Sudanese refugees fear Holocaust lessons haven't been learned

"We look at Israel as a big brother. We have seen how they have suffered, and we too have suffered."

Sudanese 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Sudanese 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In the shadow of a Knesset bill that would allow the state to jail refugees fleeing the genocide in Sudan for up to seven years, two Sudanese refugees now settled in the Washington, DC, area visited Yad Vashem on Thursday, in Israel trying to better understand the situation of their countrymen. Jimmy Mulla, president of the Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom, and White Joshua Walla, the organization's vice president, have been in Israel since Saturday, speaking to some of the estimated 3,000 Sudanese currently seeking shelter in Israel. Both Walla and Mulla are Christians from southern Sudan, where an estimated two million people have died in a two-decade-long conflict with the Islamist government in Khartoum. "We look at Israel as a big brother. We have seen how they have suffered, and we too have suffered. When Sudanese think of Israel, they feel that they are coming to people who can understand them and what they have been through," Mulla said. Mulla and Walla are even more convinced of that after their visit to Yad Vashem, carried out under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League's Jerusalem office. But, they said, they were concerned that perhaps some of the Holocaust Memorial's most important lessons had yet to be applied. "You'd expect that the world would have learned its lesson about accepting refugees," said Walla, "but we see the situation happening again and again." The two hope to meet with government representatives, but so far have been given the cold shoulder. Instead, they have met with Steven Wolfson from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in Israel, as well as with refugees currently being offered shelter and employment in Eilat and Arad, and visited the Mesila school in south Tel Aviv, whose student body is largely made up of the children of refugees and foreign workers. They were troubled by some of the stories they heard. In Eilat, they said, the lucky ones - refugees who have been awarded official status - often find that the apartments in which they live are dependent on their employment. "Sometimes, if they try to call and tell their boss that they are sick, they are told, 'Okay, but don't bother to come back tomorrow,'" Mulla said. "And then, if they lose their job, they and their families no longer have anywhere to live." Many of the refugees, said Mulla, were eager to be given professional training that could help them here - and would help them rebuild their country when - and if - they return. Differentiating between refugees from Darfur and those fleeing from persecution in other parts of Sudan was unfair and divided the refugee community, they said. Southern Sudanese refugees such as Walla and Mulla are Christians and have been persecuted by the government and government-allied militias due to their beliefs. Such differentiation, Mulla said, was yet another factor that made it nearly impossible for the refugees to form a unified voice to advocate for their interests. The refugees, Mulla said, did not have any representative dealing with the Israeli government, and so were reliant on NGOs to represent their interests and to generate public opinion to support their cause. Separately, a bill that would make life harder for all Sudanese asylum-seekers passed its first reading earlier this week. On the opening day of the Knesset's summer session, the bill, presented by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i (Labor), passed by a vote of 21-one. If approved, the legislation would make it possible to sentence all border infiltrators - refugees or not - to up to five years in prison. Infiltrators from enemy states, including Sudan, could be sentenced to up to seven years, and the release of a prisoner could be delayed if a "security source" submitted a written opinion that the infiltrator's country of origin was a place where acts were carried out that threatened the security of Israel or its citizens. The bill would also permit the arrest of children and families who are caught crossing the border. The legislation does not take into consideration that the infiltrators may have opposed the anti-Israel regime in their home country. Vilna'i said the bill was necessary to stem the increase in the infiltrators entering from Sinai, and expressed optimism that it would have a deterrent effect. Mulla described the bill as "definitely a setback," but said that he understood Israel's fear that "granting status for refugees might create a pull effect." Both Mulla and Walla said the UNHCR should do more to help both the Israeli government and Israeli NGOs to find a solution to the growing refugee crisis. In their experience, the two refugees said, "the UN has a good name, but it is frequently just that - a name alone." They suggested that as a first step, the UNHCR should increase the staff of its overworked Israel branch. In the long-term, they said, Israel could benefit from lending a hand to refugees. "When these people come back to their countries, maybe even when southern Sudan becomes its own independent country, the refugees who were here will remember their host country, which gave them shelter. It will help Israel build new, stronger ties," Walla said.