Back Into Africa

As South Sudan barrels toward independence, hundreds of asylum seekers are returning home to help build the new state. One is hoping to duplicate the Israeli kibbutz there.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

JUBA, South Sudan - The kibbutz movement is dying? Don't tell Emmanuel Logoro. "I have a dream," he says, sitting in his hut near a plastic Christmas tree that he brought home from Eilat, and taking out a briefcase filled with diagrams of a kibbutz's organizational structure. "I have plans."

Logoro, 29, tall, muscular and talking a mile a minute in perfect Hebrew - complete with all the requisite slang - was one of the very first Sudanese asylum seekers to cross the border into Israel from Egypt, back in January 2006. He knew nothing about the country, he says, except what he had read in his Bible.

The Logoro children reading Hebrew, from left‏: Barsa Yaossa, Logoro and Cindy.Credit: Danna Harman

After nine months in detention in Ketziot Prison and three petitions to the High Court of Justice, he was released to Kibbutz Eilot, where he spent four years - working in the dining hall and in maintenance, learning Hebrew, playing in a rock band and making countless friends along the way.

When he left, he says, they threw a good-bye party, and he had tears in his eyes. "I could have stayed there my whole life," he explains. "I was lacking nothing."

Logoro loves the kibbutz, plain and simple. His wife Sara, who is from Juba, whom he met at a refugee camp in Egypt, does too. She misses her friends, with whom she worked at the Magic Sunrise Club Hotel in nearby Eilat.

Their eldest, 9-year-old Cindy, born in a camp in Khartoum, misses her classmates from school on Kibbutz Yotvata. She brings out an old report card.

"A very good student and good girl," she reads out loud in Hebrew to her two younger brothers, who have heard it all before.

Emmanuel Logoro and his wife Sara. “We have the land, the rain, the people. [A kibbutz] will unite us and take us forward,” he says.Credit: Danna Harman

The Logoro family loved Israel - but came back to South Sudan. "This is our home, after all," explains Emmanuel to his son Logoro, who was born at Yoseftal Medical Center in Eilat, sitting on his lap. "We are about to be an independent country and there are things for us to do here."

Like start a kibbutz? "And why not?" asks Logoro. "We have the land, the rain, the people. It will unite us and take us forward, just as the Jews of Europe came together to pray, eat, work and develop their land ... What is better than a kibbutz, I ask you?"

Even before he left Israel last April, together with a group of about 50 other fellow Sudanese, Logoro was in touch with people in Juba, the nominal capital of South Sudan, telling them about his idea; Sara had returned a year earlier, together with a smaller group of 10, to pave the way. And soon he scored a meeting with the former agricultural minister (who was later killed during ethnic violence ), who, Logoro says, was very enthused about the kibbutz scheme.

Logoro's uncle offered a plot of tribal land, and the bank agreed to a loan. All he needs now, the young pioneer reckons, is about 30 families who will want to come together and create Sudan's very own Degania.

Logoro is not worried that Sudan, like much of Africa, is characterized by a society built on networks of extended family and tribal members, completely unaccustomed to cooperatives that are social and not familial in nature.

"This will be a new model," he declares.

He is not bothered that no agricultural produce whatsoever is grown in southern Sudan as of now, and says: "We will start with mangoes and papayas." And the fact that most people don't have money to put in, and there is no ethic of organized labor - this is not an issue, he adds: "This can be overcome."

Each potential pitfall has a solution, as far as this optimist is concerned.

Logoro - who was separated from his family, left home in the southern part of Sudan and fled via the north when he was 8 - is not the only refugee coming home these days. As independence approaches, tens of thousands of South Sudanese, having escaped decades of brutal civil war and scattered out across the world, are making their way back.

They are an eclectic bunch. Some have been in refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya and don't speak a word of Arabic anymore; others learned to dance the salsa in Cuba. Some have spent time in detention in northern Sudan; others have had military training in Libya. Some have been working as nurses in Australia; others were nomads in Ethiopia. And some, like Logoro, have been on a kibbutz.

"These returnees have a lot to offer us," says Elijah Meen, a civil servant, who picked up his younger brother Gordon at the airport in Juba last month after having not seen him for 18 years, since their family was torn apart by the civil war.

Gordon Meen, 29, like Emmanuel Logoro, had been an asylum seeker in Israel - smuggled across the border by Bedouin after years of bouncing between refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Egypt.

"I knew nothing about Israel, but they are a friend to South Sudan more than other countries. We have been facing the same Arabs," he explains.

His experience was mixed. "I thought I would find a life in Israel and get to study and work ... maybe even join the army - but it was difficult," Meen says, adding that he spent three years between Eilat, Tel Aviv and Hadera, looking for odd jobs and usually coming up short. "I was not from Darfur. I was not favored. I never had the right papers," he adds.

Late last year, he decided to come home and contacted the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a rather controversial organization that has organized several flights for Sudanese in Israel seeking repatriation.

"I miss Israel," he says. "Many people were kind. But your country is your country. Israel is good - but it is not my country."

Meen flew out in mid-December, on a commercial Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi and on to Juba, together with another 140 Sudanese asylum seekers from Israel, arriving with a carry-on bag and his favorite suit.

"After all those years outside of Sudan, I came back with nothing," he admits. "I am a little confused now. I don't know what to do."

His brother sees it from a different perspective: "We were wishing he could come home with knowledge from school. But even without [it], these people have seen the world. They have been exposed," he says. "Even if they don't know how to build a road, at least have seen what building a road looks like. They have seen good houses and good bridges, and they can now help us here."

Deng Alor, the man slated to become South Sudan's first foreign minister upon independence in July, echoes this sentiment: "These returnees can be very helpful to us today. They bring back ideas and investments and language. They are an asset."

All refugees are welcome here, says Alor - even northerners, including Darfuris, who cannot return to their own regions, will be received with open arms. But, he stresses, no one should force these people to come home.

Alor: "It should be up to these individuals to make their personal decision. If they decide to come back, if they feel the situation is attractive for them here, they should come and we will do everything we can to help facilitate their return. But if they are in Israel, studying or working, and they want to stay, they should be permitted to do so."

The ICEJ-sponsored flights that brought back Meen, the Logoro family and other asylum seekers from Israel, confounded the future foreign minister. "No one knew they were coming. Even if we have no formal relations, such things must still be coordinated," Alor claims.

A senior adviser to the South Sudanese president's office says the same: "We were totally surprised by their arrival. We had not been informed and they came without papers, without anything."

But these assertions seem to contradict an eyewitness account by a member of the security force at Juba Airport, who says that South Sudanese government officials were on hand to receive the returning refugees.

"It seemed secret," says the man, who saw three separate flights arrive over the last two years. "In the past we never heard of anyone who had been to Israel. It was not allowed. But when these people came from there, they got a good welcome."

The ICEJ did not respond to requests for information about its program, and Meen and Logoro both declined to discuss details of their return, although they insist they came voluntarily.

"My first dream was to study law at Tel Aviv University, and I had been saving money - but when I found out I would have to pay NIS 21,000 for a year of preparatory courses, I realized I would not be able to afford it," says Logoro. "And so I decided to turn to my second dream: the kibbutz one. No once forced me."

With respect to the concern that ICEJ may have tried to frighten asylum seekers into accepting the offer of repatriation, Logoro points out that not everyone in Israel welcomed him with open arms.

"Eli Yishai said we had AIDS and swine flu!" he claims, referring to Israel's interior minister.

But just as there were those Israelis who told him to go home, there were others - an even greater number, he says - who made him feel at home. Logoro still talks regularly to his friends on the kibbutz, "bombarding" them with questions about communal living as he muddles his way through the nascent bureaucracy here. And in the future, he hopes, his friends might even be able to come over and lend a hand, or he might go back for a visit.

Logoro's Sudanese friends who stayed behind in Israel talk of joining him, he adds, but most are hesitant: "You start the kibbutz and then we will come," they tell him.

Meen's friends in Tel Aviv are not rushing back either - but they are toying with the idea: "They call me and want to know the situation," he says. "I tell them we are like Israel in '48. We are about to have a new state. And just like Israel pulled itself up with help of those who returned from outside, so we need to return and help our country."

Logoro is not upset by others' hesitancy, or discouraged by the obstacles on the ground. "I believe in what I am doing, and I have patience," he says. In the meantime, to make ends meet, he has some other plans up his sleeve. For example, teaching Hebrew.

"Why not? It's a great language," he says. In fact, he is already in negotiations with Juba University to begin teaching next semester. But he never loses sight of his main mission.

"As long as I am alive I will work to build this kibbutz," he concludes - and then adds, with a wink and big smile: "And as Herzl says, if you will it, it is no dream."



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