Sudanese refugees 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Anthony Peter, 36, fled his home in southern Sudan after losing his parents to the violence there. Carrying a single suitcase, he sought asylum in Egypt, where he hoped to create a new life for his family. Several weeks ago he snuck into Israel with his family.
"I would rather that the Israeli government shoot me here, in a clean, humane way, than send me back to Egypt. To send me, and my children, and my wife back there is to sentence us to a cruel and violent death," Peter said.
"I soon realized this was not possible. My life in Egypt was even more dangerous than my life in Sudan had been. Our lives were even more at risk and we were outsiders who everyone could identify and threaten." Peter said he had seen other Sudanese refugees beaten, raped, and killed by Nubian gangs operating in the refugee camps.
"I had to bribe them with a quarter of my wages each week to keep my family safe. I had to tell my wife and children to never leave the house, to always be afraid," he said.
Peter even tried to return to Sudan, but was turned away at the border.
"I quickly realized that this new place was even more dangerous than Sudan had been. But they would not let me return. They said that I had given up that option and was now a refugee in Egypt," he said.
So Peter decided to take a gamble on Israel, a place he had only heard of as a "land of Jews."
"The only thing I knew about Jews was what I heard about them in Egypt - that they were evil, that they drank blood and were killers and very cruel," said Peter. "I thought though, that the people telling me this were also killers, so why should I believe them?"
It took Peter several years to save enough money for the journey to Israel. He and his family had to travel to Sharm e-Sheik, where they contacted a network of Beduin smugglers. Each person smuggled across the border cost roughly $300, although the smugglers would also take cell phones or jewelry as payment, he said.
They were driven close to the border and then told to walk the last 14 kilometers across. When they were picked up by IDF soldiers on the Israeli side, they were tired and dehydrated, with two of his five children running high fevers. It took the IDF 10 hours to process them and to dump them on a Beersheba street.
Peter and his family have been in Israel for two weeks. They have slept in a number of places, with one night spent at Beersheba Labor Party headquarters underneath posters of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and US president Bill Clinton. All of their housing has been arranged by Elisheva Milikowsky, a sociology student at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev who is known as the "Angel of the Refugees."
In the past several months, Milikowsky has taken responsibility for the hundreds of refugees who have been abandoned in Beersheba. She finds them housing and collects donations to buy them food and clothing.
On Sunday Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reached an agreement whereby the refugees will be returned to Egypt immediately.
Mubarak promised they would be kept safe from the gangs that have claimed the lives of hundreds of refugees in Egypt.
On Sunday night, Milikowsky had trouble coming to terms with the government's agreement. Even as Olmert was announcing his decision, Milikowsky was hard at work, trying to house yet another group of refugees who had been deposited in downtown Beersheba.
In recent years, approximately 2,400 refugees have entered Israel illegally from Sinai. Roughly 850 of those refugees were from Sudan, while the rest came from other African countries, including Eritrea, Ghana and Kenya. The government has been increasingly pressed to find a solution for the refugees, who are being cared for by private organizations and volunteers.
A Prime Minister's Office spokesman said the decision was effective immediately, although special consideration would be given to Sudanese refugees whose lives would be in "perilous danger" if they were returned to Egypt. Egyptian newspapers have reported that thousands of Sudanese refugees, most of whom are Christians, have been killed by Nubian and extremist Muslim militias.
"Most of the refugees, including the Sudanese, will return to Egypt, although we have asked the Foreign Ministry to come up with a plan for a small number of the Sudanese, whose lives are in direct and specific danger," the spokeswoman said. "That plan could include sending them to Ghana or Kenya, or to other friendly African countries."
The decision to return the refugees to Egypt was slammed by officials from Amnesty International and the United Nations.
Abaker Ali, a refugee who lost much of his family in Darfur, sent a letter to Olmert Sunday night pleading to remain in Israel.
"I entered this country since I heard that Israel is a democracy that respects human rights and shows compassion to refugees. I know that many Jews were refugees who suffered at the hands of the Nazis because they did not have a country. Now that you have a country, you have the power to help other refugees in need," wrote Ali. He added that despite spending 16 months in Israeli jails, he had built a life for himself at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, near Jerusalem, where he hoped to remain.
"If I am returned to Sudan I will be killed, and if I return to Egypt the Egyptians will torture me and possibly send me back to Sudan. I have other no place to go," Ali wrote.
"During the Second World War there were a number of European Jews who sought asylum in China. Among those were two, Bela and Mordechai Olmert, the refugee parents of our current prime minister. The Chinese government chose not to return the Jewish refugees, and thereby saved their lives. We hope that the prime minister will discover sympathy for the refugees, who have asked protection in our Jewish state," said Eytan Schwartz, spokesman for the refugees.
Schwartz and a number of NGOs were investigating ways Sunday night to stop the government from sending the refugees back to Egypt. Last week, a UN spokesman urged the Knesset Committee on the Rights of Foreign Workers not to return refugees to Egypt.