Israel’s Got Its Own Refugee Dilemma: African ‘Dreamers’
Posted April 24, 2018 7:51 p.m. EDT
TEL AVIV, Israel — It’s been obvious to me for some time that the Israeli-Arab conflict is to wider global geopolitical trends what off-Broadway is to Broadway. If you want a hint of what’s coming to a geopolitical theater near you, study this region. You can see it all here in miniature. That certainly applies to what’s becoming the most destabilizing and morally wrenching geopolitical divide on the planet today — the divide between what I call the “World of Order” and the “World of Disorder.”
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And Israel is right on the seam — which is why the last major fence Israel built was not to keep West Bank Palestinians from crossing into Israel but to keep more Africans from walking from their homes in Africa, across the Sinai Desert, into Israel.
So many new nations that were created in the last century are failing or falling apart under the stresses of population explosions, climate change, corruption, tribalism and unemployment. As these states deteriorate, they’re hemorrhaging millions of people — more refugees and migrants are on the road today than at any other time since World War II — people trying to get out of the violent and unstable World of Disorder and into the World of Order.
The Broadway versions are the vast number of migrants from failing states in Central America trying to get into the United States and from the Arab world and Africa trying to get into Europe. The off-Broadway version is playing out in Israel, to which, since 2012, roughly 60,000 Africans from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia have trekked — not to find kosher food, al-Aqsa Mosque or the Via Dolorosa, but stability and a job.
Their presence poses a huge ethical dilemma for a Jewish state, a nation of refugees. Many Israelis on the right believe there is no place — culturally, religiously or financially — for these Africans. Other Israelis believe it a moral imperative to let them stay. Sound familiar?
Israel has persuaded about 20,000 of the Africans who came to take $3,500 and one-way air tickets back to an African state, but about 40,000 are still here — where their kids are growing up speaking Hebrew. Israel is the only home they know: Israel’s “Dreamers.”
Most of the African refugees live in low-rent districts, like South Tel Aviv, where, if you walk the streets today, you’ll hear enough African languages spoken and see enough women in colorful African dresses to make you wonder if you’re in Khartoum, not the Jewish state.
I was curious to understand how people got here from Darfur, in Western Sudan. To answer that question, Israel’s Reut think tank got me together with Taj Haroun, 29, a Darfur refugee who traveled that path and is now one of the leaders of Israel’s Darfur community.
“I was born in Darfur in a small village, and when the war broke out there in 2003, if you didn’t run you got killed,” Haroun began. His family eventually found its way to a camp for internally displaced persons in Sudan, “but that also became too dangerous, so my mom sent me to live with her sister in Khartoum to be safe.” Haroun said his mom had to sell the family’s dishes to get the money for him to travel.He was 17 at the time. In 2007, he obtained a legal Sudanese passport and made his way to Cairo.
After getting into Egypt on a tourist visa, he overstayed, slipping out of Cairo and working in the countryside as a guard. He eventually registered at a church school to advance his education. “I wanted to have a future,” he said.
It was around this time, Haroun recalled, “I heard about Dafuris who had gone to Israel and were safe and protected and were not being deported back to Sudan. When I heard that I said, ‘That is my place.'” Did he know anything about Israel? “Only that it was safe,” Haroun said.
So how did he get here? On Feb. 4, 2008, he explained, he joined a group of Darfur refugees in Cairo who had hired a Bedouin — at $300 a person — to take them across Sinai and smuggle them into Israel. He actually didn’t have the $300, but because the six others could pay, “the Bedouin took me for free,” said Haroun. “We first got in a car in Cairo that took us to a farm near Ismailia.”
After 10 days there, he added, the Bedouin came with a truck with sand in the back, he dug a hole in it and put his passengers in it, covered it with a tarp, and that way got them past the Egyptian army checkpoints and nearer the border.
“Then they put us in a pickup and tied us together because they were driving very fast,” Haroun continued. “When we got to the border there was an Egyptian fence you had to climb, a road and then an Israeli fence. He told us to run and don’t look back. So we ran into Israel, and the Egyptians were shooting at us the whole time. It was like Darfur.”
Once safely inside Israel they were picked up by an Israeli army patrol, transferred to Tel Aviv, linked up with the Darfuri community there and applied for political asylum. But he and others are in limbo: The Israeli government won’t give them asylum and permanent residency, but many Israelis don’t want to evict them. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked out a deal with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that would have enabled 16,250 of these African migrants in Israel to be resettled in “developed” Western countries and a similar number to be given temporary residency in Israel.
But after some of his right-wing Likud party colleagues boisterously objected to any Africans staying, Netanyahu panicked, canceled the deal and then — crazily and despicably — blamed the New Israel Fund, a small liberal, U.S.-based group that supports social programs in Israel, for scuttling the deal.
Because he spoke Arabic, Haroun quickly picked up Hebrew and worked in manual labor jobs, but every two months he has to renew his temporary visa while the government looks for new ways to get him and other Darfuris to leave.
While in this limbo, Haroun earned a B.A. and an M.A. in political science and communications from Israeli universities, with his tuition paid by a New York-based philanthropist, Joey Low, himself the son of Holocaust-era refugees, an investor in Israel and an opponent of forced deportations. “You can’t do something like this in the name of Jews and Israel,” Low told The Times of Israel.
“The Israeli people are super welcoming,” said Haroun. “I have been invited for Shabbat dinners and the weddings of friends. They are giving us opportunities and fighting for our rights. But the government is working hard to push us out.” Haroun said he and his friends were trying to explain to Israel’s government and business community what an asset they could be: “Israel has a lot of companies working all over Africa. We could be their ambassadors and representatives.” Why not? They speak Hebrew, know Israel and know Africa. “We are normal people,” he added, “with dreams like everybody else’s dreams — to have your family safe and be able to contribute to your society.”
What Haroun’s story underscores in miniature is the excruciating moral dilemma that countries in the World of Order are going to be facing in the coming years, because this World of Disorder will continue to widen, and the old clear-cut distinctions — between people seeking political asylum from tyranny, employment or escape from environmental disasters — are over. They’ll be jumbled as economic and climate stresses combine with tribalism to create civil strife in more and more countries, making more and more people desperate to get to any island of order.
How can Israel turn them away? But how can Israel take them all, which will only invite more, and the supply is now endless? That’s what’s playing off-Broadway. And unless the World of Order comes up with a collective strategy to help stabilize the World of Disorder — not just build walls — this play will have a long, wide run.
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