The declaration of independence by South Sudan was the happiest moment in the life of Bith Thiyang. When he speaks of it, he swells with pride, his eyes shine and a grin appears upon his face. "I'm glad," he proclaims, straightening up. "We never had independence, we were never free. Even our grandparents weren't free - they suffered. Now it will be better, now we have a real state."
Thiyang has been in Israel for six years, five of them in Eilat and the last in the refugee village in nearby Kibbutz Eilot. He spent the past two months living in two parallel worlds: Every morning, Thiyang wears the work uniform of the kibbutz hotel and arrives at his work as a cleaner. In the afternoon, he changes into a suit and tie, puts on impeccably shiny shoes, and makes his way to his office in the village center, where he has served as the informal consul of South Sudan in Israel for several months.
The office is little more than a small and sparsely furnished room, but it means so much more for the refugees. Thiyang took up residence there just over six months ago. He sits down in the large armchair behind the desk, adorned with only books, papers, and two small flags of the newborn state. On the wall behind it, surrounded with balloons, is the picture of the late John Garang, leader of the South Sudan rebels until his death in a helicopter crash in 2005. In the corner proudly stand the two flags of South Sudan and Israel.
Facing Thiyang are two small couches and another portrait, that of the new president, Salva Kiir Mayardit. A poster calling for participation in the historic referendum in South Sudan some months ago is also on the wall, even though the refugees in Israel did not have the possibility to vote. The office also has a lavatory, a kitchenette, an air-conditioning unit, a fan and a bookcase. The bookcase is nearly empty, and holds mostly religious books in English and Arabic - the New Testament, the Old Testament and the Koran, all leaning on each other.
The office serves mostly as a meeting place for refugees from South Sudan, of which there are several hundred in southern Israel. The television is always set on SSTV, the South Sudan channel received through a special converter from Eilat. In recent days, the channel has been talking of nothing but the new state; it transmits songs of peace and hope, interviews with national and community leaders, festive newscasts and propaganda - former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the British billionaire Richard Branson calling out for unity and brotherhood.
As of today, the office is the closest thing there is to official South Sudan representation in Israel. It has, Thiyang explains, two roles: To begin building a relationship between South Sudan and Israel; and to assist refugees in Israel who wish to come home. Thiyang initiated the establishment of the office and says he has the full backing of the South Sudanese government and the support of Israel's Foreign Ministry. He notes that he met with Dan Shaham, head of the Africa desk at the foreign ministry, and hopes to receive an invitation to meet Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman soon.
It seems the rest of the refugees hold Thiyang in high regard. He's confident enough to name a date, proclaiming Israel and South Sudan will establish formal diplomatic ties in two weeks, and embassies will be set up in both countries. "Our embassy won't be here," he says, "it'll be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. I think I'll live in Jerusalem very soon." Thiyang feels much closer to Israel than to the Palestinians, who are preparing to declare their own independence in September. "We hear about the history of Israel. There is no difference between South Sudan and Israel. The southerners love Israel more than anyone. Even kids in South Sudan will tell you Israel is our best friend in the world," he says.
"Soon you will be able to come to Sudan without fear, without a visa, as if it was your own country," he promises. "There will be daily flights from Tel Aviv to Juba. We call on the Israeli government to support South Sudan, and for Israeli businessmen to open businesses in South Sudan. The door to Israel is open. South Sudan is the second home for the Jews."
In recent years, Thiyang has been cooperating with Christian organization Operation Blessing, which initiated chartered flight from Tel Aviv to Juba, carrying refugees willing to return home. He believes many more will follow in the coming months. The Foreign Ministry would not comment on the Israel-South Sudan relationship. "We don't know an official representative of South Sudan in Israel," the statement from the ministry read.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now