Agriculture students from South Sudan were housed in the community of Avshalom, near Israel’s borders with Egypt and the Gaza Strip, will be housed elsewhere after local residents objected. The students have been studying in Israel as part of a government program under the auspices of the Ashkelon Academic College.
Some of the residents of the small community in Eshkol Regional Council have harassed some of the students and demanded they be moved, and the head of the regional council, Gad Yarkoni, also requested that they be moved.
WhatsApp messages from a group of local residents obtained by Haaretz include statements such as: “There is a very serious problem and we need to deal with it urgently. Otherwise, remember very well what I’m saying, the day is not far away that there will be rape, murder and break-ins in the community.” Another resident wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, they are animals, rapists, human trash. Their place is not here.”
The 15 students arrived in Israel a few days ago, as part of a larger group, and were housed in Avshalom. They are part of a flagship project of a number of government ministries, led by the Foreign and Agriculture Ministries. The foreign students are learning about the use of greenhouses, drip irrigation and other agricultural developments, and are supposed to take this knowledge back with them to their own countries.
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After local residents discovered that the students form South Sudan were living in their community, some threatened to hold protests until they were removed. Last week, four residents closed the gate to Avshalom and prevented the students form entering for an hour and a half. Only when the commander of the police station in the nearby city of Ofakim ordered the gate opened and the students be allowed to enter the community – and if necessary accompanied by the police – did the residents open the gate.
“We tried to convince the residents that [the students] are okay, but nothing helped,” the head of the program at Ashkelon Academic College told Haaretz. “Except for having them leave, nothing satisfied them.”
After the protests, the regional college decided to move the students to a different community within the regional council, to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. “The bottom line is that we are already moving them because it is a shame that they experience such an unpleasant feeling,” said the director of external study programs at the college, Dikla Abutbul. “There was a great deal of criticism from the residents. My representative went there to explain but the only thing that calmed them down was when we said they will move. There's no point trying to make this sound better than it is, the bottom line is that the way this was handled was wrong and disrespectful.”
After the protests, the person who rented the house on behalf of the college, Assaf Madmoni, promised to move the students out within 10 days.
“We don’t really understand what is happening,” said one of the students. “In practice, everyone talked around us in Hebrew all the time, so we don’t know anything yet. Even when they closed the gate, the people talked with the driver and did not explain to us what was happening.”
“This is racism, it’s nothing else,” the owner of the house, Nir Damari, told Haaretz. He said that last week he received a threatening letter from a lawyer hired by the community in which she demanded he stop renting the house to the students immediately. The letter stated that he was not authorized to rent out the house without prior approval. “There are a lot of people who rent and no one ever got a permit,” said Damari. "What really bothers the residents is the renters' skin color," he said.
The chairman of the residents committee, Nissim Kalifa, sold Haaretz that the residents’ demands are not racist. If these were European students he would still have demanded they be housed elsewhere outside Avshalom, he said. “We are just a community that numbers 70 families,” said Kalifa. “We created a very homogeneous community. It is important to us, and we also passed rules that state this, that everyone who rents needs to pass an acceptance committee. What happened is that they simply brought in a group of people, and we don’t know who they are, what they are.”
Kalifa said there are undoubtably racists, as in any society: “No society is free of it. But that is not the reason we held the demonstration.” He said that if a Sudanese family had come, they would have been accepted, but the problem is that a group of 15 people was brought in and it doesn’t matter where they came from. “You can’t bring in a group of 15 men into a community like this,” he said.
Riki Nardia, who lives in Avshalom, told Haaretz: “We are a communal settlement, there is no way that they can bring in 15 Eritreans, not 15 Russians and not 15 Ethiopians.” It is a family community, not one for outsiders that will cause us to be afraid of having our children walk around, she said.
She added that the housing of the students was done without any coordination with the residents. “It is legitimate that when a person is angry and nervous, they are afraid. I lived in south Tel Aviv, I know what it is to experience these people there,” added Nardia.
Yarkoni said his request to the college was not because they are Sudanese. “They could also have been Israelis. When you bring in 15 young men to live in a single house, then people go into a panic because of the young men. The residents would not agree to a single young man.”
“They asked me to intervene and things became a bit unpleasant in the community. I was afraid that it would turn into exactly this issue, that they would say to them: ‘Because they are blacks, because that’s what they are.’ No, not at all, it’s not related,” said Yarkoni.