Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is a frenzy of activity. New buildings are rising everywhere you look. Cars travel helter-skelter over the mostly dirt roadways, their drivers having been urged to keep to the right of the road and avoid hitting children or goats. Given the difficulties in supporting their families in rural areas, people come in from the villages seeking work just as they do the world over, and so the slums grow. Here and there, people doing well are replacing their mud-and-thatch-roofed homes with houses of brick and mortar, some with rudimentary plumbing and a generator to provide electricity for at least part of the day. And some are rebuilding their lives with the help of lessons learned in Israel.
To visit Majur Gop, Augustino Mayom Makuok and Peter Mading Jok, you begin at the entrance to Jebel Market, the largest market in Juba, covering an area the size of a few Manhattan blocks. People sell everything from colorful African fabrics to handmade kitchen utensils fashioned from what might be considered a form of “up-cycled” throwaways. Hopping on a “boda boda” (motorcycle), you pass by the market, then veer off to the right and find yourself on a dirt road that looks like it is going nowhere.
Suddenly, a small street appears: At the corner is a cement building with large blue doors – their store.
They come out with smiles, happy to speak Hebrew once more and with good memories from Israel: the Holy Land, the land of Jesus.
In fact, South Sudan has a special relationship with Israel, which is unique among the nations of the world in supporting them during five decades of war, for example with medicine, food and arms, before the country was formally recognized two years ago.
The three business partners tell similar stories of leaving the embattled south, where civil war raged, for Khartoum, then heading for Cairo to escape the discrimination and violence - only to face discrimination and violence in Egypt as well. From there, many made their way across the Sinai and entered Israel at Eilat.
Majur, 35, worked in Eilat for a time but ended up in Haifa. Augustino, 29, worked at Kibbutz Yotvata in southern Israel, and Jok, the oldest of the three at about 50, stayed in Arad.
Majur wanted to study. He had completed his interrupted high school education in Khartoum at the age of 20 and dreamed of going to university. That university degree never came to pass but he did earn enough at his restaurant job in Haifa to take courses in English.
“Before I arrived in Israel, I was young and angry,” Majur says, “but in Israel there were people who cared about me and wouldn’t hurt me.” In Israel, he says, he learned how to work and save for the future.
That doesn't mean the men had idyllic stays in Israel. After an initial, difficult experience on a moshav, where he was treated like a migrant worker rather than the refugee he was, Augustino reached Kibbutz Yotvata, thanks to Tel Aviv’s Hotline for Migrant Workers NGO. He remained there for seven years, until his return home. He credits Israel with teaching him how to "work independently" in agriculture and to plan for the future.
“On the kibbutz,” Augustino remembers, “they pointed at some trees and told me they were planted in 1927. So now I look at South Sudan today and I have a vision of what it will be like 30 years from now.”
Mixed reception, mixed feelings
Jok lived in Arad and worked at a hotel at the Dead Sea. He says he learned leadership skills in his church in Israel. He feels he has taken home good memories from the kind and welcoming Israelis he met, though he had been surprised and hurt by the demonstrations against "African migrants" in south Tel Aviv.
“We love Israel too much,” Jok says, “but people in Israel wanted us to go. Now we have our own country and we wanted to come home. But we needed more time to get prepared for moving back here.”
“I still wanted to study in Israel,” Majur added, “but there was no time and I accepted that. Israel is their country and they can do what they want. In fact, we were happy to return to our own country. We had not seen our families for a long time.”
Augustino explained that Israelis and South Sudanese share many things: “Israelis had many problems and they immigrated to Israel from many different countries, coming back to build their own country, just like we are doing now. They gave their courage to build Israel. That is the same as South Sudan now.”
When they arrived back home, they rented a plot of land with an empty shell of a building in a corner and turned it into a shop. Not very far from Jebel market, they had no idea if they would manage to attract customers.
They built living quarters, a tower to hold a water tank and added a generator. There had been only a small path leading to the row of homes in this area. The city widened the path into a road that could accommodate vehicles.
Not only did their neighbors frequent their shop but, with them as role models, many followed suit and built their own shops as well. They talked proudly about their own and their neighbors’ successes and it seemed to encourage them to continue trying to make an impact on South Sudanese development.
On the banks of the Nile
“Israel is great,” Majur continues, “but my country needs its own people to build it up. South Sudan is in ruins and there is lots of work to do. For me this is okay. It is now quiet and peaceful here and the small person will do small things and the big person will do big things.” “Are you big people?” Without hesitation, Majur answered in the affirmative.
They certainly have a big vision. “Our plan is to make a kibbutz here,” Augustino asserts: they are working on buying land on the banks of the Nile not far from Juba.
“We will grow vegetables and fruits using the knowledge we got in Israel, and we will give people jobs so that they can live a good life,” says Augustino. “In three or four years, after establishing the basic infrastructure, we will bring people here from the kibbutz to help teach us the next steps.”
It is evening and we had to be back at the hotel before dark. The boda boda takes us across a path in the hills where we see cattle and goats being shepherded home, teenagers playing soccer and young children running freely before going back to sit with their parents in the yard encircled by mud-and-thatch-roofed huts. Suddenly, amid the bustle of the main streets, one cannot help but remain infected with the returnees’ optimism as they face the hardships of the new South Sudan, so very like the fledgling Israel of the 1950s.
Sheri Oz was in South Sudan as part of a team sent by IsraAID. She and her colleagues are training new social workers to work with survivors of trauma and gender-based violence.