South Sudanese migrants subdued on 1st anniversary of independence
Too distraught over their uncertain fate to celebrate: "Who's in the mood?"
South Sudan is marking the first anniversary of its independence on Monday, but members of the Sudanese community in Israel seem to be in no mood to celebrate.
Natalina, 46, a single mother of three, was rushing about in the heat in Tel Aviv on Sunday between her former employer and aid agency offices, in an effort to get money which she said her employer owes her.
"I'm going home to South Sudan at the beginning of next month and I'm trying to fight for my salary, which my Israeli employer doesn't want to pay," she said, in despair.
"South Sudan will be celebrating its first year of independence on Tuesday but I don't feel like I have any strength to celebrate," she said. "We're all broken: A lot of our friends have been expelled, everyone is running after employers who don't pay and disappear. Who's in the mood to celebrate independence?"
Natalina fled Sudan 20 years ago. She spent 15 years in Egypt and five years ago escaped to Israel, believing that her refugee status would be recognized here.
"I wouldn't even recognize Sudan," she continued. "My memories are very, very weak and blurred. I don't know how I'll start my life there."
Last year the community celebrated independence openly and emotionally. There were parties and dancing and the joy was obvious. Now all that's obvious is their gloom and apprehension.
"We're busy packing suitcases and parting from friends and many good people that we know," said Theresa, 37, a mother of six who is returning to South Sudan next Wednesday. "Everyone's very sad. We're not celebrating anything; we're too busy packing.
"I'm happy and excited to be going back," she added. "There's no person who doesn't miss his homeland. But we understand from friends that have gone back to Sudan that it's hard there. We're afraid, but we have no choice."
"Maybe we'll celebrate in a modest way," said Gabriel, 29, who has lived here for five years, and has been one of the primary spokesman for the local Darfurian community.
He thought for a minute and said, "The new Sudan is like Israel in 1948: You're happy that you have a state, but so much is happening and the situation seems very fragile and moving toward confrontation. There's no economy, there's hunger and a lack of water and a high morbidity rate.
"We are interested in returning but we would have expected the Jewish people to allow us to return gradually. To help us go home in a respectable way," he said.
Susan, 25, the mother of a two year-old, said the news they were getting from South Sudan was very unclear.
"There's fear that war will break out. We're already burdened with the trauma of the [previous civil] war and the wandering from South Sudan to northern Sudan, to Egypt and then to Israel. We want quiet. We want a safe place."
Susan's 46-year-old mother, however, recently received a visa to remain in Israel. Susan is still waiting for the authorities to decide whether she can stay as well.
"If they don't let me stay here, then my family will be torn apart again," she said. "I didn't even spend five years in South Sudan. I want to stay here until the situation in my country is safe."
According to Orit Marom, coordinator of public activities for Assaf, a group that assists refugees and asylum-seekers, said that the impression her colleagues are getting from conversations with refugees who have returned to South Sudan is that they're in shock.
"They've arrived in a country with no infrastructure, no economy, and their children aren't acclimating well," she noted. "They're in shock and fear that the money that was given to them will not be enough to start life anew.
"What's absurd is that Israel sends aid delegations all over the world, including to Africa, as a humanitarian gesture, but when a real opportunity to help a distressed population falls into its lap, it acts without humanity," she said.
Sharon Harel, a senior representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the United Nations has not officially declared that South Sudanese should not be repatriated.
"There's a complicated situation [there]," she explained. "There are districts that are unstable and certain districts where there is still fighting."
For its part, the Foreign Ministry has explained that, "the government decided that it was possible to return South Sudan nationals to their country of origin. Our position was based on the regulations of the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the international community."