South Sudanese in Tel Aviv 390.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Recently, I took a stroll around the south of Tel Aviv near the central bus
station where countless war refugees from Sudan congregate. Older generation
Israelis are a minority in the area. Quickly they shuffle by on the polluted
sidewalks in front of cheap cell-phone shops and bars often owned and managed by
Ethiopian Jews who peer out onto the scene of Sudanese and Eritreans who sit on
the street, selling and hawking used clothes and useless knick-knacks, rapping
in Arabic with their associates, gripping the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic
ladder for dear life.
The scene is rather colorful, yet dreary.
sea of black faces, indigent souls, who possibly feel unwelcomed by the Israeli
government; who cannot help but contribute a subtly pleasant and exotic Arabic
vibration to the atmosphere. If you spend enough time wandering these streets,
you get a sense of the North African desert, another part of the
Some of the African souls who have crossed the border into Israel
from war-torn Sudan are doing better than others.
Perhaps the scene near
the bus station gave a glimpse of some folks who have at least been assisted
with living quarters by the government. The parks in the area are filled with
refugees who have not been so lucky. They sleep under the blue Tel Aviv sky,
cropped by the concrete ramps of the bus station.
Israel’s policy toward
the refugee crisis – that it cannot process all refugee requests coming from
South Sudan and must keep the border in order – has been highly criticized by
various human rights groups. In January, the Knesset revamped the Prevention of
Infiltration Law of 1954, originally applied to Palestinian refugees displaced
during the war of 1948, making it illegal for them to enter the state of Israel.
The law is now being applied to African war refugees.
There is a new
fence being built on the border with Egypt, the most common entry into Israel
from Sudan, and there is a new, multi-million-dollar prison being built in the
Negev, where Sudanese “infiltrators” risk being imprisoned
Of course, this fate has to be better than being caught by
Egyptian immigration authorities, who are liable to shoot and kill
While many critics have gone so far as to accuse Israel
of racist policy, it is important to note that Sudan is considered by Israel to
be an enemy state. It was not until recently that South Sudan, which has a large
Christian population, seceded from the Islamic pariah state in North Sudan.
Israel was among the first nations in the world to recognize the new state’s
independence. Still, the danger in North Sudan is the reason why Israel cannot
let just anyone from anywhere into the country.
For example, terrorists
have smuggled weapons from the port of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran to Yemen,
and from there to a port in Sudan, where the arms are transported through the
desert into Egypt, the Sinai and eventually into the Gaza Strip, where they wind
up in the hands of Hamas. Therefore, the national security issue, while some may
not like to admit it, may overshadow the humanitarian concern.
that Israel cannot process all refugee requests from South Sudan is an
unfortunate result of the realities of war. It does not, however, make Israeli
policy racist in anyway. In fact, it is absurd to claim otherwise considering
that all of the Arab countries in the area would not only not process any
refugee requests, but that Sudanese refugees’ very lives may be in danger in
Yemen, Libya or Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.
Despite the fact that the
government cannot give refugee status to all Sudanese and Eritreans who seek
haven in Israel, the crisis does give certain Israelis the opportunity to
display mercy and charity, and they take it upon themselves to do so. One
example is an American living in Israel named Madelyn Kent. She is an educator
and playwright who teaches theater to Sudanese refugees near the central bus
station in Tel Aviv once a week. She volunteers out of the goodness of her heart
yet she tells me, “I do not know a lot about the issue.”
is Kate Rosenberg, an anthropology student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
and new immigrant from Australia. Kate founded an organization called Tov
Lada’at, which cares for Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel, providing
them with shelter and even a top-notch education.
“As a Jew and a
third-generation Holocaust survivor” she tells me, “there were things about
Israeli society I felt uncomfortable about living with. When I first made aliya,
I became affiliated with Fugee Fridays” – a volunteer humanitarian initiation,
founded in 2008. “We would go to the Tel Aviv shuk [market] on Friday afternoons
and collect all the leftover food and donate it to the
Rosenberg and her friend from Fugee Fridays and the Hebrew
University, Florentine Lemmp-Dagan, hooked up with Topaz, an agency that
supports various humanitarian projects. Tov Lada’at sends Sudanese refugees to
the IDC (interdisciplinary center) in Herzliya to study. There they can learn
political science, psychology, communication and other subjects, just like
“We just had our first fellow graduate from the IDC” Rosenberg
tells me with a humble smile. She tells me it is her organization’s goal for the
future that “they” meaning the program participants “can all get jobs in their
own country [the newly established South Sudan] with the tools they learned in
Israel.”The writer is a freelance writer doing postgraduate research at
Bar Ilan University.