Davide and I went to interview the refugees from Darfur, we were told that we
must neither photograph them nor publish their surnames. If we violated those
ground rules, we would “…be responsible
for endangering the lives of their relatives in Sudan,” warned a UN refugee
representative who looks after the interests of the refugees from Darfur in
Sudan are officially “enemies,” which makes the status of the 300 or so
Darfur refugees in Israel very complex, because Israeli law does not permit the
granting of asylum to citizens of enemy states. So when those refugees surrendered themselves to the Israeli
authorities after crossing the border from Egypt, they were detained and jailed
under the Law to Prevent Infiltration [from enemy states]. The stories of those jailed refugees, who
had seen their families murdered and / or experienced horrible torture at the
hands of the Janjaweed, were
widely and sympathetically covered by the Israeli media, and many Israelis
responded with horror: Given the all-too-fresh memory of what happened to the
Jewish people during the Second World War, how could Israel fail to grant
asylum to refugees fleeing genocide?
Israeli NGO’s, under the umbrella of the Committee for Advancement of
Refugees from Darfur (CARD), are calling on the Israeli government to find
a humane solution. Last year the
Immigrant Workers’ Hotline and the Refugee Rights Legal Clinic at Tel Aviv
University successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a temporary review
mechanism; as a result, the courts can now grant permission, on an individual
basis and with the agreement of the Ministry of Defence, for Darfur refugees to
be temporarily settled on host kibbutzim. We went to visit five of those
recently released men at Kibbutz Maagan Michael, near Haifa.
are Ali, Hussein, Hassan, Guzuli and Jama, and their ages range from 26 to 32.
They share two Spartan rooms furnished with single beds and a table. There is a
modest kitchenette outside each of the rooms, and a bathroom. Everything was
spotlessly clean, but there were none of the little luxuries that most of we spoiled
westerners consider near-necessities – no books, no portable stereo, no CD’s.
The men work in the kibbutz factories and they are proscribed by law from
leaving the kibbutz without written permission. But they have no complaints
about kibbutz life, given what they went through over the previous few years.
All spoke warmly of the reception they had received at the kibbutz. They had
been assigned adoptive families that hosted them for coffee and cake on Friday
afternoons, before the Sabbath meal in the dining hall; the families made sure
their needs were taken care of and offered what one of the men called
We sat on
the beds and started the interview, but Hassan interrupted politely. What would
we like to drink? They served us mineral water and Sprite, and insisted we
accept pieces of homemade strawberry shortcake, baked by one of the adoptive
families. Then they told us their stories.
used to be a farmer. He last saw his wife and newborn baby the day after a
Janjaweed militia attacked his village three-and-a-half years ago. They killed 40 of his family members in
one day. He, his wife and baby managed to escape to another village, but when
Ali went out to collect some thatch to build them a shelter he was ambushed by
some Janjaweed and taken to one of their camps. There he was kept in a 2 metre
by 2 metre container for three days, without food. Every few minutes, his
captors put a cobra in the container and then removed it, in a primitive game
of Russian roulette. Released on condition that he become an informant, Ali
managed to escape and make his way to Egypt. That dangerous journey took nearly
two months, and it took another six months to receive UN refugee status in
Egypt. Not that it helped much. According to Egyptian law he was forbidden to work,
and the local UN office told him that only families were eligible for food aid.
But he had
to eat, so Ali worked illegally, was caught and jailed for one week. When he
was released, the police warned him that he would be deported to Sudan if
caught working again. Meanwhile, his only two friends had received refuge in
the USA and Australia. “I was starving, I was totally alone and I felt
helpless,” said Ali. He had never heard of Israel, but someone told him that it
was a democracy and he should try his luck there. So he did. He spent a total
of 17 months in various Israeli jails before a judge agreed to his release. He
does not know whether his wife and child are alive or dead.
(29) explained that he first heard of Israel during the two years he worked
(illegally) in the Sinai. He met many Israeli tourists there, he said, and
formed a positive impression of the country through those interactions. He
smiled and spoke smoothly when he spoke of the time he spent in the Sinai, but
as soon as he started telling us about what happened to him in Darfur, Hussein
developed a pronounced stutter. And the second he finished recounting his
ordeal, he quietly left the room and went outside to smoke a cigarette.
Hussein was a subsistence farmer. He was captured by the Janjaweed during a
shootout with rebel fighters, accused of being a rebel and jailed for two
weeks. His captors fed him only bread. “It did something to my stomach,” said
Hussein. After Hussein was released, his uncle took him for the surgery
necessary to unblock his digestive system, then smuggled him to Egypt “because
we have tribesmen there.” But the tribesmen were nowhere to be found, and
Hussein, too, found himself a refugee denied UN aid and forbidden to work. He
stayed in Egypt for four years, but realized that he would never be granted
permanent status and would always have to work illegally for a bare living. The
Egyptians, he said, regularly humiliated him in everyday interactions.
So in May
of 2005 he paid a Bedouin to smuggle him into Israel, where he was promptly
detained by a patrol of border police. “How did they treat you?” we asked.
“Great!” answered Hussein. “They took care me – gave me food, clothes and
blankets. One of the officers spoke to me in Arabic. I wish I could have stayed
longer with the army.”
All the men
experienced different types of trauma, torture and loss in Sudan, but their
stories about Egypt are remarkably similar: the Catch-22 of being
simultaneously forbidden to work and denied refugee aid; humiliation at the
hands of the Egyptians; the realization that they could not stay there
indefinitely. I asked if they were worried about being perceived by the Arab
world as traitors for saying positive things about Israel to journalists. “We
don’t have any confidence in the Arab world after the way the Egyptians treated
us,” one responded, as the others nodded in agreement. “And the Arab world
didn’t do anything to stop the Janjaweed from perpetrating genocide on our
asked if they were learning to speak Hebrew. A little, they answered, bashfully
demonstrating their small vocabulary. Then Hussein told us that a 76 year-old
kibbutz woman named Jeanine volunteered to teach them Hebrew for two hours a
we wanted to meet her. So I took Jeanine’s number from Hussein and called her,
offering to come to her home because I assumed that a 76 year-old woman would be
rather frail. “I’ll come to you,” she said, decisively.
minutes later a human energizer bunny with fluffy, short white hair and
twinkling blue eyes, wearing jeans and a fleece jacket, came bounding into the
room. She greeted us all, plonked herself on one of the beds, waved away the
proffered slice of strawberry short cake (“I ate too much today”) and looked at
me and Davide expectantly.
I asked if
she would like to speak in English or Hebrew, with me translating. “I speak
only French and Hebrew,” she said, “So you will have to translate.”
out that Jeanine had immigrated to Israel in 1949 from Tunisia, and that she
had been a schoolteacher for 35 years. She referred to the men from Darfur as
she said emphatically, “Is crucial. If the boys want to buy a ticket for the
train, how will they manage without Hebrew? The person who sells the ticket
doesn’t speak English. When I heard that the boys were working full time in the
factories, I knew they wouldn’t have time for ulpan classes. So I volunteered
to teach them. And together we are discovering that there are many similarities
between Arabic and Hebrew. Isn’t that right, boys?”
men looked at her affectionately and nodded as they responded in unison, like
obedient schoolboys, “That’s right, Jeanine.”
you’re from Tunisia, don’t you know Arabic?” I asked.
said, with a mischievous smile, “You don’t know what a French colonial
education is like. I was raised to speak only pure, proper French. My parents
spoke Arabic to one another when they didn’t want me to understand what they
were saying. So no, I don’t speak Arabic.”
turned to Davide and said, in halting Italian, “My father’s family came to
Tunisia from Livorno,
about 300 years ago.”
why the kibbutz had decided to accept refugees from Darfur.
looked at me sternly. “Do you know what happened at the Evian Conference in
1938?” she asked. “When all the countries gathered to try to find a solution
for the Jews of Germany and Austria but no-one was willing to give them
answered, of course.
why,” answered Jeanine. “We knew that we had a moral obligation, after what happened
mention that at the meeting? I asked.
Jeanine. “They didn’t have to. It was understood.”
As we were
driving away from the kibbutz, I asked Davide if he planned to use Jeanine’s
quote about the Evian Conference in his article. “Of course,” he said.
the paper will probably get letters from the knee-jerk anti-Israel crowd, you
know,” I said, “Accusing you of being biased toward Israel for writing about the Darfur refugees while the Palestinian refugee issue is still unresolved.”
said. “But I don’t think they can really say that, because I already wrote about the gay
Palestinians who come to Israel for refuge, and what a hard time they
have.” (more on that subject here).
wrote an email about Jeanine to Jill,
who’s living in London now. In her response she wrote: “Oh, that's what
I miss about Israel: the stories, the people, that unique and pure goodness of eccentric old ladies that sometimes shines out through all the crap.”
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