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A Refugee Again: Story of a South Sudanese-Israeli

This post features the story of a South Sudanese refugee who entered Israel as a teen, was jailed, released by the Hotline and lived in Israel for a few years until he returned to his homeland after it gained independence. Recently, due to the civil war in South Sudan, he returned to Israel for a brief period, during which he shared with us what he experienced there.

I’m from South Sudan, but the war in South Sudan [the Second Sudanese Civil War, 1983-2005] pushed me to Khartoum, the capital of northern Sudan. The treatment of South Sudanese, even children, was bad. In our church, there was someone who helps people escape. I contacted him and he helped me get documents to reach Egypt. I arrived to Egypt when I was 15. My parents stayed in Sudan. In Egypt, I worked in several places. I was there for about 18 months. The situation was bad in Egypt – they persecuted us and we had many problems. I didn’t plan on coming to Israel. I wanted to reach Libya and from there to Europe, but I didn’t succeed. Then I heard from someone that one can reach Israel. I didn’t hear much about Israel before and I thought there are only wars there.

When I entered Israel I was almost 17. I was detained at the border and sent to Saharonim prison where I spent a year [without being charged with a crime]. I was detained with people older than me. Every few months they would transfer us from one ward to another. They didn’t not abuse us or anything, but a prison is a prison… it’s never good. We lived in large tents with no contact to the outside world. There were no phones and no possibility to find out what’s happening with our families or when we’ll be released from there.

Activists from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants visited us every week and gave us updates about out situation. They explained that the judge at the Tribunal in prison is willing to release me to a school, but that they haven’t found a school willing to accept me yet. The judge refused to release me to work because I’m a minor still. I couldn’t understand why they won’t release me to work. In prison, I worked with the Israelis detained there in construction for eight hours every day. I received NIS 80 (about $20 at the time) per month for my work.

When I reached the age of 18, the judge released me to an detention alternative in the village of Ein Yahav. I worked there with other Sudanese picking cherry tomatoes. It was okay there. they gave every four people a room there. We worked from 3AM until 5PM each day. We were not allowed to leave the village. After a while there, it was hard for me to just work and sleep and I wanted a place that isn’t closed. I asked the activists at the Hotline to move to Eilat. They contacted the Tribunal judge again and also found me a job at a hotel in Eilat. I cleaned rooms and lived in housing provided at the hotel. After work I could go to the sea.

Later I got to know people who lived in Tel Aviv and I wanted to live where the community is. I move to Tel Aviv with friends and started establishing businesses. We had a pub. It was okay at first but very quickly we started having problems because we received a visa that stated that we’re not allowed to stay between Hadera and Gadera [a policy in place between February 2008 until late July 2009 that forbade asylum-seekers from setting foot in central Israel].The immigration people told us we’re not allowed to continue living in Tel Aviv. I didn’t want to leave [Tel Aviv] so they arrested me. I met the same judge who released me from Saharonim prison. He was angry that they arrested me again and decided to release me.

[The decision of the Judge stated:
“I think the detainee was wronged as there is no real basis for arresting and placing him in detention in the aforementioned circumstances. The detainee spent a long time in the detention alternative set for him. After over a year, when it was clear that there is no way to deport the detainee or to transfer him to a third country, the detainee is eligible not to be bound to a certain employer or to a certain living area, and his release should not be conditioned on his promise not to return to Tel Aviv. Therefore, I am ordering the immediate and unconditional release of the detainee – The Hotline]

I kept working in Tel Aviv but it was still very difficult. When I heard that South Sudan became independent I was very excited. Even if we were safe in Israel, we were always worried. We never knew what they will do with us tomorrow. We only work and worry. We also worried about our families back home. I was in touch with them sometimes but not all the time.

I decided to return to South Sudan because I wanted to help building the new beginning. I felt that I’m at home again and that I no longer need to worry. I started businesses there too – I imported equipment from Dubai and started a restaurant and little buy little, I reached a comfortable situation that I couldn’t even dream of here. It was exciting being with the family again too.

But pretty quickly, all sorts of politicians began talking. We didn’t think there was going to be a war again. I think they too didn’t know what is about to happen.

I remember that is started in mid-December 2013. We heard shots one evening. We thought it was a one-time thing, that it’s just a noise, but it didn’t stop. An hour passed and then another and the shots continued. We went to sleep and at 6:30 AM the sound of gunshots began again. No one knew what was going on. My parents came in my direction and my father asked that I bring something from his house and that we return to my place together, because my house was further away from the gunshots. Even before I managed to get to his house, I passed by his neighbor’s house, whose door was open. The neighbor had six children and when I stood at the front door I saw their six bodies. All of them were murdered. I returned home frightened and told my parents that the must flee. They went to live with a relative who lives further away. I preferred to stay in the meantime to keep watch over our houses. We heard that soldiers are going into homes of those who escape and take everything.

I stayed with two other friends. That night we watched TV and I remember that the President said that this is a group of rebels who are trying to take power by force, and that they’re moving around but we will catch them. I thought about it later – the fact that he said this maybe brought about the problems later. Thing became worse. The shootings persisted in villages near homes. More and more people died. There were always bodies on the streets. Bodies everywhere. You cannot help anyone and everyone just wants to escape. The soldiers of the government kept looking for people who are Nuer because the rebels were from that tribe, and they would inspect houses. I am Nuer too, but thankfully they didn’t check my house.

My friends and I decided to escape to a refugee camp of the UN in Juba. My family stayed with the relative in the meantime. All the Nuer who were in danger went to the UN. We were there for a few days. We knew they don’t let people board flights, but I managed to purchase a ticket through the manager of Ethiopian Airlines. I went to Ethiopia. I did a visa of a businessman and that’s how I entered Israel. My family preferred to stay there so I left alone again. They say: “we were born here so we will die here.”

I came to Israel for business but also because I miss Israel. It’s true that it’s hard everywhere, but when I was here, I saw more good things than bad. But now it’s very different here compared to how it was when I lived here. Even if they had offered me the possibility of staying, I wouldn’t have wanted to. The people, Israelis, are acting differently. They used to treat us okay and when I walked around in the streets, I didn’t feel that I was stared at for being black, as they did in Egypt, and they didn’t harm me here. But now in Israel, it’s like in Egypt. A little while ago I was in the streets and an Israeli on a motorcycle stopped by me, lifted his helmet, spat at me and fled. He didn’t manage to get far and he fell off the motorcycle before a street light. People began helping him and I approached him and asked ‘why did you spit on me?’. He didn’t say anything. Now it’s not longer comfortable walking around here. I don’t feel safe.

I have an Israeli friend who invited me to dine with him at a restaurant. When I lived in Israel three of four years ago, we would eat outside together a lot and everything was okay. Now when he dined with me, his friends came by asking: “Are you crazy? Why are you with a Sudanese? What are you doing?”

I will go back to Ethiopia and attempt to rebuild my life again. I cannot return to South Sudan. I will wait until the war is over. I’d like South Sudan to be a normal and quiet place to live in. The situation was bad for a long time, and then when it just got good, it got worse all over again. If it was good there, I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.