My Hero the Sudanese Refugee

Almost two years ago, T. walked across the border from Sinai into Israel in the search of a better life for her children.

If I were the kind of person to have heroes, T. would be one of them. At the age of 23, she has just had her third child, a first girl after two boys. She's a refugee from South Sudan who lived in Egypt for a while, until there too life became unbearable.

Almost two years ago, she walked across the border from Sinai into Israel, together with her husband S., in the search of a better life for their children. They carried the boys through the night, fearful of being caught by Egyptian soldiers or abandoned by the Bedouin smugglers to whom they had paid a large sum of money to guarantee their safe crossing.

They are devout Christians. According to S., they prayed, and their prayers were answered. They crossed the border unharmed and finally found their way to Tel Aviv. The rent here is outrageous, but what can you do - if you don't take the apartment right away, another refugee will come, who might be willing to pay even more in order not to have to sleep in the park.

When I first met T., she was already four months pregnant. She had quit working in a kindergarten for children of refugees and foreign workers and was now only taking care of her own two kids - the quiet but very affectionate five year old, and the cute but hot-tempered little one, whom they lovingly call "balagan (chaos) boy". I've never seen her sad, or worried, or even exhausted in light of what she had to deal with. When a friend got sick, when a neighbor had a child, she was always there to help.

On a very hot June afternoon, when the little electric fan in the apartment was unable to provide any relief from the heat, we took the two kids to the park. With a belly as big and as round as a basketball, about a week before she was to give birth, we were sitting near the playground in Lewinsky Park, watching the boys running and climbing, ignoring the comatose homeless man sleeping under the slides. We talked about the immigration police and the expected raids, and the orders to expel those who don?t have a valid visa.

T., like so many Sudanese refugees, has only "conditional release" from prison, which doesn't allow her to live in Tel Aviv, or, for that matter, anywhere between Hadera and Gedera. It also does not allow her, or her husband, to work legally in order to support themselves. But someone has to pay for the apartment and for food.

The authorities say they don't want the refugees to live in Tel Aviv because they take jobs and apartments that would otherwise go to Israelis. But anyone paying attention to the kind of jobs done by refugees can see it has been decades since those have been done by Israelis. Dishwashing, cleaning and construction work have long been the domain of Palestinian laborers. Ever since the Second Intifada, the void of Palestinian laborers has been filled by refugees and foreign workers.

As for the apartments, I doubt that the shortage of affordable apartments would be solved by removing the refugees from the houses around the two bus stations, an area which is very unlikely to undergo the same process of gentrification that we have seen in other quarters of South Tel Aviv.

T. likes Tel Aviv. There is work here, and the landlords in the south of the city are used to renting their apartments to refugees (even though they demand exorbitant prices). The UN offices are here, and it is not too far from the Population and Migration Authority's offices in Lod. Here, there are several aid organizations that support refugees and there is a free clinic in nearby Jaffa. But most of all, there is a community of refugees from South Sudan here who know and help each other. If they had to move to the periphery, they would lose their support system.

Two weeks later: the new baby has been born, and S. was arrested soon after by the immigration police. They let him go, on the condition that he and his family leave Tel Aviv within six days. He went to Hadera to look for an apartment and a job, while T. stayed home with the kids, partly because she's worried about the immigration police and partly because it's too difficult to leave the house with all three of them to look after.

S. was unsuccessful in his hunt for a new place and work in Hadera. Landlords and employers alike are wary of the "conditional release" that makes him look like an ex-convict. But he's not giving up.

Neither T. nor her husband is expecting any favors or welfare from the state, all they want is safety for a while, for themselves and for their children, until they can go back to South Sudan. While in Israel, all they want is the chance to support themselves, to work for a living, like everyone else. In the meantime, despite the dire situation, and against all odds, they are optimistic that God will help.