Voice for the voiceless refugees

Simon Deng, the unofficial int'l spokesman for Christian refugees from southern Sudan, is disappointed.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
During the highly charged protests in recent years at Columbia University over the teaching of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Simon Deng says he was "the only black person standing on the side of the Jewish students." Over lunch at McDonald's at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Deng, a former Sudanese child slave who has became one of America's leading voices against slavery and genocide in his mother country, says his closest allies in New York City, where he has lived for the last two decades, include "some of the most radical, quote unquote, defenders of Israel." He's demonstrated for Israel with them outside the UN and the Palestinian Consulate. He speaks on behalf of Sudanese victims at synagogues, yeshivot and evangelical churches all over the country. In 2006 he was one of four international human rights activists honored by the Anti-Defamation League at its annual "Concert Against Hate" at Washington DC's Kennedy Center. Deng, 49, was here last week for his second visit to see how the Sudanese refugees are doing here. He says the impression he will take back to the US, to the Jewish and Christian audiences he addresses, is one of "disappointment." "The government of Israel is making a big mistake," he says. "It is dividing victims from the same country by religion, by ethnicity. This is a policy of discrimination. Some people may object to my language, but this is what has happened." A big, bearish, charismatic man with tribal markings across his brow, Deng is advocating for his people - the Christians of Southern Sudan. There are now some 2,500 of them in Israel, out of the roughly 9,000 refugees from several dangerous, destitute African countries who first fled to Egypt, then fled the hostility and brutality of Egypt for this country. Of the Africans who've arrived here in the last three years, only 600 from Sudan's Darfur region have been offered legal residency. The genocide carried out by Sudan's Arab rulers against Darfur's black Muslims is the world's most infamous crime against humanity, and this is the main reason the government singled out those refugees for preferential treatment. However, the atrocity carried out by Sudan's Arab Islamist rulers against the restive black Christians of the south was even greater. More than two million Christians were killed and another four million left homeless during the government's 50-year war of subjugation that has devastated the south. Yet that crime against humanity isn't very well known, certainly not here, and the 2,500 Southern Sudanese Christians who've come to this country have not been offered refuge. The area around the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station is the "capital" of the country's foreign community, migrant workers and African refugees alike, and Levinsky Park is a favorite hangout, so we took Deng there. Looking completely out of place in a blue blazer, white shirt, red tie and tasseled loafers, he nevertheless made himself at home immediately. "I see some Sudanese over there," he says, going up to little groups of dark, thin young men, smiling broadly, saying "Sala'am aleikum" and joking with them in Sudanese Arabic. It's a hot afternoon, so we take shelter under the awning of the jungle gym. Deng begins holding court. At first there are a half-dozen men listening and shyly answering his questions. By the time he's through an hour-and-a-half later, the audience will have grown to nearly 50. Deng shows his listeners his calling cards - photos of him at the White House with President George W. Bush following his "Sudan Freedom Walk" from New York to Washington in 2006, as well as photos with Hillary Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He can't offer his refugees anything concrete; he can't promise them security from deportation or jobs or money - all he can do is be a mouthpiece for them, a "voice for the voiceless." But the young Africans listen to him eagerly because he is a magnetic presence; because he, like the great majority of them, is a Christian from Southern Sudan; because he rose from slavery to being invited to meet the president of the United States; and because he is on their side. Translating afterward, Deng says the refugees asked him "about their future, whether they were going to be deported, and if they were going to be, then when? I told them I didn't have an answer for that one." He urged the Africans not to have hard feelings against Israel for its refugee policy. "I told them that this country isn't like any other - it's tiny and it's surrounded by enemies, and they have to understand that. And they said, 'Yes, we used to pray for them back home - why are they doing this to us?' There was one man who said, 'No matter what, we love this land. We are all people of the book.'" HIS MESSAGE is one of hope, and his own up-from-slavery story is his illustration. He's made quite a splash in Levinsky Park. A pair of high school girls making a film about refugees turn their camera on him, as does a freelance photographer. A youth counselor starts talking to him about the refugee situation and arranges for him to address a group of high school students she's brought to the neighborhood. A Nepalese woman, a migrant worker who looks troubled, stands there listening to him, then makes a comment. "I meet African people, they don't have jobs, and the police come for them. What will happen to them?" she wonders. Deng can't say. He tells her to try to smile through her troubles. "It helps you forget the anger." She gets teary-eyed listening to him, and he cradles her head against his shoulder. "Do you believe in God?" he asks. "Yes, sure I believe in God," she replies. "Then hold onto that belief," he says. "You have to smile. It'll take away the anger. God will see you." I ask Deng if he's a preacher, and he says no, he doesn't even go to church regularly, but that he has a strong religious belief. "I was forced to do the work of animals, I was fed on scraps and leftovers, I was beaten, I was tortured, and now here I am. I'm telling my story, the story of slavery, to the world. So how can I not believe in God?" Over years of village raids in the south, the Sudanese army and militias took an estimated 200,000 women and children as slaves. In the late 1960s, when Deng was eight, the troops rampaged through his village, burning and killing, and he and his family fled to a nearby city. A year later, he was abducted by an Arab man who gave him to an Arab Muslim family in the north as a "gift." The family showed the boy a picture of a slave with his hands and feet cut off, warning him that that would be him if he didn't obey. After two-and-a-half years, Deng, aided by a fellow Shiluk tribe member in the city, escaped. He went on to become a messenger in parliament and swimming champion in the capital Khartoum, which gave him a certain status despite his race and religion. But when he began helping Southern Sudanese prisoners, he aroused the resentment of the authorities, and he left the country for New York in 1988. "In America I tried to bury everything that had happened to me," he says. He didn't want anyone to know of his past; it was too shameful. He became a lifeguard at Coney Island, a job he still holds. But in 1991 Deng opened a local newspaper and read a story about slavery in Sudan. "It said that a human being could be bought there for $10 or $15." For the next three days, he sat in his Harlem apartment, thinking about what had happened to him, what was still happening to others, and finally he decided that he had to "witness" to the evil of slavery in the cause of abolishing it. "I realized," he says, "that I wasn't to blame for being made a slave when I was a boy, and that I shouldn't be ashamed of myself anymore." He began making contacts, seeking out other former African slaves living in the US, and after awhile he met up with Charles Jacobs, a right-wing pro-Israel activist who had been involved in the early civil rights movement and who, in the 1990s, began working against African slavery and genocide. Like Jacobs, whose David Project would later spark the protests at Columbia, Deng began combining anti-slavery work with right-wing pro-Israel activism. The two causes have a common enemy: Arab/Muslim power. "Most of my allies are Republicans and conservatives," Deng says. "The liberals not so much." Among the other "radical, quote unquote" New York Jewish activists he names as allies are Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Jewish Action Alliance leader Beth Gilinsky. DENG WANTS badly to say good things about Israel's treatment of his countrymen. Last week he visited Tel Aviv's Bialik-Rogosin school, which goes out of its way to take the children of refugees and migrant workers as pupils. "It was amazing. The [African refugee] children were speaking to the teacher in Hebrew, singing songs in Hebrew, and speaking their tribal languages to me. The great majority of them are Southern Sudanese Christians." He's aware of the vast network of Israeli activists who assist the refugees materially and legally and lobby the government and Knesset for them. He says the group of students he spoke to at Levinsky Park impressed him with "their sympathy, their concern." The Israeli people aren't the problem, he says. But after listening to hundreds of Southern Sudanese refugees in Eilat, where they work at the local hotels, and in Arad, where they work at the Dead Sea hotels, Deng had to conclude that not only the Israeli government but the hotel employers were treating these people poorly. "They told me they were being overworked and couldn't complain because if they did, they would be thrown out of their apartments [which are owned by the hotel] and they'd have no place to go," he says. "I met a man who said he'd been working at a hotel in Eilat and he broke his arm, but the hotel didn't give him any medical attention, just fired him and told him to leave the apartment. He's staying with someone in Arad now." The refugees told him they see the Jews of Israel as their "older brother," that they're on the same side, they have the same enemies - yet Israel sees them as a threat. "This is what's killing the Christians," he says. "They kept telling me, 'We are not Arabs.'" Deng's cellphone keeps interrupting him; it's time for him to head out of Levinsky Park. Saying good-bye to everyone he passes, he sees a man in his 20s sitting alone on a bench looking down. Somehow recognizing him as a Shiluk, Deng goes over to talk to him, putting his hand on his shoulder. But the man keeps staring at the ground, shaking his head faintly in refusal. Another Southern Sudanese refugee with us says he knows him to have mental problems. "He's suffering from trauma," says Deng, walking back from the bench. "I've met quite a few people here like him." Last week the Knesset, in a 21-1 vote, gave preliminary approval to a bill designed to deter the large numbers of refugees, especially those from enemy countries like Sudan, from crossing the Egyptian border into Israel. If the bill passes, refugees from enemy states could be imprisoned here for up to seven years. The bill refers to these people not as refugees or even as economic immigrants, but as "infiltrators," which carries the connotation of terrorists. Deng says he will tell his Jewish and Christian audiences in America of his "disappointment" at how Israel treats his countrymen, and then, in a few months, he plans to come back again to take up their cause. For him, this issue is perfectly in line with his joint advocacy for Israel and for Africa's victims. "These people are not Israel's enemy," he says. "These people, sooner or later, are going to have their own sovereign state, and when they do, Israel will have two friends in the world. One will be the United States, and the other will be Southern Sudan."