From South Sudan to Toronto, via Israel

How the persistence of Israeli activists helped one lucky family finally reach safety in Canada.

Moran Mekamel and the Dobuol family in Mekamel’s recent visit to Canada, the family’s new home  (photo credit: COURTESY OF MORAN MEKAMEL)
Moran Mekamel and the Dobuol family in Mekamel’s recent visit to Canada, the family’s new home
A recent visit of Israeli human rights activist Moran Mekamel to Canada could be seen as the closing chapter of a long saga.
She came there to meet the Dubuol family, who without Mekamel’s ongoing efforts throughout the past four years would be in a very different situation today.
Indeed, a Hollywood screenwriter could probably not write a more unbelievable story than Michael Dobuol’s life story.
It all started in 2001, when, like millions of other refugees, 16-year-old South Sudanese Dobuol was on the road, fleeing the country’s bloody civil war that killed more than 1.5 million people and displaced over four million in the country and in neighboring countries.
After many difficulties, Dobuol reached Cairo seeking a better future.
He lived there for five years, married his wife Niakor, and the couple had their first child, hoping for a fresh start in Egypt.
But in December 2005 everything changed for them. Egyptian security forces opened fire on an encampment of Sudanese refugees in Mustafa Mahmoud Square, in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees offices in Cairo. More than 2,000 Sudanese refugees had been camped there for three months, protesting conditions in Egypt. The extreme violence used by the police to disperse the protesters resulted in 56 deaths and dozens wounded in what was dubbed the “Mustafa Mahmoud Massacre.”
Many Sudanese felt that Egypt was no longer safe for them, and some began crossing the Sinai from Egypt to Israel. Dobuol and his wife were among those who decided to try their luck once again. In 2006 Dobuol made the journey on foot, crossing the border into Israel in the dead of night after paying Beduin smugglers to show him the way across the desert. At the time the border between Israel and Egypt was protected merely by a low-hanging wire fence.
He was captured by the army and detained.
“I was released from detention after four months and found work in the hotels in nearby Eilat,” he related in a recent conversation with the Magazine.
He was eventually reunited with his wife and child, who also made it to Israel several months after him.
Dobuol was active in the Sudanese community in Arad, where the family later lived, doing volunteer work for the benefit of workers and other families of refugees.
It was during his voluntary work that he met Moran Mekamel, who was at the time the coordinator of a volunteers’ center for refugees in Beersheba. The close bond that they formed was to save Dobuol’s life and the lives of some of his children later down the road.
Dobuol and his wife worked for their living and in six years had three more children.
Life seemed good for the family.
However, in the summer of 2012, a year after war-torn South Sudan won its independence, the Israeli government decided to send all asylum seekers from South Sudan back to their country, and in July 2012 the family had to return to South Sudan. The Southern Sudanese community in Israel numbered some 1,500 people at the time. Most of them eventually left due to this decision.
Within six weeks after reaching South Sudan, double tragedy struck the family.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Noah and nine-month-old Nien succumbed to malaria. Sunday, the couple’s third son, was hospitalized with malaria, too. Hospitals in Juba, the country’s capital and biggest city, are not exactly state-of-theart and Dobuol was terrified by the notion that he might lose his third child.
But who could he turn to for help? He decided to appeal to everyone he knew back in Israel, asking for help so that he could try to escape once again, this time planning to head to Ethiopia, where malaria was less prevalent than in South Sudan.
Mekamel was one of those with whom he got in touch. She immediately recruited her friends and family to help Dobuol, sending money and medicine to Juba and helping him pay for the needed permits to travel to neighboring Ethiopia. A few months later, thanks to their Israeli friends and supporters, Dobuol was able to flee with his remaining two children to the much safer Ethiopia.
“We sent money, we rescued them from South Sudan to safety thanks to many of you who opened their hearts,” she wrote in a message to her Israeli partners and friends, once the family had crossed the border.
But Ethiopia had its own problems.
“We were in the Pugnido refugee camp in Gambella on the border with South Sudan,” Dobuol relates. “Life there was difficult. We received very little food rations from the UN, and we were hungry.
Without help from friends in Israel, we would not have survived there.”
The family lived in Ethiopia for two years, had another baby and were barely surviving on UN rations.
All that time Mekamel and other friends from Israel continued to help as much as possible, by sending small amounts of money and aid.
Then, last year, hope sparked in their lives and again, and it had a distinct Israeli glow to it.
One day Dobuol met a Canadian-Israeli volunteer working in Ethiopia. It turned out the man was a guest some years ago at a hotel in Eilat where Dobuol had worked, and somehow the man recognized Dobuol from there.
The volunteer heard Dobuol’s story and decided to try bringing the family to Canada through the International Organization for Migration, which operates unification and resettlement for refugees worldwide. Sure enough, just a few months passed before the Dobuol family arrived safely in Canada.
They now live in Guelph, Ontario where the local Philippine community sponsored them upon arrival.
Despite his hardships and tragic losses, Dobuol remains optimistic. He now works at a local factory. He recently earned his driver’s license and bought a car; his children are enrolled in local schools and already speak English well.
Even their mother, Niakor, has gone back to earn her own high-school diploma, which she was not able to attain in her childhood in Africa.
Recently Mekamel made the journey from Israel to finally see her African friends again, this time as their guest in Canada. Thanks to Mekamel, their story had a happy ending.
“They’re brave and I admire them for the fact that they kept on going, moving on toward safety for their children,” she told the Magazine.
Dobuol still keeps a huge Israeli flag in his living room.
“My children are happy in Canada, but if it were not for my friends from Israel they would not be alive today,” he explains.
“I hope one day to visit Israel. My son was born in Israel and so I want to keep the flag for him, as well. It’s part of his heritage.”