They came with no notice. We knew nothing about them. Only that they were refugees from the worst place on earth. And that if we did not offer them a place to hide, the police would come and take them to a holding area in the desert, close to the point from which they could be deported, back to Sinai, which they had taken great pains to cross, then perhaps back to Sudan, which they had fled, fearing for their lives.
We were a good place to hide: an Israeli village even Israelis have never heard of, shielded from public view by mountains and a single, poorly marked access road, with a nursery school building that lay vacant for the summer.
There was something else, as well. The village is home to many whose parents were Holocaust survivors, people who know something about helping others hide from genocide.
There were 20 Sudanese, mostly young couples, some of them with infants and small children. They came with little more than bags of clothing. Arabic speakers, some of them Muslim, some Christian, they knew no Hebrew and no English, and had, after fleeing mistreatment at the hands of Arabs, learned to be suspicious of strangers who spoke Arabic. The government could not decide what to do with the Sudanese who looked to Israel to shelter them. The government, which has made inertia its watchword, lost no time in adding Sudanese refugees to the mountain of issues about which it has decided not to decide.
As a result, a state created to take in refugees remains one of the only nations in the world that lacks a formulated general policy on refugees. For the Sudanese, indecision was not an option. Some were from Darfur, some from other areas targeted by murderous gangs. Egypt, which had agreed to take in refugees, had gunned down dozens of Sudanese refugees, many of them children, when they held a demonstration at a UN office in Cairo two years ago. The long crossing of Sinai became the way out. But when the refugees reached the border of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces did not know what to do with them. The refugees were taken to city centers, where municipal officials were similarly nonplussed.
On the national level, the government, unable to choose between embracing them as kin in the extended family of genocide survivors, or spitting them back into the desert, opted for a non-policy that combined insensitivity and waste. Police round-ups combed city parks for the Sudanese camping there. They were taken to a "residential facility" located near Ketziot prison, not far from the border with Sinai. Instead of finding them housing in Israel, the government would spend NIS 10 million on the facility.
In the village, meanwhile, volunteers, some of them residents, aided by students from elsewhere, came forward to help the refugees lead something of a more normal life. They were invited into homes to take showers. They were invited to use telephones, so they could get in touch with worried relatives in Sudan and elsewhere for the first time in weeks.
One day, village residents noticed a large Israeli flag flying from the roof of the nursery school where the refugees were living. No one knew who in the village had put it there. A debate developed over the flag. Some residents objected, saying we should not give the refugees the impression that the government was helping them. One of the students, an anarchist, took umbrage on ideological grounds.
Later, we learned that it was the refugees who had put up the flag. In the end, we learned much more from the refugees who lived with us for a few short weeks this past summer. We learned that if they are allowed to remain in Israel, they will enrich this nation with their dignity and their diligence. Their children will enliven this country with their good humor, intelligence and open curiosity.
For now, the United Nations has granted the families protection from arrest and detention, and most have begun living and working in Tel Aviv. But only a small fraction of the hundreds of Sudanese refugees in Israel have received UN documents. The others must watch their backs for police raids that could result in deportation.
There was a time when the leaders of this country deserved the name. But our expectations have sunk so low as to reinforce their inaction.
It now seems all but inconceivable that Menachem Begin's first official act as prime minister was to take in 66 Vietnamese refugees who had found shelter on an Israeli ship after their small boat had begun to sink. Over the next two years, hundreds more were granted permanent residency, and with government help, were resettled in Israel.
Begin, who had once been a refugee himself, took advantage of the lack of a formal refugee policy, made a few phone calls, and, in a matter of hours, saved the lives of scores of Vietnamese. Many of their children have served with distinction in the IDF, and have contributed much to Israeli society.
There was a time when Begin was Ehud Olmert's role model. Perhaps it's time Olmert assigned him that role again.
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