Sudanese refugees flocking to Israeli Arab, Druze towns

What started out as a few dozen is now hundreds, says Kafr Manda's imam.

Migrants from South Sudan in Kafr Manda last week.
Migrants from South Sudan in Kafr Manda last week. / Photo by Abdullah Shama
By Jack Khoury
Published 01:08 20.05.12

Dozens of young Sudanese men are roaming around the center of Kafr Manda, an Arab town in the lower Galilee. It's Friday, their day off, and they are busy buying fruit, vegetables and bread.

A growing number of Sudanese refugees have been gravitating to this largely Muslim town near Nazareth, among them, Ismail, Walid and Abd-Arahman - all three of them from Darfur in Sudan.

They entered Israel through Sinai about two months ago, they say, heading first to Tel Aviv and from there to Kafr Manda, like hundreds of others before them. Since then they have been working in agriculture, construction and odd jobs through local contractors.

"Any work is a blessing for us, but I don't know how much longer we can go on," says Ismail, 26. "Getting here, especially through Sinai, was a nightmare. When relatives ask me whether they should come I tell them it's better to stay there.

"I know people are starting to look at us suspiciously and that bothers me. I see young women walking down the street who, when they see one of us, they run away, and that's hard. We didn't come here looking for problems, but to make a living and get away from worse conditions," Ismail says.

Sheikh Mohammed Nimr, the imam of the Ashuhada mosque on the eastern edge of Kafr Manda, where many of the Sudanese men come to pray, is concerned. "When they first came here and found work, we welcomed them. After all these are people who suffered persecution and are looking for shelter and we as Palestinian Arabs and Muslims view it as our moral duty to help them." But Nimr says concern over their numbers is growing. "What started out as a few dozen is now many hundreds," he says.

Nimr said religious and community leaders called a meeting in the mosque where they explained to the refugees "that we would not tolerate social problems or God forbid behavior that does not conform to our values as Arabs and Muslims. Nimr said, "No doubt the issue now requires the central government to step in."

The presence of the Sudanese refugees has also reduced employment opportunities for the locals. Kassem Nasser, from Kafr Manda, says many contractors prefer the Sudanese workers because they work for lower pay and put in longer hours.

The Druze village of Isfiya on Mount Carmel is also experiencing an influx of refugees. A local charity organization has established a hostel for women and children. Many of the children have been enrolled in school and the women who need welfare assistance are receiving it from the local council. Isfiya Mayor Waji Kayuf says his city will not be able to continue supporting the refugees while the government ignores them.