November 16, 2018

Israel’s Darfur refugees require worthy action

I was in Jerusalem in early July when a news story about Sudanese refuges demonstrating in front of the Knesset caught my eye. From the press accounts, it was difficult to fully understand who these refugees were or under what circumstances they had arrived in Israel. Some seemed to be refugees from the genocide in Darfur, but clearly, not all of them were.

It was not even entirely clear what they were hoping the Israeli government would now do for them or what the government had — or had not — done up to this point. But the story seemed to nonetheless vibrate with moral and Jewish historical significance, and I set out to understand it.

One phone contact led me to another until I finally reached Eytan Schwartz, a semicelebrity in Israel who won an Israeli reality TV show a few years ago. Schwartz is today the head of CARD (the Committee for Advancement of Refugees of Darfur) and has emerged as the chief advocate for the Sudanese refugees in Israel.

Schwartz invited me to meet him at a shopping mall in Herzilia, from where we would go to meet two men who had made the journey from Darfur to Israel. I could never have guessed how familiar their stories were going to sound.

We arrived at a dusty, off-the-beaten-track moshav just before sundown. We pulled off the moshav’s dirt road at a random-seeming spot, parked and were greeted by Abdel and Ayman.

They escorted us to a small open area hemmed in by farm equipment. We sat with them at a small, round plastic table, and they poured us some juice. Just beyond the table was what looked like a large shipping crate, containing two beds, a fridge, a small stove and a satellite dish on the roof.

The following is Abdel’s story: He was born and reared in Darfur, a son of a well-to-do family that owned 400 head of livestock. His older brother tended to the family’s livelihood and Abdel became a teacher (I presume of the Quran), holding classes for the residents of the village.

In early 2004, he was accused by the Sudanese government of teaching anti-government propaganda, charges that he flatly denies. Soon thereafter, he was abducted at gunpoint, blindfolded and driven several hours away from his village. He found himself in a remote area with other abductees from other villages around Darfur.

Abdel quickly realized that each morning, several of the prisoners were sent out to collect wood, and that upon their return, they were burned at the stake with the very wood they had collected. On the morning that Abdel was to meet the same fate, he proposed to one of the others in his group that they try to escape.

“If they catch us, they will shoot us,” he said. “But this is better than being burned.” When the whistle was blown, signaling that it was time to return, they hid. And aided by a heavy rain that began to fall, they then began to run.

After hours of running, Abdel and his friend arrived at a village at which they were clothed and fed. It was there that he learned that the Janjaweed had come to his village, killed his older brother and taken all the livestock. Abdel immediately returned to the village to be with his family, and it was while he was there that the entire village was set ablaze.

On the run again, Abdel sought shelter in various locations within Sudan, but realizing that no place in Sudan would be safe, in December of 2004, he crossed the border into Egypt and made his way to Cairo. There he found hundreds of others who had fled Darfur just as he had.

Cairo was not hospitable to the refugees, as they encountered virulent anti-Sudanese prejudice and hostility there. But like others who had arrived from Darfur, he was given a “yellow card” by the U.N. office in charge of refugees, which guaranteed him some degree of protection for a period of six months.

While awaiting further processing of his case, Abdel met and married a fellow Darfur refugee who had also fled to Cairo. Many months passed, and the U.N. refugee office in Cairo had still not addressed the refugees’ cases in any meaningful way.

They were stuck in legal limbo, facing a rising level of hostility on the Egyptian street. In December of 2005, frustrated and fearful, Abdel and his new wife joined 1,500 other Sudanese refugees gathered in front of the U.N. headquarters in Cairo to hold a demonstration.

The Egyptian army moved in and violently broke up the demonstration, killing 27, wounding many others and forcing the remainder onto buses that would remove them from the demonstration site. As he was being loaded onto a bus, Abdel saw his wife, apparently hurt, being taken away in a police car.

For days afterward, he searched every hospital, inquiring after her whereabouts. Everywhere he was denied entry or information. After several days, he discovered that she was dead. She had been two months pregnant.

With Egypt clearly providing no future, he began to contemplate where to run next. He decided to try Israel.

“Why Israel?” I asked him. While there were probably several reasons, the ones he gave me were these: “Because I knew from reading the Bible that Jews were commanded to be kind to the stranger. And also, I knew about the Holocaust” (Abdel had read about World War II growing up in Darfur.)

And so he set off to wander in the Sinai Desert in the cold of winter, relying for navigation only on occasional Bedouin assistance and prayers to God. After several days of walking and almost despairing, he finally crossed what was clearly a border. But a border with what?

He thought he might have been in Gaza, Jordan or Israel. When the sun rose, he saw several army Jeeps in pursuit.