A People Tall and Smooth
What are refugees from Darfur doing in Israel? Why would black, Muslim fugitives flee to the Jewish state? Most people have heard of the genocide in Darfur. Many also know about the war in South Sudan in which over two million people are estimated to have been killed, but what is their connection to Israel?
Paying bribes to obtain documents, walking until the point of exhaustion through the Sinai Desert, crossing the Egyptian/ Israeli border under fire from Egyptian soldiers, and facing an uncertain future, about 35,000 African refugees have entered Israel since 2007.
The Christians from South Sudan identify with the children of Israel escaping from Pharaoh in Egypt. They believe a prophecy in the book of Isaiah telling of a “people from the land divided by rivers… coming to worship on Mt. Zion,” refers to the Sudanese. The Darfurians, though Muslim, having found no welcome in Egypt or other Arab countries, have also chosen to join their future with Israel.
Books have been written about the “Lost Boys” from Sudan who were displaced or orphaned in the Second Sudanese Civil War, among whom 3800 reached the United States. Books and movies have been made about the conflict in Darfur. But few people are aware of the Sudanese refugees in Israel.
A People Tall and Smooth – Stories of Escape from Sudan to Israel fills in this gap as we follow three woman and two men from their peaceful childhoods in Sudan to their new lives in Israel. Furthermore, it weaves these stories together with information about Sudan as well as challenges I’ve faced and lessons I’ve learned since meeting them.
Q: How many Sudanese are in Israel?
A: We don’t know exactly, but it’s estimated there are about 15,000 in Israel, with half of them in Eilat.
Q: Why did they come?
A: Due to the ongoing war between North and South Sudan in which over 2 million southerners were killed many decided to move to Egypt in the hope of a better life. But they found that there they also suffered persecution and lack of employment. After a riot in Cairo in which up to 100 Sudanese were killed, they began fleeing to Israel.
Q: How do they get to Israel?
A: They pay a lot of money for Bedouin smugglers to bring them to the border between the Sinai and Israel. The price the Bedouins demand continues to rise and many refugees are blackmailed, abused and raped on the way. Then they risk their lives jumping over the barbed wire fence.
Q: Who supports them?
A: They are on their own – no one supports them. They find jobs in manual labor. Eilat is a resort town so many work in hotels.
Q: What is the government’s policy toward the Sudanese refugees?
A: The Israeli government has no policy and would like to get rid of them all. But as refugees they are under the auspices of the UN and have documents they must renew every three months.
Q: Do the children go to school?
A: In most cities in Israel they children are able to attend the regular schools. But the mayor of Eilat opposes their integration and has created a special school for Sudanese children. It is part of the Ministry of Education but is far inferior.
Q: What kind of future do the refugees have?
A: They don’t have much future in Israel, but especially with the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, many would like to go home.
Q: How did you get involved?
A: My husband and I manage The Shelter Hostel in Eilat and besides our regular guests have been involved in many people groups through the years, such as the Russian immigrants. When we saw the Sudanese on our streets we naturally began helping them with their physical, spiritual and emotional needs.
Q: What led you to write this book?
A: In order to understand our new Sudanese friends better I started reading books about the “lost boys” who came to America. I decided that the stories I was hearing here also deserved a book.
Q: How has the situation for the Sudanese changed since you wrote your book?
A: It’s changed drastically.
a. After South Sudan became independent in 2011, Israel decided they weren’t refugees any longer and deported most of them back home.
b. Those who managed to stay for the most part aren’t allowed to work legally.
c. Large holding facilities were built in the Negev desert where the refugees are imprisoned.
d. Although there are still individuals and organizations sympathetic to the plight of the refugees/migrants, public opinion in general isn’t favourable towards them.
e. Israel built a strong fence along the Egyptian border to keep out terrorists as well as Africans, so almost no new refugees are arriving.
Q: What is the situation in South Sudan now?
A: The situation there is grim. The high expectations with independence have largely been smashed. The money pledged to them has either not arrived or been squandered. A new civil war broke out between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Tens of thousands have died and as of September 2014, 1.8 million people were still too afraid to return to their homes, and it’s estimated that 2.2 million people are facing either crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. Many of our friends who were deported from Israel, have left Sudan again, to Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, or even back to Egypt.
Q: Can you tell about what has happened with the people in your book?
A: a. Gabriel is still in Israel and is completing his BA at the Interdisciplinary Center College in Herzliya. His mother was murdered in the unrest between tribes after independence, before he was able to see her. He doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He would like to serve his country, but preferably not in South Sudan now because of the confusion there.
b. Muna Maria went back to Sudan with Andrew and their children. Andrew and Muna separated and I don’t hear from her.
c. Yien left Eilat voluntarily and is studying in Bible School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He would like to use his knowledge to minister to his people. He and Jasmin are the happy parents of little Joshua. Jasmin writes me often.
d. Rose returned to South Sudan but I don’t hear from her.
e. Muna from Darfur is still in Eilat with her son, Tom. They are doing well.