'We knew it would be safe here'

Her mother may have dreamt of safety and her father of economic opportunities, but for 13-year-old Sudanese refugee Miyati, the dream of Israel meant a pair of pink shoes.

darfur sudan 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
darfur sudan 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Her mother may have dreamt of safety and her father of economic opportunities, but for 13-year-old Sudanese refugee Miyati, the dream of Israel meant a pair of pink shoes. Ten days ago Miyati and her family, who asked that their surname not be used out of concern for relatives in Sudan, were smuggled into Israel through its southern border with Egypt. Within hours they were picked up by the Israeli Border Police and moved to the Ketziot Prison, where Miyati's mother and three siblings moved into a caravan and her father was sent to a special wing that houses several hundred male Sudanese refugees. "Our clothes were very dirty and we were tired," recalls Miyati. "We were scared, but we knew that when we arrived here it would be safe." Since arriving, Miyati has exchanged her dirty clothes for an all-pink ensemble that includes pink hair ribbons and socks to match the first pair of sneakers the teen has ever owned. Most of the donated clothing bears Israeli logos and writing. All that mattered to Miyati, however, was the color. "It is a small thing, but it meant the world to her," said Albert Azoulay, one of the prison guards who works with the refugees. "We do not treat these refugees like prisoners. I do not feel toward them like I do with the inmates." Last month, Azoulay was told that he would be leaving his job in the prison facilities to assist in the interim caravan park for refugee women and children. Eventually, he will staff a larger tent camp, meant to house up to 1,300 refugees, that is being built on the outskirts of the prison. The job is not easy, especially because the government has not established a clear policy of how the refugees should be treated. "We do not know how long they will stay, but we are trying to learn as much about them as possible so that we will be able to meet their needs and make them comfortable," said Azoulay. Finding special footwear is easy, he said, compared to some of the cultural and psychological problems that the refugees suffer from. "Some don't eat, and we learned that there was a special way to serve them. Others are afraid of men because of terrible things they have experienced. Each person we treat on their own," said Oded Sa'ar, director of the refugee division at the prison. The small southeast corner of the prison grounds has been given over entirely to the refugees. To ensure their safety, only authorized personnel are allowed inside the metal and barbed wire enclosure. Unlike the stark prison that surrounds them, the caravans are brightly painted and buzzing with activity. Dozens of children run between the structures and a playpen. For many, it is the first time in years that they have been part of an organized learning program. Eager to please, they create dozens of Styrofoam dolls that their art teacher has asked them to put together out of pipe cleaners and felt. Equally engrossed, their mothers crowd in front of televisions that have been set up inside the air-conditioned caravans. In addition to local channels, the prison has arranged access to Sudanese and other African TV stations. "We thought it would make them more comfortable, but to tell you the truth most of them had no idea that Sudan even had a TV station. Most of them have never owned a TV," said Sa'ar. In September, schooling will be provided for the older children. Until then, a policewoman serves as an impromptu Hebrew tutor, teaching some of the adults and teens common phrases like "Sababa" and "Shalom." "We did not know what to expect here, but we knew it had to be better than what we had," said Atoi Magit, a 27-year-old mother of four. Now pregnant with her fifth child, her worst fear is that the Israeli government will return her to Egypt. "I do not know if I could go anywhere… If there was peace, I would go back to Darfur. If there is war, I would like to stay here in Israel, or in another safe place," she said. When a prison guard asked her about Egypt, she shook her head violently and said, "Anywhere but there." For many of the refugees, it is still difficult to talk about their lives in Egypt. Many of the men point to scars and burn marks as physical evidence of the abuse they say they endured at the hands of Egyptian gangs. The women point to new offspring, lighter skinned than the rest of their brood. "We heard it was better here, so how could we not come?" asked one woman, who did not want to give her name. She said a cousin of hers, who has worked in an Eilat hotel since he arrived in Israel last year, phoned her and told her that she should raise the money and make the journey. "We paid $600 to the Beduin to bring us," she said. "We did not know what we would find. We did not know how dangerous it would be." She was one of the lucky ones. On the same day she arrived, a five-months pregnant woman was shot and killed by Egyptian guards as she tried to cross the border. The Egyptians have been stepping up their military presence along the border as part of a new agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Hosni Mubarak to deport the refugees back to Egypt. More than 2,400 African refugees have made their way into Israel in the past several years, according to Amnesty International. One-third are Sudanese, while the rest come from countries such as Eritrea, Kenya and Ghana. The Israeli government has not yet announced who among the refugees will be deported or when that process will begin. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office said that while the refugees from Darfur would be allowed to stay, the Sudanese would likely be returned with the rest of the African refugees. That thought scares Miyati and her family, who come from a northwestern province of Sudan, which is near but not in Darfur. "Where I was born, there was not much of anything. In Egypt there was a lot, but we couldn't have it at all. Here is the best," said Miyati. "I had had pink before, on some dresses and for my hair. But I never thought pink was possible on shoes. Now I know what is possible." •