I left South Sudan when I was five years old, after a militia burned down my village. My father, who was our tribe’s leader, took me north, to the capital, Khartoum. Life there was alright until I got to high school and started getting harassed by another militia there who thought I was a spy for the south. My father realised my life was in danger and managed to bribe an official to get me a passport and send me to Egypt in 1999, when I was nineteen. I headed to the UN office to try to gain refugee status, but my application was denied. At least I managed to find work there, as a secretary for a lawyer. A few years later, things started to get ugly. We asylum seekers held a big sit-in in front of Cairo’s UN office, asking for our cases to be reconsidered. Thousands of soldiers attacked us. They beat us and killed 20 people [the Egyptian Interior Ministry blamed the deaths on a stampede
]. In Egypt, I married a woman from South Sudan and had two children. I wanted them to grow up safely.
“The authorities don’t understand that South Sudan is just a newborn country, and that it’s far from safe for us and our families”
At this point, some refugees had started crossing the border into Israel. We decided to join them and arrived in Tel Aviv in 2007. I immediately applied for refugee status. The UN office there gave me temporary papers that allowed me to work for about six months. But then the government seems to have panicked about the amount of African immigrants coming to work in Israel, because they made us go to the Ministry of the Interior, where they took away all our papers. In return, they gave us “conditional release” papers, which allowed us to stay, but not to work. Since then, I have had to survive by doing odd jobs, usually in construction. Others work in hotels, illegally. Many are homeless. My family and I have moved around from place to place; at times we’ve been able to pay the rent, but often we stay with friends. And yet, I have enjoyed my time here in Israel – I am a Christian, and so it was a dream come true to visit the Holy Land. Also, my wife and I have had two more children while in Israel, who have grown up speaking Hebrew.
There are about 700 refugees from South Sudan here in Israel [the Interior Ministry says there could be up to 1,500], including quite a few children. Many of us haven’t lived in our birth country for a long, long time and have nothing to go back to. When the government first announced they wanted to kick us out, a few months ago, we held rallies, pleaded, did everything we could to convince them not to send us back there. They didn’t want to hear any of it – they don’t understand that South Sudan is just a newborn country, and that it’s far from safe for us and our families. Because we haven’t been allowed to work, we don’t have any savings; going back to a country we barely know, where there are severe food shortages and we have no money to buy food with anyway, is a terrifying prospect. Not to mention that Sudan continues to bomb South Sudan on a regular basis
“Our hope is that Israel will give us more than just a few weeks to prepare before sending us back to a country we barely know”
However, at this point, we are giving up all hope of staying in Israel. In fact, we now want to leave – Israel has become hostile territory. Over the past weeks, there have been more and more anti-African protests in Tel Aviv. Africans are getting beaten up every day, and it’s only a matter of time before one of us gets killed. So about 80 percent of our community has resolved to leave; the remaining 20 percent hope to stay, and plan to fight their case on an individual basis. Our community leaders have contacted South Sudan’s government, which has promised us it will send us an envoy. Our hope is that they will negotiate with the Israeli government so that we get more than just a few weeks to prepare for our departure – and that Israel won’t lock us up in jails. We would also welcome monetary aid to help with our relocation. Right now, we’re drawing up a list of everyone from South Sudan living in Israel – and crossing our fingers.
My hope is that my family and I will go back to Juba [the capital of South Sudan] just long enough to obtain passports, and hopefully find a way to earn enough money to go back to Egypt, where my parents-in-law live. I have no family left to go back to in South Sudan.