Sudanese Refugee Accepted to Israel National Service for First Time

Twenty year old Tom Hassan, accepted on one-year, pre-army national service program, is now a counselor in boarding schools for Eritrean and Sudanese teens in Nitzana.

More than five years ago, after a difficult journey from Egypt to Israel, a 14-year-old boy from Sudan found himself in an Israeli refugee camp near Nitzana. Now, Tom Hassan has returned to the area where he began his life in Israel - this time, not as a frightened refugee, but as an equal among Israelis his age.

Hassan, 20, was the first refugee in Israel to be accepted to a one-year, pre-army national service program in which hundreds of Israeli teens participate every year. Hassan, who began his service year about a month ago, is now a counselor in a new boarding school in Nitzana for teens from Eritrea and Sudan.

Tom Hassan in his room on Kibbutz Eilot - Morey Chen - August 24 2011
Morey Chen

As someone who just a few years ago had "zero chance to succeed in life," as Nitzana Director David Palmach put it, Hassan's literal and metaphorical journey has been long and extraordinary.

Hassan was born and raised in a village in Sudan's Darfur region. His life changed forever the day he and his mother - who were about to return from a visit to the doctor - were told that his father and five of his siblings had been murdered.

Hassan was 7 years old. He and his mother, Muna, fled to Egypt.

About two years later, they decided to come to Israel. Toward the end of their arduous trip to the border, Muna was seriously injured after she was hit in he head with a large rock during an unfriendly encounter with Egyptian soldiers. After crossing the border, they were arrested by Israeli soldiers and sent to the refugee camp. The two later made their way to Tel Aviv.

Not long afterward, Hassan returned to southern Israel, this time to the "Sudanese village" at Kibbutz Eilot in the Arava Desert, which agreed to take in asylum-seekers after their release from detention.

"Tom was the first boy who came to us, and he became a kibbutz boy, one of us," recalls Rakafet Goren, the social worker who was responsible for the refugees.

Hassan began studying at the regional school on Kibbutz Yotvata. He was behind academically, so he was placed in a class one year below his grade level.

As graduation approached last year, Hassan, like many of his classmates, became interested in the idea of entering the national service program. Goren, who previously saw to it that Hassan joined his Israeli classmates for a week at Gadna paramilitary camp, and on a school trip to concentration camps in Poland, made it her mission to get Hassan into the program.

"As a refugee, he can't enlist in the army, and I wanted him to feel that he belonged. ... I created a life-path for him so he won't end up being a simple hotel worker," Goren said. "It's possible that his future will be with us in Israel, and I want him to have all the tools to succeed in life."

According to Yoel Marshak, who as head of the Kibbutz Movement's task force is responsible for service-year participants, "For Tom this was the best way of gaining recognition as a socially aware Israeli with influence on Israeli society."

"The service year is the highest step for a young person who wants to make a contribution and integrate into Israeli society," Marshak said. "He got the gift of his life, and he knows how to make and how to accept a contribution."

Hassan was assigned as a counselor for refugees from Eritrea and Sudan between the ages of 14 and 16. At the school, which opened about 10 weeks ago, the students study basic subjects such as math and computer science, as well as farming and a wide range of extracurricular activities.

"It's hard work," Hassan said. "You have to keep your cool and not get upset. I know how hard it is for these teens, and I try to help. They need help with maintaining structure and organization. Sometimes they think they know everything. I try to explain that right now the most important thing for them is to study. They still think their role is to work in order to help their families. They will come to understand that their schooling will help them in the future."

"Sometimes it bothers me to be seen as the first refugee to go to Poland, or the first to do service year," Hassan added. "I want to be treated like everyone else my age in Israel, because I feel Israeli already. I feel it's my duty to give back to the state a small part of what I got from it."