Planned Levinsky Park Celebration Turns Into Sad Farewell for South Sudanese

The south Tel Aviv park fills with exhibits and artistic performances but the mood remains somber.

An art-themed picnic in south Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park on Saturday had been arranged before this week's wave of deportations against South Sudanese migrants had begun. Suddenly, an event planned as a celebration turned into a somber, surreal event. The park filled with exhibits and artistic performances. A dancer writhed on a carpet, crying "to be or not to be" while fighting with an alarm clock.

A large purple dress served as a stage for talks and singers. A sign invited people: "Come to sing, come to be." But due to the situation, the speeches were sorrowful, about genocide and fear. The air was heavy with tension.

Near the library, a renowned meeting point for migrant workers, stood Mubarak, 24, from Darfur. He examined the Hebrew letters on the wall and read them out loud. Mubarak works in a hotel, cleaning rooms for NIS 23 an hour.

"I don't feel good when they say blacks are garbage. We love Israel," he says. "It's a terrible war," he says in reference to his homeland. "They torture, pour hot water on people, rape women," he says.

A woman with yellow hair passes by with a sign saying "Talk to me."

"You need to dream," she preaches to an African who talks to her. "Dreaming is the most important." "You must help us," he tells her.

Rami Godovich, a director of the communal library, said he had thought of calling off the event because of the deportations. But then he thought that would be too drastic, and asked me to write that he simply could not celebrate.

"There are children in prison. I cannot celebrate anything. There was a family that never missed an event in the library, with a little girl of three, a charming mother with a broken arm. She's in prison now. They called from there, they're cold and hungry. How can I celebrate when people are being deported?" he asks.

"It's a confusing event," admits artist and social activist Lior Waterman. "You cannot remain unmoved; people are filled with goodwill and love. And yet, a plane will take off today and others will follow. This is the most ashamed I've ever been of being Israeli and Jewish. To lock up schoolchildren a few days before the end of school, a few weeks after teaching about the Holocaust. It's inconceivable," he says.

Surprisingly, the South Sudanese asylum seekers remain optimistic. Simon Miar, who has been living in Israel for five years with four children, stood up and spoke about how happy he is to return to Sudan. "We're leaving because that is God's will. I'm proud to return home. Thank you Israeli society, you are forever friends of South Sudan and invited to visit. We love you," he says.

Then the music begins. William, another South Sudanese asylum seeker in a black hat, striped suit and bright yellow shirt, is offended that he is not being allowed to speak.

"I'm leaving in a week and thanking the Israeli government for hosting me for six years," he says. "I learned Hebrew and Russian from friends I had in McDonald's. Good people, all friends of mine," he says.

Musa Adam, one of the leaders of the Darfur refugees, does not share his optimism. He and William came through the Egyptian border and were fired at in 2007. "We're refugees, not criminals, not infiltrators," he says.

Anwar, also from Darfur, says, "We came because we need protection, but there's no protection here. When the crowd attacked us, the police did nothing. I'm afraid we'll get killed here. We want another state."

"Why should we take them?" asks the security guard at the library entrance. "They're not Jews." The music gets louder.

Outside, behind the guard, people are waiting politely in line for food, holding empty plastic plates.