Israel’s Sudanese refugee crisis and the citizen solution

Israel’s policy toward the refugee crisis – that it cannot process all requests – has been highly criticized.

South Sudanese in Tel Aviv 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
South Sudanese in Tel Aviv 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Recently, I took a stroll around the south of Tel Aviv near the central bus station where countless war refugees from Sudan congregate. Older generation Israelis are a minority in the area. Quickly they shuffle by on the polluted sidewalks in front of cheap cell-phone shops and bars often owned and managed by Ethiopian Jews who peer out onto the scene of Sudanese and Eritreans who sit on the street, selling and hawking used clothes and useless knick-knacks, rapping in Arabic with their associates, gripping the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder for dear life.
The scene is rather colorful, yet dreary.
A sea of black faces, indigent souls, who possibly feel unwelcomed by the Israeli government; who cannot help but contribute a subtly pleasant and exotic Arabic vibration to the atmosphere. If you spend enough time wandering these streets, you get a sense of the North African desert, another part of the world.
Some of the African souls who have crossed the border into Israel from war-torn Sudan are doing better than others.
Perhaps the scene near the bus station gave a glimpse of some folks who have at least been assisted with living quarters by the government. The parks in the area are filled with refugees who have not been so lucky. They sleep under the blue Tel Aviv sky, cropped by the concrete ramps of the bus station.
Israel’s policy toward the refugee crisis – that it cannot process all refugee requests coming from South Sudan and must keep the border in order – has been highly criticized by various human rights groups. In January, the Knesset revamped the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954, originally applied to Palestinian refugees displaced during the war of 1948, making it illegal for them to enter the state of Israel. The law is now being applied to African war refugees.
There is a new fence being built on the border with Egypt, the most common entry into Israel from Sudan, and there is a new, multi-million-dollar prison being built in the Negev, where Sudanese “infiltrators” risk being imprisoned indefinitely.
Of course, this fate has to be better than being caught by Egyptian immigration authorities, who are liable to shoot and kill “infiltrators.”
While many critics have gone so far as to accuse Israel of racist policy, it is important to note that Sudan is considered by Israel to be an enemy state. It was not until recently that South Sudan, which has a large Christian population, seceded from the Islamic pariah state in North Sudan. Israel was among the first nations in the world to recognize the new state’s independence. Still, the danger in North Sudan is the reason why Israel cannot let just anyone from anywhere into the country.
For example, terrorists have smuggled weapons from the port of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran to Yemen, and from there to a port in Sudan, where the arms are transported through the desert into Egypt, the Sinai and eventually into the Gaza Strip, where they wind up in the hands of Hamas. Therefore, the national security issue, while some may not like to admit it, may overshadow the humanitarian concern.
The fact that Israel cannot process all refugee requests from South Sudan is an unfortunate result of the realities of war. It does not, however, make Israeli policy racist in anyway. In fact, it is absurd to claim otherwise considering that all of the Arab countries in the area would not only not process any refugee requests, but that Sudanese refugees’ very lives may be in danger in Yemen, Libya or Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.
Despite the fact that the government cannot give refugee status to all Sudanese and Eritreans who seek haven in Israel, the crisis does give certain Israelis the opportunity to display mercy and charity, and they take it upon themselves to do so. One example is an American living in Israel named Madelyn Kent. She is an educator and playwright who teaches theater to Sudanese refugees near the central bus station in Tel Aviv once a week. She volunteers out of the goodness of her heart yet she tells me, “I do not know a lot about the issue.”
Another example is Kate Rosenberg, an anthropology student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and new immigrant from Australia. Kate founded an organization called Tov Lada’at, which cares for Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel, providing them with shelter and even a top-notch education.
“As a Jew and a third-generation Holocaust survivor” she tells me, “there were things about Israeli society I felt uncomfortable about living with. When I first made aliya, I became affiliated with Fugee Fridays” – a volunteer humanitarian initiation, founded in 2008. “We would go to the Tel Aviv shuk [market] on Friday afternoons and collect all the leftover food and donate it to the shelters.”
Rosenberg and her friend from Fugee Fridays and the Hebrew University, Florentine Lemmp-Dagan, hooked up with Topaz, an agency that supports various humanitarian projects. Tov Lada’at sends Sudanese refugees to the IDC (interdisciplinary center) in Herzliya to study. There they can learn political science, psychology, communication and other subjects, just like Israelis.
“We just had our first fellow graduate from the IDC” Rosenberg tells me with a humble smile. She tells me it is her organization’s goal for the future that “they” meaning the program participants “can all get jobs in their own country [the newly established South Sudan] with the tools they learned in Israel.”
The writer is a freelance writer doing postgraduate research at Bar Ilan University.