In the pictures, everyone is smiling. I had held my camera and told them to smile, so they did. Now, I must explain to family and friends and strangers that my trip to Uganda was filled with tears followed by deep breaths. When there was laughter, it was always shadowed by loss.
I followed my friend, Moran, to Kampala in order to find out what has happened to Israel’s asylum seekers who were sent to Africa. Moran had gone to Kampala in order to visit her friends. One of them, Bol, joined us there for the length of the trip. Originally from South Sudan, Bol had sought asylum in Israel and had lived in Arad for six years serving as chairman of the South Sudanese community in Israel. Following South Sudan’s independence and Israel’s decision to repatriate the entire community, Bol volunteered to be on the first plane home. He has lived to regret that decision.
Bol is two meters tall, skinny, with an extremely warm smile. He is kind, funny and smart, and I understood why his community chose him as their leader. But underneath Bol’s smile there was a story that I wished I hadn’t heard. As he sat on his bed in our hostel and spoke about the horrors that he had witnessed in South Sudan, I looked at the door contemplating escape. I have heard many Holocaust survivors tell their story but this was much harder to hear. Holocaust survivors speak about history; Bol was reciting current events. Holocaust survivors were abandoned by the world; Bol was abandoned by us.
From 2006 until 2013, asylum seekers mainly from North and South Sudan, Darfur, and Eritrea, crossed the Israel/Egypt border into Israel resulting in an approximate total of sixty thousand asylum seekers. Up until 2006, asylum seekers were few and far between and because no Israeli refugee law was ever drafted, Israel’s response to these asylum seekers has been inconsistent. On the one hand, Israel has given people from Sudan and Eritrea “group protection”- a status that prevents refoulment (sending them back to their country of origin), while on the other hand, the government has created harsh policies of deterrence in an effort to rid itself of all African migration. In 2012, these harsh policies came to a head when Israel rushed to cancel the group protection of South Sudanese asylum seekers with the sole purpose of sending men, women, and children back to a volatile region.
That region is now entrenched in civil war, and Bol had been caught in the middle of the fighting. Part of his escape from South Sudan included jumping over the bodies of his dead friends. His trauma is still fresh and as he relived his memories, I tried to not visualize his words because it was too hard to hear: They shoot mothers in front of their children, and then force the children to drink the blood of their mothers.
Ironically it was Bol who had to comfort both Moran and I: “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
And then I had to ask: Did children - South Sudanese children from Israel - also witness this? Did those children, who had once attended school with our children, who spoke our language, who sang our songs, witness this? I knew the answer before I asked it.
It’s not okay. It’s definitely not okay.
I have uploaded pictures to Facebook of smiling South Sudanese children who attend the Trinity School in Kampala. These children all speak Hebrew, but you cannot hear that in the pictures. Some came before the civil war in South Sudan and some came after and some are still missing and some are still waiting for sponsors.
But all the children are smiling in the pictures.
Some of the children’s parents have also sought refuge in Kampala. In the pictures, they smile with their children. The other parents are in Juba or are still missing. Many have stories like Bol’s.
It is anything but okay.
In 2012, we rushed to put these families on planes. We did not care that children would die of malaria and other diseases. We did not care that there was a chance of civil war. We cared that there would be 1200 fewer Africans on our soil.
I wish I could say that this is the end of a tragic story, but it is only the beginning. Despite the fact that in 2013, Israel closed the Sinai/Israel border, resulting in only a trickle of asylum seekers entering each year, the government has continued to embitter the lives of those who already in Israel with the hope that they will “voluntary return” to Africa like the South Sudanese. Our government calls it “voluntary return” because people, young people who are my age with similar goals and aspirations, have to choose between indefinite detainment in prison and going back to Africa.
Some have said that they rather die in Sudan than wake up every day in prison in Israel. So they go back to Sudan, and some do die. We help them die.
Some who haven’t died are in Kampala smiling in the photos with me. One of them, a Darfuri, was advised by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior as to where he could obtain an illegal passport (answer: south Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighborhood). Another, an Eritrean, obtained a ticket to Uganda from the Ministry of Interior; however, it was a return ticket through Uganda to Eritrea. He was told by the Ministry to enter Uganda on his layover and to overstay his visa. Other Darfuris were granted travel documents to fly to Uganda only to have Ugandan officials take away those same documents on arrival.
Despite our government assurances that there is an agreement with Uganda regarding asylum seekers, all of the asylum seekers I spoke with live in Uganda without a visa, jobs, security or stability. However, they are all smiling in the photos.
Except for Bol. Dearest Bol, you were with us in Kampala almost 24/7 for over a week. That’s too many hours of pretending that "it’s okay." So sometimes, just sometimes, I would snap my camera when you didn’t notice. You weren’t smiling in those photos. Your eyes were focused on nothing in particular, your body slightly hunched over, your forehead strained, and your smile gone.
If it were considered okay for South Sudanese men to cry, we would have cried together: you, me and Moran. We could have cried for all the lives lost; for the community that was and now isn’t; for the traumas that children have endured; for endless bloodshed; for lost hope; for lives that Israel wasted. We should have cried together.
But instead, we smiled in the photos.
Jenn Isackov lives in Beer Sheva and studied for her MSW at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev having made aliyah from Canada 8 years ago. She recently completed a law degree from Sapir College and works as a social worker at Amutat Be'er Sova, and has volunteered with asylum seekers for several years.
For more information on the Kampala Trinity School project, a tuition and boarding scholarship program in Kampala for South Sudanese children deported from Israel managed by the Israeli organization Become, click here.
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