As southern Sudan votes on independence, Sudanese refugees working in the resorts of Eilat consider returning to their own promised land
As polling stations opened on January 9 in Sudan, for a referendum on southern Sudanese independence, Sudanese asylum seekers crowded Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park to rally for change in their home country. One man was shaking a Star-of-David tambourine, waving the flag of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and carrying a cross with an eagle at Christ’s feet. Crowds were chanting “Bye, Bye, North Sudan,” giving voice to the overwhelming majority of southern Sudanese who hope to secede from the Khartoum government. A Sudanese community leader thanked the Israelis who welcome them to the country and explained to those who don’t, “We are not migrant workers; we are not infiltrators; we are asylum seekers.”
Michael (his name and that of the other refugees in this article have been changed to protect their security) is waiting on a kibbutz to go home to Sudan. Until he quit his job, he would commute from the kibbutz where he lives to the resort where he works. On 12-hour shifts, he would serve gelato, lattés, and microbrews on the main drag in Eilat, where all walks of diaspora rub elbows: Americans on birthright trips; Russians who’ve made aliyah; E.U. citizens who summer in Israel; Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who, after crossing the Sinai on foot, are working service jobs that fuel Eilat’s tourism industry.
But that source of cheap labor in Israel is drying up. One hundred and fifty Sudanese have already returned to what they hope will be a vision of prosperity and peace in an independent southern Sudan, liberated after this week’s referendum. There are 14,000 Eritreans in Israel who could fill the shoes of Sudanese workers who repatriate, but Israel is implementing a new policy that prohibits work for those who entered the country illegally. Now, Israelis who employ illegal workers will face prohibitive fines.
In November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a “humane solution” for the thousands of illegal African workers who will lose their jobs: They’ll be “housed” in a holding facility, and provided with food, shelter, and medical care—until they are deported. Netanyahu said that migrants fleeing persecution will be allowed to stay in Israel. The holding facility for African migrants will likely be built deep in the Negev, near a former prison camp for Palestinians. Israel is also constructing a security barrier along 90 miles of the Egypt-Israel border, to stop the flow of Africans trafficked through the Sinai.
Michael would rather try to build a new Sudan than keep struggling in Israel, which has turned out to be a dead-end road for most African Christians and Muslims who come here. Last week, he showed me the blue U.N. refugee-registration card he used in Egypt and told me, “It doesn’t work in Israel.” When he was living in an Eilat apartment complex called The Palace, immigration police knocked on his door at 3 in the morning, arrested and detained him for 24 hours. Once the new holding facility is built, Michael expects more late-night raids to round up Africans—now for indefinite detention.
The Knesset’s information branch reports that there are over 24,000 “infiltrators” and asylum seekers in Israel: almost 19,000 Sudanese and Eritreans, the rest from Central Africa. Up to 7,000 of these are in Eilat, where Mayor Yitzhak Halevi is on a “Save the City” campaign to rid his town of Africans. In a July press conference, Halevi said Israel has become a “heaven for infiltrators.” He added that those who are changing the demographic composition of Eilat are de-valuing properties, committing crimes, spreading diseases, and “getting drunk and frustrated.”
Many Israelis in Eilat echo Halevi’s xenophobia. One gelateria customer, according to Michael, demanded that someone other than the African serve his cone because he didn’t want to get diseases like malaria. Michael’s former kibbutz-mate Emmanuel has already returned to Sudan, with help from Charmaine Hedding, the blonde Norwegian who escorted 150 Sudanese on a flight to Juba, on December 13. Hedding had launched Operation Hope, an emergency relief effort of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, in 2006, when Sudanese refugees began flocking to Israel, after an Egyptian police raid on a Sudanese tent city in Cairo exacerbated their security problems in Egypt. She worked with Israeli relief organizations to place Sudanese Christians on kibbutzim and in apartments, getting them jobs at hotels and construction sites. Now, Hedding is organizing more repatriation operations to Juba, as soon as Southern Sudan re-opens for travel after the referendum.
Michael told me the referendum isn’t an occasion to celebrate; it’s a time to pray, to pass through it without going back to war. He is from Abyei, the oil-rich region on the border between North and South Sudan, contested territory that could be the fault line of a separated Sudan. Already, nine people have died in clashes between militias who are fighting to keep the oil fields part of North Sudan and warriors who want South Sudanese independence, with the oil. Referendum balloting in Abyei has been postponed indefinitely.
In July 2005, when I started following stories of Sudanese refugees who came to Egypt, hoping the United Nations would resettle them, I heard a prophecy on a Cairo balcony. Outside a Sudanese family’s apartment, I spoke with Gabriel and Lazarus, days after their hero John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement died in a plane crash. They were sure the Sudanese government assassinated Garang, though the BBC was reporting no evidence of foul play. Southern Sudanese youth were rioting in Khartoum, throwing bottles and smashing windows of Arab shops. Government security was shooting back. Gabriel wondered if they would go to war again. “Who’s God going to send next for Sudan?” he said.
On his way over, Lazarus had stopped to drink an orange Fanta—not because he was thirsty, he told us, but because that was the deal he’d made with God. He wouldn’t drink or eat anything, wouldn’t move or talk to anyone, until God showed him something. For two days, he was lying on his bed, searching the Bible: Nothing, from Exodus to Leviticus, was encouraging him, nothing—until he turned to Isaiah 14: The Lord has founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall find refuge in it.
“God protected Israel in Egypt,” Gabriel told me. “Then they went home. That’s how we feel.”
The next exodus story I heard from Gabriel was in Jerusalem, in June 2009, when he showed me the sneakers he wore to cross the Sinai. Like thousands of other Sudanese refugees in Egypt, Gabriel and a friend paid Bedouin smugglers to lead them across the desert. They don’t go because they expect Israel to be their promised land. They go because Sudan is not safe, and Egypt is no place for refugees. They go because they’ve heard, from history and holy books, that Israel is a decent place for strangers.
When Gabriel visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, he had a flashback to his childhood in southern Sudan that made him feel sick. If he’d had a camera during the war, he would have taken a picture like that—“exactly,” he told me. That was a photograph from Auschwitz. What exactly did he see? “They didn’t have food,” Gabriel told me. The Jews have survived, he said—they have Israel, because they keep telling these stories. That’s what the Holocaust means to Gabriel. Remembering everyone who died, by name, so it will never happen again. When he saw that photograph of Jews starving at Auschwitz, he had an epiphany: “These are the people who will understand us in this world.”
When Gabriel and his friend made it across the border, Israeli soldiers gave them food and water. Then the soldiers took them to Beersheba Prison. After a few months, they were released, on temporary visas, to a manpower agency that supplies Israeli hotels. They started out in Eilat, moving lounge chairs from King Solomon Isrotel to the beach. Gabriel moved up, to Jerusalem’s four-star King David Hotel, where he’s been promoted to head waiter and, he told me, once met Billy Graham.
In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Gabriel has met Israelis who understand Sudanese refugees—like the Hebrew University student group Advocates for Asylum. He goes with them to lobby against the proposed anti-infiltration bill, that would legalize imprisonment of Sudanese migrants as “enemy nationals,” since Sudan and Israel are formally enemies.
Gabriel arranged for me and a Jerusalem Post reporter to stay with three of his Sudanese friends in Eilat: Michael, who treated us to mango gelato on the boardwalk; Joseph, who cooked us chicken-ginger stew; Simon, who gave us his room, because we were there to write their stories. And I wanted to tell a prophetic tale: how they walked across the Sinai to get out of Egypt—until they ran into another people’s Zion.
We were guests in a refugee’s room, and I was looking through his stuff: the Oxford Intermediate English instruction book and the Wordpower worksheets on the desk; the New Covenant Prophecy edition of the Bible, on the bedside table; the soap and shaving cream in the bathroom; the socks and condoms in the drawer. Someone left us bottles of water and Fanta, two tall glasses, and two straws on a tray beside the bed. And on the floor, two electric fans were blowing on the sheets, cooling our laptops and digital cameras and voice recorders full of interviews of women whose names we asked to spell aloud before introducing ourselves, and of men whose names we couldn’t get. They were afraid to let us take their picture waiting on the side of the road for someone to pick them up for day labor. Michael’s Employee of the Month certificate was hanging in the hallway, next to a Hebrew prayer for the home. Joseph was on the couch, watching a Jackie Chan movie. Simon was out trying to walk an ache out of his tooth.
When I returned to Eilat this summer, I went to the Aldo Gelateria Italiana, on the dim hope that I’d find Michael still working there. He was just beginning his shift. He made sure I sampled the apple sorbet, his favorite, before serving me a scoop of pistachio. And, like the summer before, he wouldn’t let me pay. I tried to insist—I knew the 12 shekels would come out of his paycheck—but he said no. “This is my place, so I help myself,” he said. I tried again, holding my money out, until I saw his face change: His forehead furrowed, his pride hurt by my refusal to receive his gift. I put my money away.
Michael isn’t living with Joseph and Simon anymore. The landlord raised the rent, so they had to give up the apartment, he told me. Now, he lives on Kibbutz Eilot, which houses over a hundred Sudanese asylum seekers, in block units on the parched land fenced off from the pool. The area used to be a hostel for backpackers who came to the kibbutz until it was converted to a Sudanese housing enclave. The apartments are around a courtyard, where there’s a volleyball net and a clothesline strung between two headless palm trees. In the center, there’s a street lamp curving over an empty crib, a shopping cart, bikes lying on their sides. An abandoned unit holds a detached toilet seat, a pair of child’s shoes, and red finger painting on the wall.
Just over a fenced-in hill is the Magic Sunrise Club, a luxury hotel where Israelis swim in the pool and Africans in gray sweatshirts that say “steward” clean the glass elevator. Michael told me about the three branches of the stewardship team: room and dish cleaners, window cleaners, and bus boys. Africans don’t work as waiters at the Sunrise Club.
Israelis in Eilat are used to Asian migrant workers—mostly Filipinas who take care of the elderly, and Thais who work in farming and construction. They began arriving in the late eighties, with the outbreak of the first Intifada, to replace Palestinian day laborers. A local who serves cappuccino at the Eilat bus station told me how he sees the difference between African and Asian migrant workers. The Asians just come to work, and they go back, he told me. “The Sudanese want healthcare and education,” he continued. “They come dressed like they’re from the United States. They come and take, and they don’t give. If we let them, this won’t be a country for the Jewish people.”
Rakefet Goren, a disheveled social worker responsible for the Sudanese children on Kibbutz Eilot, has her own dream for the new Sudan: a kibbutz near Juba, and Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in peace. Goren imagines Sudanese living like Israelis, not having to run anymore. She has contacts in Juba, those who’ve returned from Kibbutz Eilot, who are willing to help her make a haven for southern Sudanese, like Israel has been for Jews.
The Sudanese at Kibbutz Eilot are not Jewish, but the children study Hebrew with Israeli children in the kibbutz school, dress up for Purim, and decorate sukkas. They celebrate Ramadan and Easter, too. Rakefet told me her work is exhausting. But, “You see the child?” she asked, showing me pictures of a little Sudanese girl in wings. “They give me energy for the whole day.” Our interview got interrupted by a kibbutznik named David, who walked in Rakefet’s office and plopped a newspaper on her desk. It was Eilat’s weekly paper, with an article on demonstrations against African “infiltrators.” Local citizens were yelling support for the mayor’s “Save Eilat” campaign and making more strident accusations: They’re raping our women and infecting our children with disease.
Kobi Arad, the emergency-room physician at Yoseftal, the only hospital in Eilat, says he’s never examined an Israeli woman raped by an African man. He’s seen no cases of African-on-Israeli violence, but many victims of black-on-black crime. He says Africans don’t spread disease in the city. Some have tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, but these are well controlled in Israel. As a volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights, Arad offers treatment for illegal Africans. “We improvise,” he told me. Once, he transported blood samples from a group of Darfuris with HIV to the PHR office in Tel Aviv, in his own car. Another time, he examined a Sudanese boy who had crossed the Sinai with a carved wooden leg—an improvised prosthetic Arad replaced with a new one.
Arad’s kids are classmates with Sudanese children at the Kibbutz Eilot school. Muhammad, a high-school-aged boy from Darfur, was among the first Sudanese refugees to come to Eilat. This spring, he’ll be the first African to go on the traditional Israeli 11th-grade study tour of Auschwitz. “He’s not much of a Jew,” Arad says, “but he’s had his own holocaust.”
Ashley Makar, a master’s student in divinity at Yale and an editor at Killing the Buddha, is at work on a book about African asylum seekers in Israel.
Meir Dagan, recently retired as chief of the Mossad, wanted to reestablish the agency as a powerful deterrent to Israel’s enemies. With a string of daring operations, he succeeded.