It is a beautiful afternoon in Jerusalem, so what would lead me on a family visit to a refugee detention centre just kilometres from the Egyptian border in southern Israel? There is only one thing that could: my daughters who live here.
Six years ago, when my daughters were students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, they began teaching English to Sudanese refugees. It wasn’t unusual for me to meet their students because their classes were held in my daughter’s tiny King George Street apartment. I got to know Jack, Adam, Anwar, Thomas and many others. Their stories can only make us grateful for all we have, and make us realize what it means to have a country to call our own.
There are about 50,000 African refugees in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Their stories all share the same underlying themes. They fled to Egypt where they would often be shot if detected, so they paid Bedouins to drive them to the Israeli border in cars with darkened windows. They then entered Israel seeking refugee status. Their stories also share a pretty stunning irony: Egyptians are shooting their fellow Muslims, as well as Christians, forcing them to seek safety in Israel.
My daughters are still in touch with Jack, Anwar, Adam and Thomas, and they all have harrowing tales to tell about their wild treks through the desert to avoid the Egyptians. They tell stories of early imprisonment in Israel and of their attempts to be recognized as refugees. They eventually did get out of prison and received monthly work visas. They got jobs doing maintenance in health clinics, youth hostels and hotels – but they never got full legal refugee status.
While they learned English, they also studied Hebrew, and contributed to Israel in a way that is common for poor newcomers to a country by doing the jobs no one else wants. But, as their numbers kept rising, the refugees became a social, then political issue in Israel. How many is too many?
There is no easy answer to that question, and a visitor has no right to even venture a guess, but chronicling what’s happening is a worthwhile endeavour. It is a story that has made me think of how helpless and hopeless some situations are.
The Africans who have been in Israel the longest – and, in most cases, are the ones most settled with jobs and some money – are no longer having their visas automatically renewed every month. Their visas are being revoked and they are being placed in a detention centre. There are now 1,500 in detention. Jack and Anwar are two of the most recent detainees.
When we went to see them, we discovered many things. First, you don’t go into the detention centre to visit them. They come out to see you with iPhones in their hands. An Israeli court ruled they cannot be locked up indefinitely. They are allowed to leave during the day for six hours.
Jack told me they sleep 10 in a room with one shared bathroom. He showed me photos of the long lines for meals consisting of meagre plates of rice. He said he couldn’t tell the difference between two days and two months in there and, if he took the Israeli offer of $4,500 and a ticket home to Darfur, he would be dead or imprisoned on arrival. He said he expects Israel to grant him the refugee status owed to him by international law.
While Jack and Anwar are in detention, my daughters’ other two students, Adam and Thomas, are still working. Thomas’ journey through Egypt to the Israeli border was with his wife, son and infant daughter, but his wife and son didn’t make it to Israel. They are now in Kenya, and Thomas hasn’t seen them in six years. He figures he will be permitted to continue working to provide for his six-year-old daughter, who lives with him in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, Adam is left waiting and wondering. He has reason to be concerned and it shows. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he is no longer the same guy I met a year ago at my daughter’s wedding. Will his visa be revoked this month or next month? There is no way for him to know.
What he does know is that last month the hostel where he works gave him a 750 shekel bonus for being the employee-of-the-month.