An unlikely refuge
Hundreds of Muslims who have fled Darfur are rebuilding their lives in Israel
"Even though we're Muslim, the Islamic world has done nothing to protect us", said Yassin, a refugee whose tortured flight from Darfur finally brought him to Israel three years ago. He was one of the first Darfurians to make it into Israel across the border from Egypt, and has dedicated his life to helping hundreds of his fellow countrymen who have made the same perilous journey.
Yassin, a genial 30-year-old former architect, is now director of Bnei Darfur [Sons of Darfur], an organisation which assists Sudanese refugees to integrate into Israeli society, and which last week was finally granted non-profit status by the Israeli government. Sitting in his office in downtown Tel Aviv, Yassin painted a harrowing picture of the way in which Darfurian refugees are mistreated by the uncaring and unsympathetic authorities in Egypt, which is the first port of call of many fleeing the violence in Sudan.
Darfuri children are scared to set foot outside in Egypt for fear of attack, Yassin said, citing the slaying of dozens of refugees after a protest outside the UNHCR headquarters in 2005. "It's not that Egypt doesn't look after refugees in general," he said, "after all, they treat the Somalians very well. However, when it comes to us, they are different. It's racism [that motivates the Egyptian mistreatment]."
It doesn't help that the Darfurians are accusing fellow Muslims of genocide, said Yassin, noting that the Muslim states who support the Sudanese government in turn claim that the refugees are collaborating with enemy states in the West. "All of the Arab countries support the government of Sudan - our problem is with the Arab League," Yassin stated with a shake of his head at his people's plight. Having watched most of his family slaughtered in a militia attack on his village, he fled the region hoping to find shelter in Egypt, but was soon forced to move on.
After the cold and often violent reception the refugees received at the hands of the Egyptians, Yassin decided that things couldn't be worse on the Israeli side of the border - despite the anti-Israeli indoctrination he'd been spoon-fed when growing up in Sudan. "The government controlled all of the media back home," he said. "The television stations, the radio, the newspapers... and all of them were very hostile towards Israel. They described it as an enemy state full of killers, and the cause of all of the world's problems."
He smiled at the irony of Israel turning out to be the first country where he and his fellow refugees could finally find sanctuary - although it was hardly plain sailing at first. "When the army picked me up, I spent five days on their base in a tiny room with five Egyptian men. The conditions were awful, and one of the judges was very cruel, threatening to deport me back to Egypt. She told me that I was I wasn't welcome in Israel because I was from an 'enemy country' - but in the end I was transferred to a larger prison in the south."
He spent 14 months in jail, where he banded together with other Darfurian refugees and founded an informal support group to assist one another, teaching English, Arabic and Hebrew to those who required educating. After a few months, the Israeli press started picking up the story of the refugee crisis, and soon several NGOs and welfare organisations began campaigning for their release. The UN got involved, and eventually many of the refugees were let out of jail and sent to work on local kibbutzim.
However, once free they faced large-scale exploitation by employers who took advantage of their lack of proper permits and rights, forcing them to work for a pittance and in dreadful conditions. Again, intervention from the UN and local NGOs caused a change of heart on the part of the government, who granted 600 of the 750 refugees with 'A5' temporary residency status, with the remainder receiving protection as asylum seekers.
And the rest is recent history. Yassin and his friends formed Bnei Darfur, and have been stunningly successful in their mission to create a self-sufficient community "that isn't a drain on Israeli society". Every one of the refugees has a job, a house, and access to medical care - "the only ones without jobs are the ones who've just arrived, and we soon take care of them", he said. The children have been found places at Israeli schools, where they learn Hebrew and befriend their locally-born peers, and the future appears bright for those who have managed to make it into Israel.
Many Israelis took up the Darfurians' cause on the basis that Jews have been denied refuge by indifferent countries throughout history, and that Israeli Jews should remember their own troubled past when dealing with the victims of today. However, whilst the way in which Israel (eventually) received the refugees is to be admired, there is of course the accusation of double standards to be dealt with regarding Palestinian refugees being denied the chance to relocate to the Promised Land.
But the unresolved issue of the Palestinian right of return is not something Yassin wished to be drawn on. As far as he's concerned, Israel has provided for his people in a way that no Arab country would - and for that he's eternally grateful. And in terms of Israel's image in the eyes of the refugees as well as the outside world, accepting the unwanted Darfurians was both an astute and an admirable move to make.