Organized, energized and angry

Darfur refugees in TA praise Israel but demand action to stop genocide.

Darfurian refugees 224.8 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig )
Darfurian refugees 224.8
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig )
Musa Yasin is 30, soft-spoken and confident. Fleeing the massacres of northern Darfur, Musa (the family name comes first) crossed into Israel in the middle of 2005. Without a clear policy for dealing with the unexpected influx of African refugees, Israeli authorities jailed him along with hundreds of others in Ma'asiyahu Prison. In prison, Musa found fellow travelers on a similar trajectory away from the violence that has destroyed families and villages throughout Darfur over the past six years. In the summer of 2005, with a few good friends from Ma'asiyahu, Musa founded the Sons of Darfur, "a non-profit humanitarian organization serving Darfurian refugees in Israel." The goal, he told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, "is to have refugees helping themselves." The elected leader of the group since August, Musa was the central organizer of a march on Sunday down Tel Aviv's swank Rothschild Boulevard. Over 300 refugees and a handful of Israeli activists, surrounded by an envelope of traffic police to keep the march flowing through Rothschild's dozen intersections, sang and danced to African drum beats as they made their way toward the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The moving mass of exuberant dancers, shuffling rhythmically and coalescing into spontaneous drumming circles, was more celebration than protest. "Living in Israel is very, very good," enthuses Arbab, who - like all the Darfurians - is a Muslim. "The people are nice." Asked if the demonstration, which featured signs protesting "the genocide in Sudan," was also directed at the Israeli government's protracted indecision regarding the refugees' status, Arbab insists that "the government has only helped me." Yousif, who lost his brother and father to the massacres, agrees. "The government here gives me protection," he says. "It won't send me back to my country," where the refugees face not only the general dangers and uncertainties of war, but the specific and deadly wrath of an undemocratic regime embarrassed by their flight. "Now we are free," says Hamad Saadedin, who describes himself as the spokesman of the Sudan Liberation Movement, an organization of Sudanese in Israel that unabashedly seeks to become a political lobby for Darfur. "We never had these freedoms in Egypt or Libya." According to Musa, the gratitude is sincere. "The government really helps," he explains. "It gives us our freedom and work permits, and we live in apartments like any Israeli. We also have our culture, our music." No longer imprisoned, most of the refugees live on kibbutzim and in cities in the North and South. Yet Sunday's march demonstrated more than their newfound sense of freedom in Israel. It reflected a new political consciousness, a willingness and desire to be seen and heard about the goings-on in the ravaged homeland they fled. The march is partly about "showing Israelis who we are, that we're not from an enemy nation, that we're good people." But even more, "we're marching to raise awareness about Darfur," Musa says. "It's a genocide happening over six years. Everyone knows it's a genocide, but there has been no action to stop it." Is it useful to demonstrate in Israel against the Sudanese government? The two countries are already in a decades-long state of war. "The Israeli community is part of the international community," and Israelis have a role to play in the world as advocates for the Darfur crisis, he believes. Saadedin returns to this point at every opportunity. While he speaks warmly of Israel, he says the refugees are "angry" about what's happening in Darfur. "Our people are still dying there."