A Desert Oasis for Asylum Seekers in Israel

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In a tiny dilapidated apartment, in the center of a rundown neighborhood at the edge of a desert city, one comes across a small wonder: the Sudanese Center in Arad. Every day, dozens of asylum seekers come here to pursue an education. They work by day, mainly in hotels near the Dead Sea, and arrive here in the evening to study computers, English, Hebrew and even Fur, the language of the people of Darfur, their birthplace.

The exterior of this shabby but ordinary-looking structure does not reveal any hint of what transpires inside the third-floor apartment-cum-classroom that houses a Sudanese mini-community center. No sign points the way there, yet this place should be a model for integrating the community of asylum seekers into society.

There are 300 Eritreans and 500 Sudanese living in Arad, nearly all of them employed and settled. During the past few days, however, some of the town’s African residents have been told to report to the Holot detention center within one to two months, in order to be locked up in this “open holding facility” in the Negev desert. From the apartment that houses the Sudanese Center, an oasis that we visited this week, this edict seems draconian and particularly foolish.

Chen Street in Arad is a stretch of hot-water tanks and satellite dishes on rooftops, and rusting nameless mailboxes in front of long bleak buildings, their stairways exposed to wind and rain. Here is where newcomers live - people from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, asylum seekers from Africa alongside veteran and impoverished Israelis, all living at the edge of a city that was founded in the 1960s with such great promise.

Sadiq and Mohammed welcome us at the entrance to the center. Sadiq is 29, Mohammed is 41, and both are natives of Darfur. Mohammed will soon reveal himself as a local leader. Wearing a fake-leather jacket that he bought at the Arad mall, he is tall, athletic and good-looking. “I am a sportsman,” he says with a smile, adding that he was the captain of the Oman volleyball team while living there with his parents. His father was a provincial governor and member of parliament in Sudan, a wealthy merchant and one of the leaders of the Darfuri community before being jailed for three years.

Mohammed’s life was a roller-coaster ride spanning Sudan, Beirut, Cairo and Oman, which ended when he finally arrived in Arad two years ago. He studied computer engineering at the Arab Open University campus in Cairo, his English is fluent and even his Hebrew is reasonable. He speaks an Egyptian dialect of Arabic.

Mohammed is a political activist, an opponent of the Sudanese regime. With a winning smile, he challenges any stereotype one might have of African asylum seekers: He is educated, content with his lot, likes Israel (and Arad) and is financially secure. But this week, he too received a summons to the Holot detention center.

Mohammed makes a living teaching computers to Sudanese expatriates at the Etgar College in Arad, a project partly funded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He also works part-time as the deck-chair and towel attendant at one of the Dead Sea hotels. He recently moved in to one of the rooms in the Sudanese Center apartment, where he teaches asylum seekers computers and English. The crowded living room is full of posters used for teaching Fur, English and Arabic, and translations of official Israeli residence documents for asylum seekers.

“If I returned to Sudan now, I’d have land, money, a business, a house and a car waiting for me, but I wouldn’t be free,” he says. In Cairo he lived in upscale Heliopolis, while organizing opposition activities against the Sudanese regime. He says he received threats on his life from the Sudanese Embassy there, as well as from the Egyptian security services. A Sudanese friend who lives in Arad sent him an e-mail, telling him: “If you don’t feel safe in Cairo, come to Arad. Here you’ll feel safe.”

One night he decided to leave everything behind to go to Arad. After a few weeks in the hands of Bedouin in the Sinai desert and after being detained by the Israel Defense Forces, Mohammed reached his destination on November 23, 2011. He’s been living in Arad ever since. “I don’t like the commotion of Tel Aviv. I had that in Cairo. I had a phobia of all that buzz in Cairo. Here it’s quiet, and I’m content,” he says.

Here he discovered that most of the asylum seekers have no education, so along with Sadiq and others, he established the Sudanese Center. Every student enrolled in a course pays 150-200 shekels (roughly, $45-$55) a month, according to his ability, which is how the center’s expenses and rent are paid for.

Mohammed: “The TV in Sudan only told us bad things about Israel. When I came here, I discovered another face to the country. We never learned about the Holocaust, and couldn’t read about it on the Internet because it didn’t exist in Darfur. Here I discovered a different narrative about the Jewish people, and I found the people to be different from what we had been told. All my life I’ve lived in Arab countries, and everything there is corrupt and false. Here I found a law-abiding country and people who respect us. Don’t ask me to tell you how we were treated in Egypt.

“Sudanese who are looking for work go to Saudi Arabia, Libya and the Gulf States. The Sudanese who come here are the ones who ran away from the regime there. They came here because they were persecuted back home. They aren’t just looking for work: They want to acquire an education here, so they can go back and change things.”

Last week, Mohammed went to the Be’er Sheva branch of the Interior Ministry to extend his residence permit. There were 600 asylum seekers there, and after waiting for six hours, he was told by a clerk that he must report to the Holot detention center within 60 days to extend his asylum-seeker visa. Anyone who has lived in Israel for more than four years has one month to arrange his affairs before showing up there. Those who have been here less time have two months’ grace, in order to quit their jobs, get rid of apartments or anything else they may have acquired, part from wives and children if they have any, cut themselves off from life and check in to jail. The only thing possessions one can take to Holot are some clothes.

In Egypt, Mohammed received a document attesting to his status as a refugee. Here he applied for the same status and filled out all the required forms, but has not heard a thing for six months. Every time he inquires about his application, he is turned away empty-handed and told, “Someone will contact you.” No one has done so yet. In Europe, he notes, Sudanese are treated as refugees, and are entitled to education and health services. Not so in Israel: Although authorities never reject applications for refugee status, they also never grant such status, even though the state is obligated to do so by international law.

Mohammed: “It’s my choice. I won’t go back to Sudan until the regime there changes. The $3,500 Israel has offered me to leave won’t make any difference. I can’t live in Sudan. But, 2014 is a year of hope for Sudan. This is the last year in the term of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power for 24 years. I’ll return to Sudan the day he leaves office.”

A few more Sudanese men arrive at the apartment, well-dressed and speaking Hebrew. “Make it Sudanese,” says one of them, referring to six spoons of sugar in his tea, as they drink it in Sudan.

These men all seem to want to tell us the same thing: “We did not come here to seek a livelihood. We’ll leave as soon as things get better back home. Our friends and families are there.” Not only opponents of the regime are liable to be arrested if they return to Sudan, but anyone who has lived in Israel. They have a friend who lived in Arad and returned to Sudan. He was arrested at the airport in Khartoum six months ago and has not been heard of since.

Where will you be five years from now?

Mohammed: “There is a 90-percent chance we’ll be in Sudan. Things changed in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and change will soon come to Sudan as well. Our revolution is more gradual. We’re not Syria. The fact the [President Mohammed] Morsi fell encourages us. We are Muslims, but we don’t like Islamic politics. They kill in the name of Islam.”

Sometimes he and the others pray in the mosque of the nearby Bedouin town of Kseife. That is where they do their shopping on Fridays, too. On days off from work they go to Jerusalem.

“I am grateful to Israel,” says Mohammed. “We got respect here, especially in Arad, even if Israelis don’t accept Africans into their hearts. If Israelis tell us they don’t want Sudanese, we’ll go to the Saharonim prison. We came from there and we can return there. We don’t have a problem with that, but we won’t return to Sudan.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed, Mohammed and Sadiq quietly sip their heavily sweetened Sudanese tea, before hurrying to catch their ride to the hotel in which they work. In the evening they’ll return here to teach and study computers.

The Sudanese Center in Arad.Credit: Alex Levac