Barik Saleh was only 9 when his mother came into the room where he was sleeping in Darfur. He was the baby of the family, deeply loved. Yet she told him to flee, to get as far away as he could from the Janjaweed – the militia that had burned down their village and was kidnapping boys like him to become soldiers.
She also told him this: Make sure you get an education.
That was 14 years ago. Saleh, now 23, is a student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. He has not seen his mother, father or siblings since that day in 2004 when he boarded a bus alone and started the long journey that would include two years of sleeping on the streets of cities where he knew no one, taking odd jobs to survive. And it eventually brought him to Israel.
He crossed the Sinai Desert into Israel at 13, one of the 38,000 African asylum seekers currently in Israel according to government data. Many of them about to be given the bleak choice of either being deported to Africa or going to prison for an indefinite period.
Within this group of asylum seekers, there are about 350, like Saleh, who arrived here as unaccompanied minors.
A campaign by concerned Israeli groups and citizens was launched recently to lobby the government to exempt them from the planned deportations. And although the campaign’s organizers are hearing optimistic rumblings that a decision has been made for such an exemption, no official statement has been made as of yet.
The Interior Ministry, which is overseeing the deportation plan, told Haaretz that no official decision has been made as of yet, but at this stage it could be assumed that this group will not be among those deported in the next two years.
The refugees who arrived as unaccompanied minors found education, friendship and support in boarding schools and other schools across the country. They learned fluent Hebrew and, upon reaching 18, the age of national conscription, many felt so connected to Israel that they even showed up to volunteer for the Israeli army. When they were rejected because they were not Israeli citizens, some chose to do two years of national service instead.
“I don’t regret that I’m here, because I’m doing what I love and I’m studying – just as my mother said I should. I’m thankful I fled here and got to Israel,” says Saleh, speaking to Haaretz in his neat, one-room apartment in south Tel Aviv.
But despite all the feelings of belonging and connection to Israel, news about the deportation orders has led to some stressful times.“Everyday life has less and less certainty. You don’t feel secure,” says Saleh.
Saleh is tall and slim. He has a bright, wide smile. Books in Hebrew and English cover the desk next to his bed, and his computer is open with his notes for an upcoming law exam (his degree is in government). He steps onto a small balcony, overlooking the bus-clogged street below. A thick-leafed tree provides a hint of green, a green he remembers well from his village in western Sudan and one he misses.
‘Not moral, not Jewish’
The person spearheading the campaign on behalf of the African minors is Benny Fisher. He's calling on the government to make an official decision on them – “because at this point we are not satisfied,” he says.
Fisher, who recently retired as head of the Education Ministry’s rural education and youth aliyah division, is also urging the government to give them permanent residency, if not citizenship, so their place in Israel is secure.
Fisher is backed by a group of Jerusalem synagogues, individuals who have mobilized to help the youngsters and be their network and safety net, and the nonprofit Center for International Migration and Integration.
Fisher also previously headed Yemin Orde Youth Village – a boarding school near Haifa for at-risk and immigrant youth – which has been home for many African migrants who came here as teenagers. It opened in the 1950s and became known for its therapeutic work with orphans of the Holocaust.
The prospect of his former students being deported horrifies Fisher. “It’s not moral, it’s not Jewish. I am a son of refugees and part of a nation that went through disasters and we educated these kids. We want them to one day be able to go back to their countries and become leaders there.”
For now, Fisher says, they should be able to stay here, to work, to study, to contribute to the country.
“They did not come here to work,” he notes, rebutting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims that most of the Africans here are economic migrants, not refugees.
“What they went through on their way here, from Sinai...” His voice trails off. “We heard so many stories of rape, torture – and they were just kids. And to kick them out? It’s just not logical. We are optimistic that we will be able to save this group, at least.”
A land of refugees
One of the African students Fisher got to know at Yemin Orde is Usumain Baraka from Darfur. He reached Israel nine years ago and is now 23. Four years earlier, his village was attacked by the Janjaweed; his father – the leader of his village – and his older brother were killed, and Usumain fled on foot with his mother and two older sisters.
They wandered from village to village, to cities and through jungle areas. But after three years at a refugee camp, he wanted to move on. He wanted his life to begin, but there was nothing to return to in Darfur. When he arrived in Libya and met friends, he decided to head to Egypt. (Those same friends later drowned when their boat capsized while heading to Europe.)
While in Egypt, Baraka and a friend came across a television show about the history of the Jewish people. It spoke of the Holocaust, of Israel. It was all entirely new to him.
“I took it as a sign,” he recalls. “As I watched I thought, ‘What? These people had such a difficult history.’ It’s almost unbelievable, but I identified with it. I thought, ‘I’m not going to Europe or the United States. I’m going to the country that was made up of refugees, so it will recognize me as a refugee.
“And I found the start of my life in this society. I grew up here. My best friends are Israeli Jews from high school and my academic studies today. Israel is now part of who I am,” Baraka tells Haaretz by phone.
He decided to study government, he says, because he realized his own interrupted life and that of his people stem at least in part from government decisions that went horribly wrong. He’d like to go back to Sudan in the future, to help rebuild the government there.
His plea to Netanyahu and his government is simple: “You gave us the tools that helped make us Israeli, you educated us. We are a gift for Israeli society, not a burden.”
Like Saleh, Baraka studies at the IDC on a program funded by New York businessman and philanthropist Joey Low.
Low says he was inspired to get involved with the unaccompanied African minors because of his own father’s story fleeing the Nazis as a child.
“My dad was so vulnerable and no one helped him,” he says. “For me, the question is not ‘Why am I doing this?’ I cannot not do it,” he stresses.
“The more I got to know them, the more moved I was,” he continues. “So many are also vulnerable and don’t have parents. It gives you a unique perspective. They inspire me.”
Labeled an infiltrator
Sitting on the edge of the bed in his studio apartment, Saleh takes out the identity document he must get renewed every two months to stay here. In the left corner is the word “Infiltrator.”
It’s a word that makes him recoil: to him, it conjures up the image of a violent person. But it’s the term the government uses for anyone who has entered the country illegally. While he’s been made to feel welcome by those who have helped and befriended him in Israel, he is equally alienated and angry on those day-long visits to the Interior Ministry to get his permit extended.
“Part of the policy seems to be to make life hard so we will leave,” he notes. He says he hears the clerks there use the word “kushi” – a derogatory term in Hebrew to describe black people. He says he’s had clerks tell him “Kushim should go back to where they come from.”
He continues: “They say that to me who has lived here, studied here and has close Israeli friends, and you feel like you aren’t part of this place.”
Saleh says he is lucky to feel so rooted here. There’s the principal of his Tel Aviv high school, who he’s still in touch with, for example, and the staff of the house for at-risk children in Tel Aviv where he used to live.
“Barik is an extraordinary person,” says Zeev Dagani, the principal of his old high school, Gymnasia Herzliya.
Dagani then recounts the day the International Red Cross delivered a letter to Barik from his parents. It was the first time he had heard from them since he heeded his mother’s call to run away. It was a form of Arabic he didn’t know how to read, so the school’s Arabic teacher translated it for him.
“It was deeply moving. We all cried,” recalls Dagani.
Saleh is in touch once a month now with his family, who are living on a refugee camp on the border of Chad and Sudan. Prior to the letter, he had no idea of their whereabouts.
He longs to see them again, and hopes to use his education to good effect in Sudan one day. He and his friends like Baraka want to be ambassadors of goodwill. “Wars cannot go on forever, countries change. Sudan has no ties with Israel. We want to be the bridge,” he says.