Opening a new chapter

Jerusalem is home to a growing number of Sudanese refugees, who are working hard to build a new future.

sudanese jlem 224 88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
sudanese jlem 224 88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
Welcome to the twilight zone. A place that most Jerusalemites don't see - or choose to ignore. While visitors from across the world take in the wonders of the Holy Land from the comfort of their air-conditioned tour buses, gangs of drably uniformed workers from even more far-flung places hurry along the circuitous corridors of the city's hotels to prepare the bedrooms for the guests upon their return. Most tourists take for granted the fresh towels, folded linen and single-use bottles of shower gel waiting for them after a hard day's tourism. However, few spare a thought for the unseen folk who make their stay a comfortable one. If you don't stay in one of Jerusalem's five-star hotels, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that the city is home to a small but growing community of Sudanese refugees working hard to open a new chapter of their lives. Jerusalem's hotel industry and its low-paying cleaning work have recently become a safe haven and means of subsistence for several dozen Sudanese escaping the conflict in their war-torn homeland. "The first five Sudanese came to work at the Crowne Plaza last June, and it has expanded since then. My understanding is that they did pretty well, and other hotels heard about them and wanted to employ more," explains Charmaine Hedding, strategic project developer at the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). Work has been one of Jerusalem's main draws for Sudanese, without which they would probably add to the numbers in the streets and shelters of Tel Aviv. The throngs of migrant workers and asylum seekers from Africa and the Far East will be familiar to anyone emerging from Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, conjuring up scenes more akin to Bangkok or Addis Ababa than the Mediterranean coast. But thanks to special contracts between the hotels and manpower agency Tel-Ran, Sudanese in Jerusalem are more likely to be found cleaning hotel rooms than hanging out in parks or sleeping on the streets. "Sudanese are only coming to Jerusalem if they have work; they are more organized," says Dror Matza of Tel-Ran, which employs some 200 Sudanese across Israel, including 30 in Jerusalem. Refugees fleeing Sudan, often leaving family behind, are surviving in the city through a combination of determination and the generosity of big-hearted Jews and Christians who are helping them get on their feet. As Sudanese continue to seek refuge in Israel, more could be coming to Jerusalem as the swelling numbers in Tel Aviv stretch the municipality's resources. But it all depends on whether the capital can provide roofs over their heads and wages in their pockets. "It's tempting to go where the rest of the [Sudanese] community is, but slowly a kernel of a community is growing here. It's good, they have more people to talk to and communicate with. They're not so lonely and isolated," says Hedding who, together with Tel-Ran and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, has been bringing Sudanese to work in Jerusalem. To illuminate the unknown world of refugees in the capital, In Jerusalem met with a group of Africans working at the Renaissance Hotel to find out how they are coping in their new home. Sitting on oversized pink sofas, the young men recounted their often bloody journeys to Israel to the soundtrack of easy-listening jazz echoing around the high ceilings of the lobby. The hotel employs some 25 refugees, mostly from Sudan, as well as five or six from Eritrea, to clean bedrooms and the lobby via contracts with Tel-Ran. Khamis originally came to Jerusalem because his Sudanese friends in Tel Aviv knew someone working here. "I'm very happy here at the hotel and the way they look after us. I was in Tel Aviv and Eilat before, but there were lots of problems. I don't have any problems here; it's more quiet," says Khamis, who has been working at the hotel for eight months. He crossed into Israel via the Sinai Desert. However, his initial welcome to the country was less than warm, and he found himself incarcerated in a prison by the Israeli Border Police. Baker Abu-Salam, sporting bright green and white overalls identical to those of his colleagues, recalls the day in 2003 when the Sudanese government and a local tribe entered his village at 4 a.m. He fled, spending time in Khartoum and Egypt, and since then has not had any contact with his family. "I came here to work with the Tel-Ran company," says Abu-Salam, who has been living in Jerusalem for six months. "I am happy here, but it wasn't like that in Egypt. There was no protection, and sometimes the government was in contact with the Sudanese government and they would come and arrest people." ARRIVING IN Jerusalem with the shirt on their backs and a foreign language marks the end of one journey and the beginning of a new one for the Sudanese. "They are very nice people, but they don't know anything about Israel, even where to buy things or how to find a doctor. My boss told me, 'You're a great social worker' because I find myself solving their problems," says Matza. A loose network of NGOs, churches, private individuals, student activists and the Hotline for Migrant Workers has been providing support for Sudanese refugees, ranging from shoes and food vouchers to medical services. Volunteers raised money to buy schoolbags for children, an example of "normal things, to give people back their dignity," according to Hedding. She describes the hotels glowingly as "just incredible." Some of them have donated second-hand linen, refrigerators and television sets to refugees in need. "It's an issue we decided to take upon ourselves and try to help them. They're already here, and I think I need to do the best I can to make sure they feel welcome and loved," says Moshe Cohen, housekeeping manager at the Renaissance Hotel. "You hear their stories - it's complete trauma. If you know what happened to them, you have to do your best to be a shaliah [emissary]. It's written in the Bible: 'You yourself were a slave in Egypt.'" Cohen adds that when the first Sudanese workers arrived, the hotel gave them four bedrooms until they found their own lodgings, and they hosted a temporary dental clinic. "They didn't know the language or even what a shekel was," recalls Cohen. "It's not easy to work with them," he adds. "There is a gap in language and culture, and some haven't seen their family for years. We have to explain to them what a five-star hotel is and the expectations of guests and the management." Most Sudanese in Jerusalem are working at the Renaissance, Crowne Plaza and Sheraton hotels, in addition to others living in the city on a temporary basis. But some have been getting their hands dirty to earn a living, digging at the archeological excavations at the Ir David National Park near the Western Wall. The Ir David Foundation's international director of development, Doron Spielman, says that up to 20 Sudanese were employed over the last four months on the latest excavations, which came to a halt just over a month ago. "They were absolutely phenomenal. There was always a nice atmosphere, people were smiling, and there was no yelling," says Spielman, noting that the Sudanese laborers were paid a daily rate of NIS 240, in excess of the national minimum wage. "They were thrilled to be in Jerusalem. Some of them told me that they had dreamt of Jerusalem and came here because they wanted to be near the holy city." He plans to recruit more Sudanese when the dig restarts. "The laborers at Ir David included both Muslims and Christians fleeing separate parts of war-torn Sudan. One-third of the 2,500-plus Sudanese refugees in Israel are from the mainly Muslim Darfur region, while the remainder are Christians fleeing a separate conflict in the south of the country," explains Spielman. Like the South Sudanese, Madhani, originally from Eritrea, is also Christian. His family came to Jerusalem in 1996 to seek work, but he didn't join them until last year when he fled the war between his country and neighboring Ethiopia and now works at the Renaissance Hotel, alongside mainly Muslim Darfurians. "The UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] say they have received inquiries from around 200 Eritreans in Jerusalem but believe that most have left to seek work in Tel Aviv. Madhani prays at the Ethiopian Church in the Old City, although he says that he has no contact with Ethiopians Jews in Israel," says Spielman. Another Christian organization to open its wings has been the Baptist House in Rehavia. "Our youth group was watching the film the Lost Boys of Sudan and were saying, 'We wish we could do something to help,'" says Liz Kopp, the church's worship leader. Shortly afterward, the church received an inquiry from an Orthodox Jewish woman in Gilo about services for a refugee she had befriended. Now the church counts several Sudanese among its worshipers, some of whom slept in the church until they found alternative accommodation. "Some Israelis are afraid of them because they are so different, but there are others who bend over backwards to help," says Chuck, Liz's husband and pastor. People from both the congregation and the local Jewish community have donated clothes, diapers and baby formula. The seasonality of Jerusalem's tourist industry has been one limiting factor for the number of Sudanese coming to the city, says Hedding, citing the downturn over the winter until the recent peak during Pessah. "Tel Aviv is more used to having asylum seekers, and there is more work there. They are looking for really long hours to support their families and work overtime," she says. However, the biggest challenge for refugees fortunate enough to secure employment has been to put a roof over their heads. "A lot of Sudanese are living in Arad or Eilat because it's cheaper. Some are interested in coming to Jerusalem because there is work here, but it's so hard to find affordable accommodation," she explains. "There's no point getting work if you're spending all your wages on accommodation. If you're earning five or six thousand shekels a month, you don't want to be spending four thousand on rent. That's the reality of the situation. It's difficult getting landlords to accept that there will be Sudanese living in their buildings," adds Hedding. To overcome this hurdle, Tel-Ran signs apartment contracts on behalf of the refugees and, in some cases, helps them raise money for their first month's rent. In Jerusalem visited Gabriel Kuol's new home in French Hill just weeks after he and his two Sudanese apartment mates moved in, its living room still bare apart from a cartoon portrait of Kuol stuck to the wall. "When I contacted the landlord, he asked if I had an Israeli ID card and I said 'No.' Instead, he wanted a check for one year's rent," says Kuol. That's when Tel-Ran stepped in and signed the contract, enabling Kuol and his roommates to pay rent in monthly installments like everybody else. LIKE THOSE living elsewhere in Israel, the future for Sudanese refugees in Jerusalem remains uncertain while the Israeli government makes up its mind about their fate. Some have freshly issued Israeli identification cards and work permits, but their temporary nature only adds to their sense of insecurity. "It's good that we get [Israeli] IDs, but we don't know what's going to happen to us after one year. I don't know where I'm going; it's up to the government," says Abu-Salam. "In Darfur there are many problems with the war, I can't go back there. The Sudanese government said that if we go to Israel, we can never return," says Khanis, another Sudanese refugee. In the little spare time they have outside work, some Sudanese are learning Hebrew in Jerusalem, a sure sign that they hope to put down roots here. "Israel is a very good and democratic country," says Ramadan Idris. "We never find danger here, and the people are very friendly. The feeling here is like being in Darfur - we are not strangers here. But Hebrew is a problem, it's very difficult for us, so we are trying to learn." Cohen describes how he got together with the workers at the Renaissance Hotel after Pessah to explain the holiday to them and give them gifts, when one stood up and made a thank-you speech to the hotel in Hebrew. "I was in complete shock," he says. A group of volunteers, initiated by students at the Hebrew University, have been running weekly Hebrew and English classes for some 15 refugees at the Daila activist center downtown for the last five months. Sara Stern, one of the volunteer teachers, says that the classes also have a social value. "It's like a meeting place. If they have problems, they can tell us. We try to help them with different issues, such as employment, medical issues or trying to find a place to live," she explains. "They tell you that an employer didn't pay them enough. Small things happen because of the language barrier or [that] they don't have much power in the country. I see it as a humanitarian obligation which overrides questions or fears about the issues of being a Jewish state. If I were in a similar situation, I'd want somebody to take me in," says Stern. With the exception of one or two fluent English speakers, most of the refugees In Jerusalem met with spoke Arabic, Israel's second language. Arabic is also the official language of Sudan. But despite sharing the same mother tongue with one-third of Jerusalem's residents, the Sudanese have little to do with Arab Jerusalemites and live in Jewish neighborhoods including Kiryat Hayovel, Gilo and French Hill, traveling to Al-Aksa Mosque to pray. "It would have been easier for them to find an apartment on the Arab side of the city; it would be cheaper," acknowledges Kopp, who believes that many Sudanese are fearful of Arabs following their experiences in Arab countries on the way to Israel. Cohen agrees, adding that he doesn't perceive any tension between Muslims from Sudan and Israeli Jews. "The conflict between Jews and the Palestinians has been going on for years, but they're not in that game. They're just trying to make a better life for themselves." Whether there is any foundation for perceived fears of Arabs in Jerusalem remains a moot point; nevertheless, many Sudanese relate unpleasant experiences of their time in Egypt. "They killed some of us in Egypt, and I tried to go to Jordan and Syria but they wouldn't accept me," says Muhammad Haron, whose reflective sunglasses conceal a wound sustained on his trek to Israel that left him with one eye. "If there's peace in Sudan, I would like to go back and see my family. But if there is no peace, then I will stay in Israel," says Haron, who has had no contact with his wife and children for four years. Having found sanctuary in Israel, at least for the time being, Sudanese refugees are likely to settle wherever they find employment and lodging. The bottleneck in Tel Aviv could mean that more Sudanese will be seeking refuge in Jerusalem in the future. "We're looking to bring more families to Jerusalem," says Hedding. She adds that conditions in the capital can sometimes be better than in Tel Aviv, where some areas are becoming very overcrowded and pressure is mounting on the municipality. Jerusalem is still behind Tel Aviv in terms of resources to support refugees, "but if the schools are full, then they will have to find somewhere else to put the children," she says. "We found that a lot of Sudanese we've helped just needed a lucky break to recover from what they've been through, reunite with their family and get back to a normal life."