Darfur refugee deals with absorption and cancer

'If I had remained in Sudan, I would probably be dead.'

adam (photo credit: sheera claire frenkel)
(photo credit: sheera claire frenkel)
Like the several hundred Darfur refugees who have sought asylum in Israel in recent years, Adam has faced persecution and death far more frequently than your typical 24-year-old. But his case also differs from that of his fellow refugees: He has cancer. Lying in the hematology ward of Beersheba's Soroka Hospital, Adam, as he chooses to be called, matter-of-factly recounts his near-death experiences on the way to Israel. He hopes one day to write about his childhood in Darfur, where Janjaweed militias attacked and killed members of his family, and in Egypt, where factory bosses beat him when his sewing was not to their liking. He shrugs off the risks he took to arrive in Israel, explaining that as an African, premature death is all too familiar. In Israel, however, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and his survival is now dependent on institutions he does not fully understand - prison, immigration, health insurance and hospitals. Adam is caught in a complicated web spun by those institutions as they confront the new wave of African refugees pouring in through Israel's porous southern border with Egypt. Thousands of African refugees have arrived in Israel in recent years; Adam is one of 500 from the Darfur region granted asylum in Israel. While the rest of the Darfur refugees have started the absorption process in Israel, Adam remains in a camp outside Ketziot Prison in the southern Negev, alongside more than 1,000 other refugees. Kibbutz Orim has agreed to take him in, but it can only provide him with health insurance if he works, as stipulated by national health insurance laws. But work is impossible for Adam, who has been left weak by chemotherapy. So Adam finds himself between a rock and a hard place: If he leaves the prison grounds, he will no longer be granted the guaranteed medical services; if he stays, he cannot begin the absorption process that will afford him health insurance of his own. Complicating matters further, the prison could also decide to stop Adam's treatment due to its high cost, which doctors estimate at tens of thousands of dollars for the yearlong treatment. "If I worked every day for the rest of my life I could not make that money," he says. Up until three months ago, Adam had never set foot in a hospital or even seen a doctor. His only exposure to medicine was through the nurses who visited his village in Darfur to deliver vaccines. "Only rich people had money for doctors or hospitals in Sudan," he says. "I don't know what would have happened to me if I remained there. Probably, I would be dead." Adam was at the Ketziot Prison whena he started feeling weak and constant fatigue. A prison doctor examined him and referred him to Soroka Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. "At first I was very afraid when they told me that it was cancer and that it was in my blood," he recalls. "But they said that it wasn't HIV, that it was treatable." Some of the American medical students who are studying at Soroka Hospital are helping Adam by setting up a fund for private donations. Physicians for Human Rights have also written a letter to the Health Ministry and Prime Minister's Office to ask that Adam's case be given special consideration. So far, they have not responded to the letter or a query sent by The Jerusalem Post. In the meantime, Adam is trying to educate himself about refugee rights in Israel. He is in touch with other refugees throughout the country, and even keeps four e-mail accounts and a profile on the popular Facebook Web site. "I know, I understand, that Israel cannot take in everyone," he says. "But they should think about us, learn about us and what we have been through. I do not think they would send us back if they knew." While exact numbers are not available, human rights organizations estimate that there are anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 African refugees currently in Israel. Half of them come from Sudan, while at least 700 come from Sudan's western province of Darfur. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced last summer that he would grant asylum to 500 Darfur refugees who arrived in Israel before July 1. The rest of the refugees are scheduled to be deported to Egypt, according to a deal worked out between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. However, recent steps taken by the Egyptian government toward their current refugee population have thrown that deal into question, and human rights organizations are now pursuing other African countries - including Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia - as an address for the refugees. The refugee camp outside Ketziot Prison was set up as a temporary solution to Israel's mushrooming refugee problem. In 2005, fewer than 100 African refugees had sought asylum in Israel. Now, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has estimated that as many cross into Israel each day. Sudan has been at war for more than two decades, the longest war in documented African history. During the civil war, which began in 1983, nearly 2 million southern Sudanese were killed while another 4 million fled their homes. In 2003, the Khartoum-based government began a program to rout out rebels in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of Darfuris were killed, while more than 3 million were displaced from their homes, where fighting is ongoing. "If peace were reached, and all was quiet, the best thing would be to go back to my home village in Darfur," says Adam. Two months ago, he spoke to his parents for the first time in several years using a phone card given to him by a student volunteer. He told his father he was in Israel and would soon be working and earning a good wage. "My father knew of this place," Adam says. "He heard it was good and he was happy for me. He told me to stay."