Behind an Iron Door, Sudanese Kids Squabble Over Few Toys

Some 40 children of Sudanese refugees are in the old lobby of Eilat's Red Rock Hotel, which has been hastily converted into a club for them. It is very crowded, but an iron door prevents them from going outside. According to the Club Hotel chain, to which Red Rock belongs, the hotel was advised not to let the children run around until they have undergone medical checkups.

A few toys are scattered on the floor of the improvised club, and the children fight over who will get to play with them. Only once a day, for about an hour, are they taken outside, into a paved courtyard with no playground equipment.

"These children have gone through many difficult experiences in recent years," said one of the parents. "They saw death and destruction around them. Their automatic response is anger. This needs to be dealt with, but they sit here for hours and do nothing. There is no program."

The government has so far washed its hands of the refugees, although the Education Ministry plans to begin sending counselors next week, while the Eilat municipality halted its efforts on the refugees' behalf last week. Therefore, responsibility for the children, who began arriving in Eilat two months ago, has fallen on voluntary organizations and the hotels that employ their parents.

"The main problem is that the state is closing its eyes," said Adi Amzaleg, CEO of the manpower agency that arranged for Club Hotel to hire the refugees. "Everyone is waiting for the Interior Ministry to decide on an official policy, but on the ground, we have to provide solutions to problems that we lack the tools to cope with."

Club Hotel hired a single, untrained 19-year-old to watch the dozens of children, aged three to 14; two Sudanese women run a nursery for 11 younger children. A nonprofit organization, which recently took over running the children's club, has sent additional volunteers.

The first Sudanese refugees arrived in Israel in 2003. At the end of 2005, they still numbered only a few dozen. Today, however, there are about 900, of whom 500 arrived in the last two months alone. About a quarter come from Darfur; the rest are from other parts of Sudan. Most have ended up in Eilat.

The Eilat municipality said it stopped providing services to the Sudanese, because "the city is not capable of dealing with a wave of refugees that just keeps growing. We have neither the space nor resources to care for some 150 Sudanese children. We hope that the state will soon formulate a policy on the issue."

According to data amassed by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, there are 179 Sudanese children altogether. Though data on their ages is shaky, they appear to include 101 children of school age (three through 17), of whom only 29 have so far been placed in any educational framework. Under Israeli law, however, the state must educate any child who has been in Israel for at least three months, regardless of his parents' legal status.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir said that if the refugees remain in Israel, schooling will be arranged for them starting in September.