'If they let me stay, I'll pay for my own house, food'

The stories of the Darfuri and southern Sudanese refugees at Ibin sound depressingly similar.

"When the Darfur refugees demonstrated in front of the UN building in Cairo, asking for help, the Egyptians broke up our demonstration with fire hoses," Darfur refugee Adam Ibrahim says, lying in the grass at Ibin, the Jewish Agency absorption center near Sderot on Tuesday. "Then they shot into the crowd," he continues. "Everyone who they did not kill, they took into detention." He scratches the scars on his leg with a twig. "We cannot go back there." He tells his life story casually, without lingering, as though describing what he had for breakfast. Indeed, after talking to a few of the 58 Darfuri and southern Sudanese refugees at Ibin, the stories begin to sound depressingly similar. Most start with a village burned in a combined government and militia attack, its people fleeing into the hills to hide before scattering to the winds. Each is a litany of places fled, refuge found and denied, detentions and beatings in jails from Khartoum to Cairo. Each continues through an illegal, Beduin-assisted crossing of the Negev border into Israel, an unceremonious drop on the streets of Beersheba, a last minute move to Ibin. No one, including the Jewish Agency, knows where the stories will end. "All we can do is receive them," says Soni Singer, director of the Ibin facility. "When Jews see refugees, we cannot remain detached. But it isn't up to us to find a permanent solution to their problem. Only the government can do that." The Ibin staff has been working around the clock to receive the refugees and prepare them for whatever may come, Singer says. The Jewish Agency has agreed to house these 58 refugees, 24 of whom are below the age of 18, in Ibin for the next nine days. After that, however, as new olim begin to arrive at the center, the refugees will have to go someplace else. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gets his way, that "someplace else" may well be Egypt. Last week, Olmert announced that Israel would begin deporting the refugees back across the border, although he added that Israel would give "special consideration" to those from Darfur. "They say they may send us back to Egypt," says Steven Pal, a Christian from southern Sudan. "If we go back, the Egyptians will kill us. For us, this is a problem." Meanwhile, they wait. Linguistic differences - the Sudanese speak their own dialect of Arabic - make organized programming difficult. The Jewish Agency has arranged day care for the children - mostly movies, arts and crafts or football - but can do little for the adults, only two of whom speak English. So the women sit with the infants and talk while the men lie outside in the shade, playing dominoes and discussing the events of the past few days. Despite the threat of deportation, most of the refugees are "happy just to be someplace safe," Ibrahim says. While the refugees were briefed Monday on what to do in the event of a Kassam rocket attack, few appear to understand what such an attack entails. "When they shout 'Kassam,'" Pal says, "we are to drop everything and run to our houses." Kassam attacks are announced by alarm, and the houses are not in any way reinforced. As the government debates what to do with the refugees, the Hot Line for Migrant Workers has offered the single men paid, legal work and lodging on a farm in Bet Eliezer, near Hadera. Hot Line director Sigal Rozen emphasized that this was only a temporary measure, and has nothing to do with government plans to deport the refugees. "We want to make sure that they are in the best conditions as long as they are here," she says. "Understand, though, that we are going to fight this decision. We think that deportation to Egypt is an unbearable decision, especially considering what these people went through there." For their part, the refugees are terrified of going back to Egypt, which they say will kill them or send them back to Sudan. Many bear scars which they claim to have received from Egyptian security forces. "If they let us stay here, we will work," Pal says. "We don't want anything from the government but the right to stay. If they let me stay, I will pay for my own house, my own food. They do not have to pay for me. If they let me stay, I will pay them."