“…To a large extend, the official state of Israel seems to have forgotten, in this sad moment of history, many of the moral commitments that underlay its foundation and its existence. But there is also something else in Israel that I believe is rather unique. Many people in Israel oppose and struggle to stop the racial discrimination of African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, as they struggle against the discrimination and mistreatment of other communities. I hope the following paragraphs would give a glimpse of this “other side” of Israel.
Rami Gudovitch: Israeli Activist for Refugee Rights
I write this after the recent 8 years that I have had spent getting to know the rich and diverse communities of African refugees living in Israel.
I am an analytic philosopher. I received my PhD from Columbia University in 2007, that is, around 18 months after the Massacre atMustafa Mahmoud Square, in Cairo, an event that signifies the beginning of immigration of refugees into Israel. In the course of the massacre, officers of the Egyptian police killed over 70 Sudanese refugees, most of which, women and children, in an attempt to break a peaceful protest in front of the UNHCR headquarters. But at the time, I knew nothing of that. In fact, I knew little about Africa, about refugees or about Sudan and Eritrea. Though an Israeli of Jewish origins, my family immigrated to Israel/Palestine long before the holocaust. From my mother’s side, our roots extend back to the early 18th century, and my ancestors lived in Jerusalm and in Nablus at least as early as that period.
My bonding with the refugee community comes from the development of personal ties with many community members I met in Tel Aviv and from a universal moral commitment that I feel is part of my Jewish-Israeli heritage. Upon my return to Israel from my studies I found myself living in South Tel Aviv, surrounded by refugees and other migrant communities. I started engaging in various volunteering activities utilising my skills and experience of many years of working with youth of various underprivileged communities. When the government of Israel had issued a deportation order to the South Sudanese community, following the declaration of the independence of South Sudan, I initiated a public struggle against the deportation.
Sadly our voices were too weak to combat the racist wave flooding the country and although it was clear that South Sudan was not ready to receive safely the 500 children and their families, that then, were living and studying in Israel, due to catastrophic humanitarian conditionds and lack of education solutions, the deportation went on.
Now, try imagining what would you do if you find a student of yours in such trouble. Now try imagining what would you do if you find that dozens of students of yours have lost any sense of personal, educational and even nutritional security? For me, I had little doubt what my reaction should be. I knew I had to do anything within my power in order to increase the kids’ chances to fulfil the rights any child in the world has: the right for education and security.
Together with Adv. Lea Miller Forstat I initiated the Come True project, under BECOME NGO, a sponsorship program presently funding the education of 119 South Sudanese children deported from Israel, for the 3rd year, in a boarding school in Kampala, Uganda.
In recent months we have made our first steps, albeit in an unstable political situation, amid security threats and the humanitarian crisis in order to extend our education projects from Uganda into South Sudan, while our end goal- building a school in South Sudan is starting to look like a realistic future plan, rather than merely a dream. But this project and these dreams exist in a harsh reality, against all odds.
On December, 2013, a civil war broke in South Sudan, killing, thus far, over 100,000 people of a nation of just over 8 millions. Just a couple of weeks ago, the fighting renewed in a major part of the country and many atrocities were reported by locals as well as human right organizations, many of them involving mass murder cases and mass rape of women young girls.
Let me go back to the general issue of refugees in Israel. I believe the refugee crisis in the world is one of the major crises of the present period in history. I believe it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make his or her effort to make the lives of refugees bearable and to give hope to the hopeless. My country, Israel, was formed by refugees fleeing from the Nazis while the world turned its back to them. When African refugees came to seek asylum in Israel, I realised it is my obligation, as a citizen and as a human being, to make anything that is within my power, as an educator, as a voter and as a human being, to take my share in the struggle for the rights of refugees and for anything that would make their lives possible.
What are the causes of the racist wave flooding Israel? To be honest, I don’t know. Fear of the unknown? The refusal to admit that someone else could be the one in trouble, the one struggling for his life? I wish I had something smart to say. Honestly, it is beyond the scope of my understanding how people could turn their backs to other fellow human beings. The unapologetic scales of racism in present Israel, directed against people who are fleeing for their lives is something beyond my comprehension. But still, it should be emphasised that as much as there is racism in Israel, there is also a contrary trend.
The lives of refugee children in Israel are not bad, socially and emotionally speaking, in comparison to the lives of refugee children in other countries. From my observation, refugee kids integrate into society better than in many other western countries. The Israeli society is highly experienced in accepting and integrating immigrants and African refugees are no exception. There are two trends in Israel that somehow live side by side. The problem is that the first, racist one is presently, stronger. In fact, it is strong enough to win elections and to form a government without a serious opposition.
My own activities with the refugees are not limited to the borders of Israel. Many of the refugees in Israel end up, under various, mostly unhappy circumstances, in other countries, such as Uganda, Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan. Let me return to the case of South Sudan. There are two groups of refugees from Israel that find themselves in South Sudan (or stop by in South Sudan). The first is, of course, the South Sudanese former refugees that were deported from Israel. I already told some of their story above. The second are people who have been deported from Israel to a “third” country (meaning, not to their country of origins) as a result of pressure Israel is making to push all African refugees from Israel to leave Isarel, under the threat of indefinite detention.
The agreements between Israel and the African countries who are willing to accept the refugees have been shown by various international and local human rights organisations to be illegal, in the sense that they violate the obligation Israel is committed to by the refugees’ convention, to protect the rights and the security of refugees within its boarders.
Israeli Government members are also personally involved in an attempt to nourish the racist wave that is flooding the country and they do so using manners that might awake the memory of a German reader as just over 70 years ago such manners of speech were directed towards Jews in Germany. For example, the new Israeli Culture Minister Mrs. Miri Regeve had publically referred to African refugees as “cancer”. Anyway, this group of refugees being deported to a third country, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese (Northern Sudanese) end up finding themselves in a limbo as they are not allowed and have no way to survive in the countries they are being deported to, mostly Rwanda and Uganda. In fact, for the most part, in these countries their rights and safety are not protected. Basically, they are doomed to fall prey again, to chains of human traffickers that do anything to squeeze any penny from them and from their families. South Sudan is one of the first stops on the route traffickers are leading them through, on the long and deadly voyage to fulfil the dream of getting freedom and security in a western county. From Juba, the capital of South Sudan, they continue to Khartoum, and then, to Libya, from where they continue on dangerous, overcrowded boats to Italy. On the way, many of them are being kidnapped and detained by traffickers till their families collect more money to pay more ransom to the traffickers.
Thus, East African refugees, from Eritrea and from Sudan find themselves in a limbo. While in Israel they enjoy a relative safety. Once back in African, most without any legal status they have no hope or scope and they join the tragic mass of millions of nameless people whose lives and dignity are disregarded by most rich countries and the only chances for them to get noticed is once they are recognised as “a demographic threat” threatening to invade Europe. These people deserve help. Of course, the help they deserve is not a personal help. It is a global, political solution and it must involve an international collaboration to fight the atrocities they are fleeing from in their home countries and to struggle for a more tolerant world.
As a person of Jewish origins I am confident that it is the responsibility of the citizens of the world to protect refugees. I can testify that in Israel, every single European person who was recognized as joining the risky struggle to protect and assist Jewish refugees in the Second World War is been remembered by the survivors and their families and friends. Helping refugees is a moral opportunity of the highest degree.
If I can offer my advice to the government of Israel: take your share. Protect the refugees presently within your boarders. Give them rights. If Israel wish the Eritreans refugees, forming over 85% of the refugees in Israel, to return to Eritrea, first it must stop supporting the Eritrean dictatorship. You are toying with human lives and thus, risking your moral stability. This lesson is applicable not merely to the Israeli government but to many governments in Europe and in other parts of the world. Take the Australian government, for example, and sadly, even the British government in recent months. Something has gone wrong and it is an urgent wake up call of our time to change it.
I would like to end by making a more general comment, as an educator. Personally, I can say that the role I have taken as an educator within a multicultural community, I came to believe that the development of extremist groups among immigrant youth around the world as well as the racist wave that is flooding many Westerns are two recent outcomes of the same wound, which is the lack of resources, skills and knowledge necessary for a successful integration of immigrants within a new environments.
What underlies the education programs I am leading is an attempt to use agents from different groups, the immigrants (refugees in the cases we are working with) and the local communities, in the aim of developing a more successful integration of refugees and other immigrates, while minimising common fears and negative affects resulting from the immigration. Immigration is a fact in contemporary global reality. It will not change by building walls, bombing boats or becoming more racists. If there was a way to enclose all refugees within the borders they are trying to break, taking that way would have made the world a place not worthy of living. Demeaning humanity has limits. I believe that there is another way, or at least a better way and with the help of some great people from different communities within African and outside, I believe that we can make a difference. You are all welcome to join us by supporting, by sharing your ideas and by spreading our words.”
One of the challenges that refugees deported from Israel face is, absurdly enough, a direct outcome of their confrontation with Anti-Israeli forces in Africa who are identifying them with Israel. Right now, days after sending my comments to ProMosaik e.V., I find myself trying to help a family of eight South Sudanese kids who were deported from Israel and later, fled from the civil war in South Sudan and found asylum in a refugee camp in another neighbouring country. Last week, the older boy, 18 years of age, lost his wallet during a soccer game in the camp. When he went back to look for it he found it in the hands of a group of Somali refugees, also residing in the camp, who found in it an identity card of his mother from back when she lived in Israel. It turned out that they belong to an extreme Muslim group.
They began questioning him about his origins and while he refused to admit he came from Israel they did not believe him and began attacking him with stones and sticks. He managed to escape but now his friends are telling him to stay home as they are searching for him and for his mother, as they have her photo from the i.d. card. We are trying to get the case to the attention of the UNHCR authorities at the camp but it is not easy, as there are hundreds of thousands residents at the camp. The lives of the kids and their family are now as I am writing it, under threat because they are being associated with Israel, a country who deported them. Yesterday, the family members did not go to the food distribution at the camp (being the only source of food for the family) fearing to be recognized by the Somali group. Last year we tried to join the kids of the family to our Come True scholarship program but we failed to raise the necessary funds for their scholarships.
Sadly, this case is not unique. The issue of refugees who were deported from Israel and are now finding themselves under an threat because of their association with Israel is a recurring one. Many of the Sudanese who were “voluntarily” deported to Khartoum were arrested upon arrival and interrogated under the suspicion of collaborating with Israel. Many were tortured and according to community members, a few were killed. I received similar reports, about a good Sudanese friend, from Egypt. With the children, the situation is even trickier. It is very difficult to prevent children who were brought up and educated in Israel not use the Hebrew language, which is the language they were taught reading, writing and they use for most of their social communication.
Recently, I have spoken to a mother who crossed the Mediterranean and is presently in the Netherlands after she escaped from the police who came to arrest her after her 8 years old daughter (formerly in a school in Tel Aviv) was heard speaking in Hebrew to her 10 years old brother in their classroom in Khartoum. The kids are now in a safe place but far from their mother, not knowing if they would ever see her again. Other cases are less dramatic but still show the absurdity of the situation. A few weeks ago I spoke to a 13 years old girl who was deported last year from Israel along with her family, and is presently, in a country in which hostility to Israel is commonplace. The girl told me, proudly, that her teacher today dedicated a whole hour to teaching about “the evil Israelis”. The girl rebelled and demanded that he would not make such claims as he never met an Israeli. The girl did not confess that she herself has, but still, she argued the teacher’s statements are baseless. When the teacher ignored her the girl left the classroom angrily and slammed the door (an extreme but not inconceivable thing to do in Israel. Not in that country, though.) When I was trying to warn her, in our phone conversation, of the dangers in her behaviour she replied: “but don’t you remember, Rami, in Israel you always encouraged me to rebel against any sign of racism. I will not accept racism now. It is true that Israel was not good to us, but many Israeli people always helped us and I am not willing to let people talk badly about all Israelis!”
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