Ties that bind

Two Darfur teens in protective custody at kibbutz Tze'elim are among the 220 Sudanese refugees petitioning Israel for asylum.

darfur sudan 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
darfur sudan 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
How do two 17-year-old boys behave after they've escaped genocide? When they don't know what happened to their families, whether their relatives lived or died, except for the father of one of them, whom he saw being shot to death? "Issam" and "Noah," who escaped their burning villages in Darfur in 2003 and who have been living at Kibbutz Tze'elim in the Negev for the last three months, showed no emotion during our interview in the caravan, or mobile home, they share. I didn't want to probe their feelings, so I only asked Noah, who speaks English - Issam speaks only his native Fur language - if it was better for him to think about his parents or to try not to. "It's better to think about your parents," he said, a slight smile coming slowly over his distinct, proud features. The boys' patron, kibbutznik Ya'acov "Yankele" Gefen, says he has never seen any sign of grief or sadness in the boys, who work in the kibbutz chicken coop. He says he doesn't talk about their ordeal with them. He suggested to local UN officials that a psychologist be brought in to talk with them, but nothing came of it. However, from a two-page, handwritten essay Noah wrote with the aid of an Arabic-English dictionary, and after reading articles in the local press, including one in which Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer calls for Israel to grant asylum to Sudanese refugees here, you get a hint of what the two boys carry around with them. "As a boy of fourteen I played with my childhood friends in the middle of the village, when we hears the voice of boms imidiately we ran toward home but unfortuntly we [were forced] to run out of village. I ran into night and joined up with streams of other boys trying to escape from death or slavery. So we crossed a thousand miles of war. Country without hope of security, missing my loving parents, food, medicine and shelter and losing friends. I lived on street and asking people for food by shame ways. These are connecting with miss my childhood. Now we are two in Israel but every one had particular pains and nightmares in his own voice." Of some 220 Sudanese refugees who've come across the Egyptian border into Israel since the middle of last year, all but a couple of dozen or so are still in administrative detention in Ramle or Ketziot prison. The others are mothers and young children who've been placed for the time being at kibbutzim and shelters - and Noah and Issam, who spent about six months in various Israeli juvenile detention facilities before Gefen arranged with local UN officials and a sympathetic prison magistrate to take custody of them. The 58-year-old grandfather and kibbutz cow shed worker previously took custody of a refugee boy from Chad who has since left Tze'elim and is now studying in Tel Aviv for his high school matriculation. Without elaborating, Gefen cites the Holocaust as the reason he volunteers to look after young refugees from African genocide and war. The arrangement with Noah and Issam runs out in December, by order of the magistrate. Gefen says steps are being taken to get them into a boarding school next semester. But like the rest of the Sudanese refugees in Israel, the boys' futures are in complete limbo. (Their real names cannot be published nor their faces shown in order to protect their family members in Sudan, if any survived, and themselves if they should ever return.) The State Attorney's Office, which was ordered last month by the Supreme Court to grant some sort of judicial hearing to the scores of Sudanese refugees who've sat in prison for months without such a hearing, has asked the court for more time. The State of Israel does not want to give the Sudanese asylum because they are from an enemy country. Yet in recent weeks, Yehuda Bauer has been joined by Yad Vashem Director Avner Shalev and, most recently, Elie Wiesel in urging Israel to heed the lessons of Jewish persecution by granting asylum to these new victims of genocide. "We as Jews are obliged to help not only Jews. I was a refugee and therefore I am in favor of admitting refugees," Wiesel said in an interview in last Friday's Ha'aretz magazine. "Israel should absorb refugees from Darfur, even a symbolic number." In the meantime, Israel has promised not to deport the refugees to Sudan. Neither will it deport them to Egypt, which treated them brutally and, it's feared, might try to send them back to Sudan, where they could be killed. UN officials are interviewing them to determine which are entitled to UN refugee status. Then, unless Israel decides to take them in - as it has previously taken in many hundreds of refugees from Vietnam, Bosnia and various African countries, none of which, however, were Israel's enemies - UN officials say they will try to find other countries to accept them. The Supreme Court case to win hearings for all the Sudanese in prison does not affect Noah and Issam; they already had the relatively good fortune of being released by a prison magistrate into Gefen's custody. Whether they are allowed to stay in Israel, as they wish to do for a few years, or be forced to leave, will ultimately be decided by Israel's political leadership. THE BOYS MET nine months ago in an Israeli police facility, a couple of days after separately crossing the all-but-wide-open border with Sinai. Since then they've become more than friends. "Noah is like Issam's father," says Gefen. Where Noah looks composed and handles himself with authority, Issam is wide-eyed with bewilderment, looking to Noah to explain things to him. Noah is a quick study; he went to school for nine years in Darfur, learning Arabic and English, and he's learned enough Hebrew in Israeli prisons and from a volunteer kibbutz teacher to be able to get along. Issam didn't go to school and knows only Fur. The colorful drawings of peacocks, flowers and the Israeli flag on their walls were done by Noah. Another of Issam's disadvantages is his unhealed broken arm, which he and Noah say he got from a guard a couple of months ago at the detention center in nearby Moshav Tzahor, where they were held with some 30 other teenage illegal aliens, mainly from Guinea, who'd crossed into Israel from Sinai. "His name was Assaf," says Noah of the guard. The two boys were in the third day of a hunger strike to protest their detention, which had gone on for four months, and the guards were trying to get them to eat. "One of the guards asked him, 'What do you want?'" Noah recalls, "and my friend [Issam] said, 'To die.' And the guard said, 'Okay,' and he stretched his arm over a chair and snapped it." After the boys came to the kibbutz, with Issam's left arm in a cast, Gefen went to the detention center to try to get officials to pay for the boy's treatment. "I went before the magistrate, and the commander of the detention center says [Issam's] arm was broken when he 'resisted arrest' and one of the guards had to grab him. The magistrate was amazed at what he heard," Gefen says. No wonder; Issam is very thin, slightly built and docile. Police investigators were prepared to examine the case, Gefen says, but the boys, in legal custody after six months' detention, were understandably reluctant to press charges against the Immigration Police guard, and the matter was dropped. Issam is in pain and needs treatment for his arm, Gefen says, but this could cost thousands of shekels that the financially-strapped kibbutz can't spare, and no one else is prepared to pay for it. A former English teacher at the detention center, Ephraim Perlmutter of Moshav Sde Nitzan says he doesn't remember Noah or Issam, although he does "remember seeing one kid there with his arm in a cast, and I also remember seeing a guard once with his arm in a cast, but I don't know how either of them got that way." He says the guards and other officials "went way above and beyond the call of duty to help the kids," but that occasionally tempers on both sides got out of hand. If Issam's arm was broken wantonly by a guard, Perlmutter says, this would have been a completely atypical occurrence at the Immigration Police facility, which is moving from Tzohar to Hadera. FOR THE SIX months between the night they crossed the border until they came to the kibbutz, Noah and Issam were shunted from one juvenile holding tank to another, where they were jailed with other refugees except for once, in a Netanya prison, where they were jailed with youthful Israeli criminals, including violent ones. Because Issam only speaks Fur and thus can't communicate without a Darfurian translator, he and Noah have been kept together. Noah wants it to stay this way so long as Issam needs him. "It's better if we stay together," he says in English, with Issam seated next to him on their couch. "He doesn't speak the language, he doesn't know how to get by on his own." The habit of taking care of someone in distress is something they learned in Darfur, a region of some 7 million people in the northwest of Sudan, the country bordering Egypt to the south. On the two-week trek from his destroyed village, Korma, to the Darfurian city of al-Fashar, Noah and the Korma children he walked with were housed each night by different Darfur families. "Whichever village you enter, people take you in," he says. "They don't ask questions," adds Issam, with Noah translating. From al-Fashar, Noah got a ride from a trucker to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he spent nearly a year living with other impoverished Darfurians in the Soba quarter, doing little more than surviving because if the police caught him outdoors, he would be taken into the army, which might well send him to fight in Darfur. "In Khartoum, they catch [Darfurian] boys as young as 12 or 13. They tell them, 'The people in Darfur want to fight against Islam, against the government, they want to take over Khartoum.' They give the boys money to go to the army, and some of them go. They get sent to fight their fathers and mothers," says Noah. With the aid of people in Soba, he made it by train, ship and car to Cairo, where an association of immigrants from Darfur and southern Sudan (which is at war with the Sudanese government) found him shelter. "There were more than 10 of us sleeping on the floor of a room no larger than this," he says, indicating the small living room of the caravan. When it got too crowded, he left and, like many thousands of other Darfurian and southern Sudanese refugees in Cairo, applied to the city's UN office for asylum in some country hospitable to Sudanese refugees, which Egypt definitely is not. "When Egyptian people saw us on the street, they'd call us names. 'Chocolate' and things like that. In Egypt, they think of black people as slaves. They call you 'slave' to your face. In Khartoum, it was the same for people coming from Darfur. Arabs think they are white people and we are their slaves," says Noah with what seems a combination of bitterness and wonder. WHEN HIS application to the UN for asylum, like those of other Sudanese in Cairo, got delayed interminably, he joined thousands of them in the protest tent camp on the lawn at the UN compound. Luckily, a couple of his friends told him of a job opportunity in Sinai, so Noah was long gone from the tent camp on last December 29, when Egyptian troops stormed it, killing at least 27 refugees. Reaching el-Arish in Sinai, he and his friends worked for an Egyptian farmer for a few weeks before it became clear that the farmer had no intention of paying them. "We started to shout at him, and he said we eat his food, so why should he pay us? Then he pointed a gun at one of my friends and said we had to go on working, and if we tried to escape he would shoot him," Noah recalls. But when the farmer left, they made their way in the direction of the lights way in the distance, which locals had told them was Israel. Why did he want to go to Israel? "I figured the Arabs were fighting Israel, and the Arabs were fighting us, so Israel might be better for me," he replies. After a six-hour journey at night, Noah and his friends crossed the highly-porous border into Israel and went to sleep in the sand. Their goal was to get to the lights that were still far in the distance and try their luck. But they were awoken by Israeli troops. "I told them I wanted to join the army," says Noah, adding that he really meant it. But the troops handcuffed him and his friends, a day later he met Issam, and thus began a six-month ordeal of juvenile detention in Tzohar, Netanya, Ramle and other jails until March 16, when Gefen picked the two boys up and drove them to Kibbutz Tze'elim. "They treat us like their children," says Noah, referring to Yankele and his wife Shulamit. But the boys do not like life on the kibbutz, which they find monotonous and confining. "Everybody treats us well here, but if it wasn't for Yankele we wouldn't have stayed here more than two weeks," says Noah. Gefen has taken them on trips to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere, but under the terms of their release they're forbidden to leave the kibbutz except if Gefen escorts them. It's a spacious sort of house arrest - they're safe and cared for, but not free. They've grown impatient with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is very sympathetic but slowed down by UN and Israeli bureaucracy in processing the boys' application for refugee status. "It takes time, unfortunately," says Sharon Harel, the local UNHCR protection worker. The boys hope to be allowed to stay in Israel and study, but ultimately their goal is to return to Africa. Noah wants to be a doctor. "There is a lot of malaria in Africa, a lot of simple diseases there but people die of them. I want to help," he says. Issam thinks he might like to be a teacher. "I didn't go to school in Darfur, but if I can study maybe I can become a teacher and one day go back," he says. For now, though, Noah, Issam and the other Sudanese refugees, in prison or in the custody of kibbutzim and shelters, are classified here as enemy aliens because they are from Sudan, even though the Sudanese government sees them as enemies, too. That government gives massive military support to the Arab Janjaweed marauders who have killed about 400,000 civilians in Darfur over the last three years, while raping women and burning villages wholesale and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees, each of whom saw his world destroyed. Describing the night in late 2003 that the Janjaweed militias descended on Korma, his village, Noah says: "I was playing outside with the other children. Then there were planes, dropping bombs. Then the Janjaweed came in cars and on horseback. They attacked all the villages around. The people who tried to run away were shot." In the savage chaos of the night, Noah ran off with the other children. He didn't see what happened to his mother, father, two brothers and sister, and still doesn't know. Issam saw his father shot to death; otherwise, he doesn't know what happened to his family, either. An emerging movement that includes Yehuda Bauer, Avner Shalev and Elie Wiesel, along with private citizens like Yankele Gefen, is urging the Israeli government to grant asylum to some 220 of these survivors. "I hope that Israel government not to take matter just as political and forget the humanity," Noah wrote in his essay. In his quiet voice, he says, "I told the police, I told the [magistrate] in prison, I told the people from the UN - I'm not an enemy. I'm not from Sudan - I'm from Darfur."