came, and he told me they simply had no choice. If they wanted to survive, they had to run and had nowhere else to go. How horrible is that?" In the last two years, approximately 1,600 African refugees, a majority from the embattled Sudan, have made their way into Israel. The government has mostly ignored the problem. The few responses that have been tested (see sidebar) have pleased no-one, especially national and international human rights activists. In the policy vacuum that exists, two things seem clear: In terms of what to do with the refugees, no good solution exists; and for the stream of refugees who are working their way toward Israel, poised to make the jump, there's no end in sight. Milikowsky didn't set out to be the rescuer of last resort for the Sudanese refugees. It started innocently enough last spring with a social work studies group at BGU. "We had a little group of students who were interested in social action, in doing things to make the world a better place," the Jerusalem-born Milikowsky told Metro in an exclusive interview last week. "We heard there were some Sudanese refugees living in kibbutzim in the Beersheba area, near Sde Boker, so we went to meet them, to see if there was anything we, as social workers, could do to help. We were astonished to learn that at that time, about 150 refugees had been jailed! For me, as an Israeli, that was horrible to hear - how could people coming to Israel for asylum be put in jail? So we decided to see if we could change the policy of jailing them. It didn't seem like a big deal - there were only 150, after all. It seemed like a manageable project - little did we know." An informational campaign at BGU was the first step. "In April we had a movie night where we showed the film 'Hotel Rwanda' about the Rwandan genocide, followed by one of the Sudanese refugees who told his story," Milikowsky recounts. "The room was packed - over 400 people came, and everyone wanted to do something to help. It was an enormously powerful evening. When I went home, I was so wound up I couldn't sleep - I don't think I've had a good night's sleep since." Even her first direct aid to a refugee seemed simple enough. "One of the refugees was in hospital and needed a little help. Because of some of the work I'd done, a lady from one of the aid organizations called me to see if I'd help. This refugee had come into Israel with several others. The others had been jailed, but because he'd been sick, he'd been sent to the hospital. Now he was better, and they'd found a job for him in Eilat. What they wanted was for someone to pick him up at the hospital, take him to the bus station, and put him on the bus to Eilat. No problem, I said I'd go. I ended up talking with him for about an hour - he told me the story of his family, what had happened to them, what was going on in Darfur. As it happened, that day was erev Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, and his story struck home. As Jews, we'd said 'Never again,' but here it was, happening again - and just like in the Holocaust, the world didn't care." From that day on, the effort took on a life of its own. "I became more and more involved, working with many other organizations that were working to help, all over the country. It was when they started dumping the refugees onto the streets of Beersheba that I became a direct contact. I was already connected with the issue here, so the refugees began coming to me directly, sometimes even while they were still in Egypt." With the genocide in Darfur, and a similar situation facing Christian Africans in southern Sudan, the tide of refugees flowing out of Sudan grew. "At first, they went to Chad, then when that became dangerous they ended up in Egypt. There've been Sudanese refugees who've spent years in Egypt, but life is dangerous there, too. The United Nations refused many of them refugee status and life wasn't good. In time, some began finding their way to Israel. Most, but not all, the refugees we see are from Sudan. Some come from other African countries where, for various reasons, their lives had been threatened." As one might expect, most of the refugees are young. "The journey itself is very dangerous so most are young, in the 18 to 30 age range. When they come, they all ask to get to the UN, because they want refugee status, and help to make their way to other countries. Most don't plan to stay in Israel, but they need help now, when they arrive. Some are looking for a safe place to stay for a period of time, believing that things will eventually improve and they'll be able to return to Sudan." The refugees themselves are very diverse. "Sudan is a big country, so there's every range of education and ability. The national language is Arabic, but many speak native dialects and a few have some English. I have some Arab students working with me, so we can translate from Arabic. Also, by now there are some of the earlier refugees who help the newcomers, translating and helping in other ways. As far as education is concerned, some are educated and highly literate. Others can't read or write." They reach Milikowsky in a number of different ways. "Some have been given my phone number through underground refugee organizations. Others are referred to me by the army," she says. "When the army was just dumping them on the streets, many times one of the soldiers would call. They hated having to just abandon them like that, so they'd call me to help." Today, refugees arrive in Beersheba mostly in groups. "For the most part, now, the army organizes them and brings them in once or twice a day. There might be anywhere from just a few to a dozen or even 30 or more. When I get a call, the first objective is to work with my volunteers to take care of immediate needs - water and food. The next objective is to find a place for them to sleep that night, or ideally for a few days. In the beginning, all the expenses came out of our own pockets, but now we've received some private donations, which pays for some of it, at least." Last spring, when it all started, many refugees were taken in by BGU students. "That was our first solution, to have students take them into their apartments. But then the groups started getting larger, so we'd look for an office we could use, or a hall. Then we start looking for more permanent solutions, places where they could work and stay for a longer period. We've placed them all over the country. Many have gone to Eilat where they find work in the hotel industry, and a number have also been placed in Tel Aviv hotels. About a dozen kibbutzim have taken some, either hosting them completely or allowing them to work in exchange for room and board. Others find work cleaning houses, washing dishes in restaurants, sweeping or in building maintenance. On the kibbutzim they work in agriculture. The Christian Embassy and some of the Christian groups have helped - some of the refugees from southern Sudan are Christian, so they've helped with those." The situation remains difficult because no governmental policy exists as to how to deal with the refugees. "The government has tried several things," Milikowsky says. "Many are still in jails. A camp was established, and they went there for a time. The city of Beersheba took some in, but then they couldn't afford to continue without government aid. Unbelievable as it sounds, Beersheba, to protest the lack of funding, decided to make a statement: They loaded the refugees on a bus, drove them to Jerusalem and dropped them off in the street outside the Knesset - like so much garbage. They stayed outside in the Rose Garden for about a week. We worked with local groups to bring them food and water, and most have been placed in better situations now." No government help appears forthcoming, even for temporary care. "On June 20, which was International Refugee Day, several Knesset committees were holding hearings," Milikowsky says. "I went up to testify. The timing was perfect, because fresh refugees were coming in every night - women and children, just unloaded onto the streets of Beersheba. So I testified, told the Knesset exactly what was happening. Several made vague statements about wanting to help. So I thanked them, but then said, 'Tonight when I get home there will be another group of 30 refugees put on the streets of Beersheba. I don't know what to do with them. What shall I do?' Their only response was, 'We just don't know what to tell you.' So I said, 'No one has a solution?' They responded, 'We don't have a solution.' Afterwards, though, 63 MKs signed a petition to not deport them back to Egypt anymore. That was something." Despite this declaration, some refugees are being sent back to Egypt. "Just a few days ago, a group was sent back. That was one of my worst days - just unbearably frustrating. The refugees made it over the border, were in Israel for a couple of hours, and then the army sent them back. The problem is, life is very dangerous for them in Egypt. There's very little respect for human life there, and we have no idea what happens when they return. There have been several nasty incidents of Egyptian soldiers shooting refugees as they try to escape, so we know their fate can't be good. And of course, there's always the danger they'll be sent back to Sudan, which most likely would be a death sentence." There are some success stories, Milikowsky says. "One family from Darfur has done very well - I like to think of them, because most haven't found good situations yet. This family lived in a village in Darfur that was attacked three times by Janjaweed, and also by the Janjaweed together with the Sudanese army. They had a horrific life - their parents were murdered, and both the wife and 15-year-old daughter were injured. They managed to escape to Egypt and stayed there for a time, but it wasn't good. During the day, the mother and father would go out trying to find some little bit of work, but they'd have to leave the children alone in the apartment. For almost a year, it was too dangerous for the children to go out at all. Finally the family made it into Israel, and this has been better. They're living in the Tel Aviv area. The father is skilled with computers, so they're doing quite well - they had more options than most. Both parents are now working with newer refugees, helping them, which is a very good thing." Not all have done as well. "Some of the saddest cases are the women and children who are here alone," Milikowsky says. "Either the father was killed in Sudan or somewhere along the way. Or he's in jail in Israel - there are several of those. The army put the husband in jail, and left the women and kids on the streets. Most of the Sudanese families are very traditional - the men worked, the women cared for the home. So when the women find themselves alone, they have no idea how to cope. They're just lost. Right now, five of these women and their children are being hosted by Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, living as guests. Some of the women are pregnant. It's very sad." For the most part, she says, the refugees are deeply grateful to Israel for the help they're given. "They know what it was like in Sudan, and then in Egypt, and they see how different life is here. They're surprised by all the kind and helpful volunteers. In fact, we sometimes worry about their being misled. It may seem as though Israel is very kind and welcoming, but the truth is the government has made no decision regarding them. At the moment, they may be sent back. So when they say, 'It's so wonderful here in Israel,' I have to remind them that it isn't quite that wonderful. We don't know what their future holds yet." Many Sudanese seem to have adjusted quite well. "When we place them in homes or apartments, our goal is to make them independent of us as quickly as we can," says Milikowsky. "We help them find a place to live and find work, but then they are encouraged to take control of their own lives. We'll bring them food for a time, but they have to learn to take care of themselves, too. A week ago, the Sudanese organized a grand meeting and formed a group they call the 'Sons of Darfur.' They elected a Group of 11 as leaders. One of the elected leaders is a young guy - he's 19 now, but came when he was 17 and spent a long time in jail. Now he studies in a school near Haifa - he's an amazing kid. He travels around the country, speaking and organizing. He's doing very well." Others have less certain fates. "This week, a large group arrived and went first to Beit Hahayal [a soldiers' hostel] in Beersheba. Among them is a 10-year-old boy who's here alone. He'd come with his parents, but the parents were caught at the border and held in Egypt. This is a terrible situation." Sometimes, Milikowsky says she's stunned by the realization of the awesome responsibility she has. "I had one really bad day," she recalls. "Someone came in and took one of our families. Just drove them away! We knew they were going to use them for something very close to slave labor, and I was terrified. I fell apart - I had no idea where they'd gone, or how I could get them back. The good thing was that they still had my phone number. Somehow they managed to get away and call me, so I was able to send someone to pick them up. But when the full realization hit - they'd been my responsibility, and they were lost - I had a very bad time. These people are so vulnerable. They're here with no rights, and they have no idea how to help themselves." Occasionally the sheer stress of helping is almost overwhelming. "Another day, a really big group came in and we were having trouble finding food for them. Then we couldn't find a place for them to sleep. It was a terrible feeling - night is coming, and you have no place to put them." Elisheva Milikowsky is the daughter of Chaim and Ella Milikowsky of Efrat, her father having made aliyah from Baltimore. Her parents are proud of her, she says, but they worry, too. "It's been so intense," she says. "I've neglected my studies and every other part of my life. My friends think I'm crazy, but I showed them a film clip from America. The film shows pictures of the Holocaust, then you hear the siren. At the end, it says, 'We said, 'Never again' then. We were dying and the world didn't care.' Then it shows Darfur, and asks 'What will you tell your grandchildren?' I want to tell my grandchildren I did the maximum I could, to help." Elisheva Milikowsky and the BGU student effort can be reached at 4darfur@gmail.com


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