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Dozens of Sudanese refugee families are being lodged in private homes across the country, in an effort to thwart the government's plan to move them to a camping site outside the Ketziot prison this week.
Volunteers have been quietly arranging for refugee families to move into the homes since early last week, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that most of them would be deported to Egypt.
"Until their safety is assured, we cannot deport them," said Elisheva Milikosky, a student activist from Beersheba who has helped house the refugees. "If we, a group of students, can find kind families to take these people in, why can't the government, with its infinite resources, come up with something better than a detention camp at Ketziot and eventually deportation to Egypt?"
An official at the Public Security Ministry told The Jerusalem Post the camping site would be ready by early next week.
"It is up to police to decide when to begin moving the refugees to the site," said the official. He added that only "floaters," as he described those refugees who have not been absorbed into some type of program, would be moved to the site.
Volunteers have been scrambling to find solutions for those "floaters" to minimize the number of people sent to Ketziot. Those solutions are happening on a case-by-case basis, with organizations around the country pitching in to offer room, board and occasionally jobs for the refugees.
Last week, there were more than 200 refugees in Beersheba. However, an inquiry by the Post showed that on Sunday, only a handful were left, as almost all had been moved to other locations throughout the country.
Since the refugees have no status in Israel, most of their housing has been arranged by private organizations and volunteers. The legality of moving refugees to private homes has been questioned, however, since volunteers are declining to reveal the exact locations of the refugees.
"It speaks to the government's own disorganization that we were able to move hundreds of people right under the noses of the municipalities and the government with nobody noticing," said one volunteer. He added that all of the refugees had been given shots, and that they arrived at the homes with food, clothes and medical supplies given to them by the organizations.
One family who took in a Darfuri family Sunday morning said they felt it was their duty as Jews and Israelis to help asylum-seekers.
David, who asked not to use his real name for fear of putting both his family and the Darfuri family at risk, is on the board of the international Jewish volunteer movement Brit Olam.
"What is interesting to me about it is that private Israelis don't go around making declarations about what they want to do, they just go and do it," said David. "The government has made the declaration 'never again,' we heard it from [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and other politicians on Holocaust Remembrance Day. But those declarations have not yet yielded action."
After reading about the refugees in the press, David and his daughter visited a group camped outside the Wohl Rose Garden. After a discussion with his family, they decided to offer a family two rooms in their house.
"We are currently handling it on a day-to-day basis," said David. "I was talking to my daughter about some of the problems on the phone. I said, 'We are all pushing boundaries to do this.' And she told me, 'Yes, I guess that is what it means to do a mitzva sometimes.'"
Only two small refugee families remain at the Rose Garden out of the dozens that arrived a week ago. Those families took part in a small protest on Sunday morning to try and sway the government to abandon its plan to ultimately return the refugees to Egypt.
"I have told my story again and again, and I will continue to tell it," said Ismail, a 42-year-old Darfur refugee who has become a spokesman for the refugees due to his fluent English. "I will do whatever the Israeli government would like of me, only I want to be safe, to provide for my family and to not be returned back to Egypt."
Ismail was one of several speakers at the protest who told his long story of escape from Darfur to Egypt and finally to Israel. Dozens of envelopes, filled with drawings and letters prepared by refugee children, lay at Ismail's feet as he told of the tortures he suffered in Egypt.
"My life was better in Egypt for a little while. Yes, it was better in the beginning there. But by 2006 it had gotten very, very bad, and we once again felt in danger and felt we had to flee," said Ismail.
He said that although he knew that it was a strain on Israeli resources to have such a rapid influx of asylum-seekers, he hoped that Israelis would be patient, and find an alternative solution for the refugees.
By nightfall, Ismail's family was also moved to a private family's home, where they will be living indefinitely.
Around 20 families of Sudanese refugees in Beersheba have been taken in by "Messianic Jews," Israeli Jews who profess Christian beliefs, across the State of Israel.
"We took them in as a community, as a movement," said Ayelet Steckbeck, a Beersheba Messianic Jew who volunteers with the refugees. "We are a community committed to charity, to helping those in need."
Their support is financed by donations from both the Israeli and the international Messianic communities, Steckbeck said.
"In the last week, the refugees have spent the night on street corners and in a warehouse in Beersheba," said Eytan Schwartz, spokesman for the Committee for Advancement of Refugees from Darfur. "If those are viable solutions as far as the government is concerned, then tax-paying, law-abiding Messianic Christians should be fine as well."
"I find it very ironic," said a source close to the efforts, "that while Messianics are showing speed and haste in helping the Darfur refugees in Israel, American Jews have been sitting on the fence, at least as far as we can see."
"If someone is willing to take in a family of refugees," Schwartz said, "I don't care if they believe in Jesus or Muhammad or in Buddha. If they believe in human justice and dignity, then I welcome their help."
Saul Elbein contributed to this report.