'Third-class Israelis'

African refugees who have been here for a few years are part of a solid community.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's a Friday night get-together of Darfurian refugees in the Shapira slum of south Tel Aviv, and despite the shattering memories that everyone here carries around, tonight they're in good spirits. The 40 or so arriving guests hug one another, the men giving each other intricate, soul-brother handshakes. They're wearing mainly donated clothes, and the only refreshment for the evening is diluted orange juice. The apartment is almost bare of decoration except for a postcard of Bob Marley on the wall, and, on a table, a menora decorated with an Israeli flag. A few men push the furniture to the sides of the living room, the guests clear a space in the middle of the floor, and the Darfur Star Band - a row of female singers and a row of male singers, led by a chanter and a big, muscular guy beating a paint bucket for a drum - take their places. They sing in the traditional African "call-and-response" style, their voices moaning, rising, growing almost ecstatic and taking the listeners with them. Written by the band's chanter, Zadik, in the Fur language of Sudan's burnt-out, massacred Darfur region, the songs tell the story of the community's escape to Israel. The words could have been taken from the Bible. "When we lost our home/Our people dying in the street/We were trapped, we were dying of hunger/So we prayed to God to help us... "When we were in Egypt, we found only trouble and danger/We were crying all the time, who will help us?... "So we left and we walked to Israel/No one helped us except Israel..." They are Muslims, the 750-odd Darfurians in the country, but they've named themselves Bnei Darfur. Of the African refugees who've come through Egypt and across the border to Israel since July 2005, the Darfurians are the lucky ones, or at least the first 600 to arrive here were: They've been singled out by the government to receive legal status, to be free from the threat of deportation, to be accepted in this country. The 150 or so late arrivals from Darfur are in prison or floating around, hoping the government will eventually grant them temporary resident (F-5) status, as well. "We're considered second- or third-class Israelis, but it doesn't matter," says Yassin Moussa, 30, the community's leader, sitting in his Shapira apartment as countrymen drop by to visit. He's just come back from Ichilov Hospital, where he was visiting a Darfurian couple who gave birth to the community's second "sabra" baby. It's a girl named Pardos, which is Fur for "Paradise." "Of course we see our future in Israel, no question," says Moussa. Of the roughly 6,000 Africans who have crossed the Egyptian border into Israel, he and 12 other Darfurians were the very first. That was on July 13, 2005. I ask what became of the other 12. "Most of them are in Tel Aviv now, a few are in Eilat, one is in Jerusalem," he says. Moussa and a few other "elders" of the Darfurian community have met four times with Aliza Olmert, the prime minister's wife. "She's a wonderful woman, she's really working hard for us, she put a lot of pressure on the Interior Ministry to give us legal status as quickly as possible," he says. He also compliments local UN and government officials who ordinarily get very few compliments from refugee aid organizations and Africans who aren't from Darfur. "I think we're really lucky to find these people," Moussa says. A couple of miles away in a slum apartment next to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, a half-dozen refugees from southern Sudan, who survived an even greater holocaust than the Darfurians did, and who carry the same sort of traumatic memories, were in hiding. The day before, February 25, police had raided the bus station area and arrested some 250 Africans who had already applied for refugee status in Israel. They were soon released, though, and the police haven't been back. A police spokesperson said the Africans were arrested because they had entered the country illegally. But a local UN official said the arrests violated international law, as well as Israel's promise to the UN not to apprehend people who have applied for refugee status. The UN official described the police move as a "panic" reaction to the uncontrolled flow of asylum-seekers, now mainly Eritreans, crossing the porous Egyptian border into Israel. The day after the raid, the fear was still on around the bus terminal, and these young southern Sudanese men were scared to go out their front door. As for their future, they didn't know what it would be, or where. "The work here isn't bad. We're surviving," says "John," a hotel janitor who's been in the country since June 2006, and who, like all the Sudanese who came here before last year, was imprisoned for many months upon arrival. His problem, like that of all the roughly 6,000 African refugees here who aren't "lucky" enough to be from Darfur, is that Israel will not give them a home, and no foreign country is willing to give them one, either. Local UN officials have asked many foreign countries to take the Africans off Israel's hands, but the response is always that they have more than enough of their own refugees to handle already, so those in Israel are Israel's problem. The refugees keep coming across the Egyptian border to Israel - about 2,500 since the beginning of the year, mainly from Eritrea by way of Sudan. But repeating earlier statements while speaking on Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a directive to security forces saying Africans caught trying to enter Israel illegally would be deported to Egypt on the spot. "The security forces are still not doing enough to prevent the entrance of infiltrators, and the Foreign Ministry has not examined all the options with African states," Olmert said. "The situation is not ideal. This is a tsunami that can grow and we need to take every measure to stop it." In the meantime, the fetid, airless, packed shelters for newcomers near the Central Bus Station are due to give way to a "tent city" in south Tel Aviv with beds, showers, kitchens and air conditioners that will house 700 refugees. WHILE ISRAEL'S attention is on the here and now - how to cope with the rising flow of Africans and, above all, how to close the Egyptian border and keep out the uncountable number of others planning to follow in their wake - a community of African refugees who've been here for two or even three years has taken root in Israel. The largest group is in south Tel Aviv, where, at least to native Israeli eyes, they blend in with the 50,000 or so foreign laborers from all over the world. Another sizable community lives in Eilat, where they work mainly at the city's hotels. Another, much smaller population lives in Arad and works at the Dead Sea hotels. A number of them live and work at kibbutzim and moshavim, and the remainder are scattered in cities throughout the country. Their children go to Israeli public schools, with 42 of them attending the multicultural Bialik-Rogozin School near Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station. Christians from southern Sudan attend churches around the bus station or in Jaffa, while Muslims from Darfur pray at Jaffa mosques. NGOs led by the Hotline for Migrant Workers defend them in court, and a vast network of volunteers, Israelis and Africans alike, helps them with jobs, housing, clothing, food, education and other needs. The community received a severe blow on Sunday, though, as the Physicians for Human Rights free clinic near the bus station, which treated hundreds of patients a week, closed down for lack of funds. PHR said that were the government to take up some of the expenses to provide health care for the African community, the clinic could possibly reopen. Among government agencies, only the Tel Aviv Municipality has really taken up the refugees' cause, accepting their children into city schools, their mothers and infants into city maternity clinics, and sending city social workers out to try to help them. One thing that comes through clearly from visits and interviews with the "old-timers" is that the African refugee communities - which group together by nationality, with Darfurians and southern Sudanese seeing themselves as separate nationalities - help one another out tremendously. Their overcrowded apartments operate like communes. I found "John" living with four other young southern Sudanese men in a studio apartment near the bus station, where the NIS 1,600 monthly rent is split between the five roommates according to their ability to pay, which varies depending on how much work they're getting. The five men buy their food and cook meals together. Between them, they share a double bed, a fold-out couch and a mattress. What Yassin Moussa says about the Darfurians holds true for the southern Sudanese as well: "We all grew up in villages where everyone lived together. It's very difficult for us to be cut off from our people." Those who have relatively good jobs and incomes contribute what they can toward the rent for newcomers moving in with their countrymen. In the Shapira neighborhood around Rehov Har Zion, about 15 families from Darfur have moved in, says Moussa. Several Darfurian men are sitting on benches outdoors, while in one of the alleys, an Israeli volunteer plays with a little Darfurian girl. While the Israeli government hasn't been welcoming to any refugees other than 600 from Darfur, the responses by any number of organizations, individuals and "pockets" of Israeli society have been absolutely vital to the Africans' well-being in this country. FOR EXAMPLE, the Bialik-Rogozin School was a life-saver for the children of Tel Aviv's foreign laborers before it became one for the children of refugees at the start of this school year. "About 90% of the [Sudanese] pupils came to school without being able to read or write in any language," says Smadar Mors, who runs Bialik-Rogozin's Hebrew ulpan, noting that they lost years of schooling from being on the run in Sudan and Egypt. "Many were traumatized, and a lot of them have either one parent or none at all," she says, adding that the school helps find the orphans foster homes or youth shelters. At first, she says, the kids were living with their families in a nearby church, but now all are living in stable housing situations. "We know every pupil's life story, we know if he needs money, if he needs food," Mors adds, noting that the Sudanese kids get free breakfast sandwiches and hot lunches at school, as well as free after-school activities - music, dance, sports, art - that allow them to stay on campus until 7 p.m. "The streets of this neighborhood have nothing to offer them," she says. The Sudanese pupils are "very quiet, polite and respectful," but inside they're churning with the effects of seeing their families butchered, their homes burned down or whatever else they've endured. For those who need counseling, the Tel Aviv Municipality provides psychologists. Overall, though, they show no more "abnormal behavior" than others of their age, Mors notes. "If I had to use one word to describe their stay at school, I would use 'upheaval,'" she says. "We had to start from the most basic of the basics - to teach them to come to class on time, to observe the dress code, to sit down at their desks, to do their homework. And now, a few months later, they've become readers and speakers of Hebrew. They're very intelligent and have a very highly developed aesthetic sense, you see it in their art, in their work at the computers. They want very much to learn." As with all its students, Bialik-Rogozin's goal is to have all the young Sudanese refugees pass matriculation. "If we didn't think this was possible, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing," says Mors. The Hotline for Migrant Workers office, besides serving as the free legal counsel for the refugee community, is also a clearing house for jobs, and lately has become the headquarters of Bnei Darfur and the very fledgling Association for Sudanese Refugees in Israel, with represents the southern Sudanese. The two organizations work side by side in the Rehov Nahalat Binyamin office, but it must be said that the Darfurians are doing much better than the southerners. The lead activist in the Association is Majier Anyual-Pap, 25, who spends his days calling and visiting one foreign embassy after another, dealing with one Israeli bureaucrat after another, trying to get his countrymen out of this limbo, trying to find a country that will accept them, and getting nowhere. He raises a complaint that comes up over and over with these people - their chance at an education is disappearing by the day, they're wasting their youth on these menial jobs, and they have no prospects of ever learning or achieving anything more than basic survival. "I didn't come here to do those jobs. I want to study, maybe I can go to university, and then one day, if the situation changes, I can go back to southern Sudan and help the country," he says. In his south Tel Aviv apartment, Adda Ismail Ahmed, 42, a father of four from Darfur, sits in his living room surrounded by nearly 20 computers, all donated by Israelis, that he hopes to use to set up a computer class for his countrymen. Trained in computers in Cairo, he got a job as a computer technician through a volunteer he knows. He makes about NIS 4,000 a month, but his rent is half that, so his wife has to clean houses and even his 16-year-old daughter, Amal, takes care of kids at a day-care center. She also sings with the Darfur Star Band. In Darfur, he saw his father burned alive in the family's hut. "You have bad memories that you cannot forget until you die, and you have a homesickness you never lose until you die. You always want to go home," says Ahmed. He hopes the situation in Darfur will improve so that his children or grandchildren will be able to return "to build the country like the Jews built Israel." But in the meantime, he is raising his children to help build this country. "Of course Amal is going into the army," he says. "I'm going to send all my children into the army. Israel has protected us, so we have to protect it." n