Soccer Coach Who Fled Darfur Gets a Red Card From Israel

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
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Gideon Levy
Alex Levac

Sallah al-Nur bought a cake and some fruit, and was waiting for us at the entrance to the apartment when we arrived. His body language betrayed his tension. He’s a charming young Sudanese, whose traumas are manifested in stuttering, fragmented speech. He works nights in a Tel Aviv restaurant, and during the day teaches migrant children soccer as part of an international project sponsored by the iconic Inter Milan team.

But now Nur finds himself offside: Israel wants to jail him in the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert. An order to that effect has been suspended in the wake of legal intervention, but the threat still hangs over the head of this young man, whose life since the age of 15 has consisted of a long, jarring flight from home. He had to leave alone, never to return. Four months ago, his father, too, had to flee from Sudan to neighboring Chad. Nur’s mother warns him not to dare return home.

A map of the world, a street map of Tel Aviv, an Israeli flag and sports photos adorn the walls of the meager but well-kept apartment he shares with a friend in south Tel Aviv. Some of the photos show Nur in the uniform of the Italian team with the children he’s coaching.

It was Ghetton, an Israeli NGO connected to Inter Milan – part of a project that Inter runs in 30 countries – hired Nur for the coaching job. Ghetton's motto is, “Soccer is the language everyone speaks.” Nur also coaches, on a volunteer basis, a team of adult asylum seekers in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, who play under the name Africa United.

The children he coaches with are deeply attached to him, and he is devoted to his work as a coach – but all that will be aborted if he’s imprisoned. His psychological state, already fragile, could also be aggravated.

In a medical opinion submitted to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority – which had ordered Nur to report to Holot by February 12 – Dr. David Senesh, a clinical psychologist, wrote, “My recommendation is first to remove immediately the threat of exile that hangs over Sallah, which is liable to reenact the separations and losses he experienced in the past and also cut him off from the social foundation that is maintaining his health and his mental functioning … Exiling him to Holot would reactivate the psychological states of persecution and trauma with which he is grappling and would transform them into a life reality that he will find it difficult to cope with ... Professionally speaking, I find this absolutely unacceptable.”

Indeed, the intervention of Assaf: The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, and of attorney Osnat Cohen Lifshitz, from the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights at Ramat Gan’s College of Law and Business, has deferred the threat of imprisonment, but only for the time being. Nur is still afraid of being jailed. He submitted an application to be recognized as a refugee more than half a year ago, but has not yet received a reply of any kind.

He was born in the village of Jenina, in Darfur, 25 years ago, but says he “feels like a grandfather” after all he’s been through. In 2004, as a 15 year-old, he had to flee his country because the police wanted to arrest him for talking about political issues in school.

“We were just children and didn’t know what we were allowed and not allowed to say,” Nur explains. After the police came looking for him at home several times, his father, a grocer, got him a passport and sent him off. His father knew someone in Chad and also someone who was about to travel there. Sallah spent about 18 months with the adoptive family in Chad, often weeping with longing for his family.

“It was a really hard time,” he recalls. “All I wanted was to go home. But my father told me not to come back, it was dangerous.”

Finally he told his father: “Either home or Libya.” Nur hoped to be able to further his education in a Libyan school. His father put him in touch with a Sudanese family in Bengazi that he said would put him up.

“Who brought you here and why?” the family wanted to know, when he arrived after a difficult trip. Nur told them his dream was to study, but they told him that without documentation from his school in Sudan – which he could not obtain because he had fled – he would not be accepted for studies in Libya. After a year of enforced idleness in the family’s home, at 17, he found a job as a guard for the Bengazi electricity company. He worked for two years, outside the city.

Still eager to study, he decided to try his luck in Egypt. But all he could register for in Cairo was soccer coaching, with the Al Ahly club. “It was really tough,” he says of his year in the Egyptian capital, using the Hebrew he later acquired in a Jaffa ulpan.

In 2008, Nur first heard about Sudanese refugees who entered Israel, and about how Israel was a democracy. He crossed the Sinai desert and was detained by the Israeli army. In a way, that lifted his spirits, he says now.

“Thanks very much to the soldiers. Thanks very much to Israel. They gave us apples to eat and water to drink, and after a few days they let us go. I was lucky to come to a democratic place,” he says with visible emotion and without a trace of sarcasm. A bus brought him to the area of the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, where the next chapter of Nur’s nomadic life began.

He began to learn Hebrew, and an employment agency got him a job in the Carlton Hotel. There, he rose through the ranks and became a pastry cook. “Thanks very much to all the cooks and bakers who helped me very much,” Nur says. “I felt better in my life thanks to people who helped me so much.”

In 2012, he started to coach Africa United in Levinsky Park, a gathering place for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. The team was founded by the Assaf NGO. He then also started to coach children through the Inter Campus program, which has four soccer teams in Israel whose players come from different countries.

He now works nights as a cook in a Tel Aviv restaurant and coaches the two soccer teams during the day. Life, he says, is good. The best he’s ever had.

“I am lucky to be in Israel,” Nur says repeatedly. “I love this place. People helped me. I learned so much. I feel part of Israel. My life is here. It is impossible to forget what Israel did for me, and I want to help Israel and the Israelis.”

He’s a fan of the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team, though the children he works with are Maccabi fans. Since his only free evening is Thursday, he can’t go to the Hapoel games, which on Saturdays.

But life is good for Nur, at long last, although the order to report to Holot weighs heavily on him; he received it on January 9, when he went to extend his visa. The order was deferred and his visa extended until May thanks to the innumerable documents regarding his psychological condition and his community activity, which were submitted to the immigration authorities by the Assaf organization and attorney Cohen Lifshitz.

His employers and the adults and children he coaches wrote good things about him, but Sallah a-Nur lives in constant fear. “Something will happen in my mind if I will be in Holot,” he says. “It will be like going back to Chad, to Libya and to Egypt, and maybe even something worse.”

And those words, too, were spoken with his sad, gentle, winning smile.

Sallah al-Nur and his Italian-sponsored youth team.Credit: Alex Levac