As an Ethiopian Israeli, I Call Out My Country's African Refugee Policy for What It Is: A Racist Manhunt

When Israel chases down black Africans for deportation or jail, and gives white Europeans a free pass, there’s only one name for it

African migrants demonstrate against Israel's policy of forcibly deporting African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018.

I, too, was a refugee.

I, too, was afraid I and my family would be caught and sent to our death.

But as an Ethiopian Jew, I was sustained by the hope and belief that we would eventually arrive in a safe place, that we would go ‘home’ – to Israel.

That was 33 years ago. But recently, those experiences have been resurfacing more and more. Every time I read about Israel's jail-or-deportation policy towards other refugees from Africa, including from Sudan, I remember the pain I felt.

I was 12 when I arrived on foot in Sudan with my mom, my two brothers and my mom’s relatives. Sudan was bad to us. We were hungry. The drinking water was salty. The sunlight was burning. The sand under our bare legs was boiling, like walking over red coals.

I don’t want to linger on all of this. I want to talk about fear.

The fear that the Sudanese will catch us. That they will beat us up. That they will put us in jail or send us out to the desert of Sudan to die of hunger under the merciless sun. Or perhaps, that wild animals will tear our flesh from our bones with their sharp claws, and feed on our body parts even before we're dead.

After long weeks of an especially devastating journey from Ethiopia to Sudan, and several days of staying near the border, we arrived at a temporary compound in the city of Dukha.

African asylum seekers protest the Israeli government's plan to deport them, at the Rwandan Embassy in Herzliya, on January 22.
Jack Guez/AFP

Sudanese guides brought us there. We gave them everything we had left, and in return they gave us water, bread, took records, and questioned us about the reason we came to Sudan. The grown-ups said whatever it is that they said. We, the kids, were instructed already back in Ethiopia to keep our mouths shut.

I understood that speaking was dangerous for us. It was hard for me, not to speak. I didn’t even ask my ten year-old brother, who was weeping mutely, "Why are you crying?" I only touched his arm tenderly and wiped his tears.

As the questioning continued, a rumor in the camps spread that the Sudanese planned to "throw us out in the sands of Sudan." There was chaos: people were running about from corner to corner, speaking with one another with worried eyes, or looking up, to the skies, to ask for mercy.

My mom approached me. She whispered into my ear: “We are leaving this place. Help your brother stand up on his feet,” (he was too weak to get up on his own) "and don’t speak a word to anyone."

At nighttime, we sneaked out of the gate. At that point something clouds the sequence in my memories. The next thing I remember is a large iron gate through which we entered into a backyard of a large, two storey stone house.

Not once did I see the people who lived there. I only remember being ordered not to utter a word, not to leave by the gate, and not to relieve myself inside the yard - that is, to hold ourselves until nightfall - "for if the Sudanese will see us they will send us to die in the dunes."

I could stomach everything. The hunger. The no speaking. But not to use the toilet was hard. For my brother, who had malaria and other illnesses he had caught in that wretched place, they dug a little hole in the hut. The rest of us waited until dark.

Hundreds of asylum seekers protest outside the representative office of the European Union in Ramat Gan, Israel. 25 June 2015
Gil Cohen-Magen

One day I couldn’t take it. Before dark, I slunk out to do what I had to do. I looked left and right to make sure no one was there. I sat down and few moments later a man wearing a police uniform and holding a whip showed up. Scared, I stayed put, praying that he would leave me alone. But no. He shouted in Arabic, whipped me once, told me to get lost and kept walking.

From that day on, only my most courageous cousins left the yard, scouting for water and food. They were whipped by the Sudanese man. Every time they returned, we were happy. Not only because of the food they brought, but because they came back. To this very day I didn’t ask them what happened out there.

My memories from Sudan are tearing me in opposite directions. When I consider the fate of the asylum-seekers in Israel, some of whom come from Sudan, sometimes I feel anger, hatred and I itch for revenge. Other times, I feel pain and empathy.

During the first years that Sudanese refugees sought shelter in Israel I thought: The wheel turns. They were terrible to us there, and now they are paying the price here.

But when I got to know them, heard their stories, hatred turned into empathy and my wish for revenge into sadness and pain. These people hadn't oppressed my family; some were, themselves, refugees from genocide in Darfur.

Three years ago I saw a play by the Israeli social activist and playwright Chen Alon that tells the stories of Sudanese refugees, how the Israeli state treated them and the vivid dangers awaiting them if they're deported to a "third country." One of the asylum-seeker actors said in an interview: "The most moving thing for me was to discover there are Israelis that do not hate us; to understand that there are people who see us as people and treat us like human beings."

At that point I decided that I, too, wanted to be an activist in protecting asylum and shelter seekers. I felt that I need to use my basic right as an Israeli citizen to protest the racist policies of my country. The fear that Israel has of "the blacks" helped me make a decision.

File photo: Two asylum seekers walk past a fence at the Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

And that was reinforced when I heard that a recent report by Israel's Population, Immigration and Border Authority stated that Israel is hosting 92,000 foreigners living illegally in Israel – but there's no outcry, no forcible deportations, no jailings, no state-paid bounty hunters to track them down – because they're nearly all from the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, the Authority's officials often term them "tourists." Only Africans are called "infiltrators."

In a public lecture, the Authority’s former head jokingly called them "tourists who forgot to go home."

At the same time that Israel turns a blind eye to Eastern Europeans who 'disappear' into Israeli society, the state decides to hunt down and chase 37,000 Africans because of the color of their skin. Out of fear of the 'Africanization' of Israel.

Despite my personal trauma in Sudan, I have decided to break my silence about the forcible deportation of seekers of refuge from my home. Yes, I was lucky to reach here, that I didn’t die on the way, like so many others. I have no desire to inflict that fate, or the fear I felt, on anyone else.  

Shula Mola is head of the Association of Ethiopian Jews. She is a lecturer at the Center for Educational Technology in the Civics and Coexistence department and she is working on her PhD in Communications at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.