An image problem

Citizens of Arad feel their city is being inundated, and dragged down, by an influx of Sudanese refugees.

For Bomkos, 10, the son of refugees from Sudan, the summer vacation started out calm and boring. He has been staying at home or going to the library to play on the computer. Bomkos is going into fourth grade, and, he says in unaccented Hebrew, "what I like best are Torah lessons and playing basketball." A passerby in the Arad commercial center overhears him and says angrily: "What are you talking about, basketball? Go back there, where you came from. We don't want you here."

The cry echoes from one end of the center to the other. It is heard by the kiosk owners, a group of young Russian speakers and several older people who were out doing shopping and errands. Nobody reacts.

The smile is quickly erased from Bomkos' face. He has often been on the receiving end of such outbursts recently. "When they say something like that to me, I'm sad. In school, if someone curses, the teacher gives a punishment. I like the school," he says.

But in the Arad center there is no teacher and no responsible adult. Bomkos' father and several other Sudanese who are present do not understand the language, but the tone and the gestures were easily understood.

"Please, listen to me, friend. We didn't come here to take anything that belongs to you," said one of those present, James, trying to turn the incident into a discussion. "We came here because we have problems in our country. Understand us, after all you, the Jews, also fled when you had problems."

The native Israeli, who identifies himself as David Dahan, is not mollified: "You fled to Egypt, right?" he retorted, in English. "So why didn't you stay there? You're not even refugees, you don't belong here."

Despite the hostility, the atmosphere doesn't heat up further, at least not on the Sudanese side. James and his friends try their luck by quoting from the Bible. Big mistake.

"Are you Christians?" asked Dahan, spoiling for a battle. "Your religion is bullshit." He began to spell out the main points of his opposition to Christian theology. The dominant word in his argument was "bullshit." James, to his credit, did not let himself be dragged into an argument.

In recent weeks Arad has been witness to a widespread campaign to expel the Sudanese from the city. "Did you come to sign the petition?" an angry neighbor in a building where several Sudanese live asks me. "They should get out, we don't want them here."

The petition being distributed at present calls for the expulsion of the refugees from Arad. But the Sudanese are helpless. Most of them came to this southern city for lack of choice - in the wake of the regulation that limited their physical presence in Israel to regions north of Hadera or south of Gedera, away from the country's commercial center. As of yesterday, however, that regulation was rescinded by the Interior Ministry [before the interviews for this story were conducted], which issued it originally. The official rationale behind the regulation was to lighten the burden on Tel Aviv, where most asylum seekers naturally migrate.

The Sudanese who settled in Arad are among thousands of citizens who have fled from their country in recent years, infiltrated Israel and requested political asylum here. Israel does not send them back to their homeland, as there lives would be in danger there.

Paradoxically, the battle against the "Gedera-Hadera rule" had helped to unite the Sudanese in Arad and the people who want to see them removed from the city. Leading the former is Eliezer Bar Sadeh, former chairman of the municipal PTA and former editor of a local newspaper, Hatzvi. Bar Sadeh plans to run for mayor of the city in the next elections. In the past two years Arad has been run by an appointed authority head, Gideon Bar Lev .

Leaders of their community estimate that some 600 Sudanese are living in Arad, but Bar Sadeh believes the number is more than double that. He claims that the Gedera-Hadera rule and the prohibition against residency in Eilat (another Interior Ministry regulation) caused hundreds of Sudanese to stream into his city.

"When there were 400, we could cope. Now, when there are 1,300, it's 5 percent of the population and that's too much," he said. "These are people without a clear status, who come without being enrolled in an ulpan (Hebrew-language course), without the benefits [the financial package offered to new immigrants] in the 'absorption basket' and without the allocation of additional funds for the local government."

Up until Tuesday of last week, Bar Sadeh believed that the Gedera-Hadera restriction was designed to placate the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. At a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, however, he learned that at Tel Aviv's city hall, they were actually opposed to this rule.

Awadiya is one Sudanese who came to Arad in spite of herself. First she lived in Tel Aviv and worked in a geriatric institution. Half a year ago a note about the Gedera-Hadera stipulation was added to her residence permit and, in order to avoid arrest, she moved to Arad. Now she is running a day-care center for the children of the Sudanese community, in a rented apartment with sparse equipment.

Rivka Frey-Panchard is siding with the refugees. She is distributing a leaflet in the shopping center calling on people to help the Sudanese stay in Arad, and intends to distribute a petition to counter the petition calling for their expulsion, because, she says, "I'm embarrassed that they're treating them this way in my city. These are people who in Egypt were beaten in the streets, and here they're being treated like 'dirty Negroes.'"

Pouk Ketch Gatch came to Arad from Eilat a year ago, when the mayor of the Red Sea resort city got tired of the Sudanese, and demanded their expulsion. Gatch and his wife found work in one of the Dead Sea hotels and settled in Arad, a little to the west. Here their daughter Ruth was born, and for a short time it seemed that life was back on track. Now Gatch is afraid that they will be thrown out of Arad too.

"If they tell us to leave, we'll leave," he said. "But where to?"

Several Sudanese who are sitting on a bench at the entrance to the building where they live object vehemently when we ask permission to take their pictures. "They photographed a guy sitting on a bench here and afterward wrote in the newspaper that we're all drunk and bring diseases," explained one of them.

His friend showed us an issue of Hatzvi, which is supporting the expulsion campaign. In a letter to the editor, a reader named Sion Karavi explained how he believed the special welcome Sudanese have received in Israel is a case of reverse racism: "The very connection between skin color and genocide is racist and testifies to primitiveness and prejudice. There are many people living in Africa who simply want to upgrade their standard of living and so they come here. The State of Israel does nothing to protect us, the residents of the south, from these dangerous tendencies."

And Eliezer Bar Sadeh, in a column entitled "The guests from Sudan are invited to leave," wrote: "We did not expect to deal with cases of violence, drunkenness, criminality and fear."

The article expressed an opinion about the refugees that seems to be common among shoppers in the commercial center: They drink and they are criminals. That was also the bottom line in the words of Olga and Anna, who were taking a break at the snack bar. "They drink vodka all the time," complained Olga. At the next table several young Russian speakers were sitting over bottles of cold beer. "It's true that Russians and Israelis drink too, but since they came, I'm afraid," said Anna. The precise reason for her fear remained unclear, however.

"My mother sold an apartment and moved to Be'er Sheva because of them," claimed one young man angrily. The precise reason the apartment was sold remained unclear.

Yehuda, who works at the snack bar, suggested: "Let's not be bleeding-heart liberals and say that they're also human beings. I don't believe them. They're not ours."

Bar Sadeh, who has been making an effort in recent days to give his public campaign an aura of respectability, admitted that it was not the Sudanese who brought the drinking culture to the city. "It's true that not all the Sudanese drink, only a few of them, but an image does not deal with probability," he says. If he is elected mayor, things will look different. Of course.

The appointed mayor, Gideon Bar Lev, is abroad at present. Before his departure, he was asked about his viewpoint on the issue but did not see fit to answer.

At noontime Bomkos went home to eat, and Pouk and his friend, Paul Rot, prepared for the evening shift at work.

"What's happening here is particularly saddening to us because we love Israel," declared Rot. "In Sudan we, the Christians, were persecuted, because they said we were close to the Jews. In Egypt they also hated us because of religion. When we crossed the border into Israel the soldiers gave us a friendly welcome. We don't understand why they hate us here."

And Pouk added: "The question is, where can we live? Not in Tel Aviv, not in Eilat, now not in Arad either? I'm willing to go north, but where will I go when they expel me from there?"