Hundreds in TA celebrate South Sudan independence

"I hope our government will succeed. We need to go back to support our country."

South Sudan Israel flags 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
South Sudan Israel flags 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Santino Arob, a Sudanese refugee who arrived in Israel five years ago, was so excited about the declaration of South Sudanese independence that he couldn’t sleep the past two nights.

“Nobody believed that this day would come. Many people lost their parents in the war. When I hold the flag, I can’t believe it,” he said at a South Sudan independence celebration at the Panorama building in Tel Aviv on Sunday, proudly raising the new country’s flag and searching for words to express his overflowing emotions.Arob traveled from his home in Eilat to attend the daylong festivities. “Today is not time for talking. It’s time for dancing,” he said.The other hundreds of celebrators heeded Arob’s call.Throughout the daylong event, people performed tribal dances. At one point, about 20 young men lined up in the middle of the hall with paint on their faces and chanted before performing a spirited, traditional dance.Another attendee, Morris, who lives near the Dead Sea, said he was so ecstatic about his country’s independence that he missed work to participate in the Tel Aviv celebration.“I’ve been waiting for this day for more than 11 years; I need a few days off,” Morris recounted telling his boss.Morris has spent the past four years in Israel and before that lived in Egypt for seven years. But despite the distance, he said he has maintained contact with his parents and brother who still live in South Sudan and are awaiting his return.Santino and Morris are two of the approximate 8,000 Sudanese living in Israel, according to William Tall, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel.He estimated that less than half of these asylum seekers are from South Sudan. Others come from North Sudan and neighboring regions still plagued by violence.While around the world South Sudan independence was celebrated on Saturday, organizers postponed the Tel Aviv event to Sunday because of Shabbat.The celebration came the same day that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Israel’s recognition of South Sudan.“Yesterday, a new state was born – South Sudan. I hereby announce that Israel recognizes the Republic of South Sudan,” Netanyahu said during the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “We wish it success. This is a peace-seeking country and we would be pleased to cooperate with it in order to ensure its development and its prosperity.”In Tel Aviv the excitement was palpable.Many onlookers waved South Sudanese and Israeli flags and wore shirts printed with the new country’s red, yellow, blue and green flag. Ululations and drums reverberated in the room as announcers chanted Sudanese celebratory cheers.Some of the men were dressed in suits and ties, reflecting the gravity of the celebration. Other revelers wore festive, colorful and patterned floorlength tunics with matching head scarves.The celebration was an “ingathering of exiles” of sorts, as Sudanese from all over Israel – from Eilat to Haifa – joined together in the Tel Aviv hall to dance, cheer and celebrate, event organizers said.Many Sudanese celebrating independence recognized that they were marking a momentous occasion in their country’s history. South Sudanese independence was declared on July 9 after five decades of civil war and conflict that claimed over two million lives.The road to peace was paved in 2005 when the American government brokered a peace agreement between the southern rebels and the central government that guaranteed the southerners the right to secede.The treaty ultimately led the way to a referendum this past January, in which southerners voted by 98.8 percent for independence.“Our parents were born in a war, we were born in a war,” said Simon Laderk, who helped coordinate the event. “But now there will be a change. Now if I see Juba [the capital of South Sudan], I hope our government will succeed. We need to go back to support our country.”But many acknowledged that building South Sudan will be not be smooth or simple.“I ask God to help build our homeland.We are starting from zero. If we don’t go back, who will build our land?” Arob asked.Gil Kiir Aqab, who has lived in Netanya for the past three years, said the new country will face many obstacles, including caring for the sick and uneducated people. “We have a lot of things we have to do...We need to find a solution for all of these problems.”But Aqab is optimistic. “This is our chance to make a good life and learn from all of these problems,” he said.Most of the people at the festivities said they long to return to their newly independent country but don’t know when or how they will go back.But Charmaine Hedding, Israel national director of Operation Blessing, an international non-profit relief organization that provides support for Sudanese and other refugees in Israel, and who spoke to The Jerusalem Post from celebrations in Juba, said that her organization is prepared to help Sudanese voluntarily return to Sudan.In the past two years the organization has helped more than 600 Sudanese refugees voluntarily resettle in Sudan and she said that “people are phoning every day asking to go back to their country.”Tall and Hedding said that it is too soon to assess how South Sudanese independence will affect the legal and economic status of the thousands of South Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel.Currently, Sudanese refugees in Israel are granted collective protection by the Israeli government.This means that that they are not forced to return to their home country, but they do not receive many social service benefits, Tall said, adding that diplomatic relations between the two countries will enable Israel to grant Sudanese refugees asylum on an individual basis.Laderk, who is studying archeology at the Netanya Bible College, called on the Israeli government to help Sudanese living in Israel to go to college or learn a trade so they will be able to help the many uneducated in Sudan.“Many people around the world hate Israel. But we don’t; we love Israel,” he said. “I want the government and people to hold hands together and help the people of Sudan.”