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Sunday 24 June 2007

Hotel Sudan

Hotel Sudan
It was about three in the morning, there was a full moon over the Sinai
Desert, and Robert and his two young sons were about 500 meters from the
Israeli border when they made their run for it.
"The Egyptian soldiers were chasing us, shooting and shouting, 'Stop,
stop,'" recalls Robert, who fled Sudan in 1992 for Egypt, then fled
Egypt on April 1 for Israel. "I got the boys over the fence, and my
shirt got caught. They were on the other side crying for me. The
Egyptians were getting closer, and then I just jumped over that fence. I
had no choice. All of us know that if the Egyptians catch you, they kill
you, and if they don't kill you, some of them will rape you, they'll
treat you real bad."
Mary, also Sudanese, made her middle-of-the-night escape at the
beginning of May with her husband John, after spending six years in
Egypt. (For fear of endangering family members still in Egypt or Sudan,
the Sudanese in Eilat interviewed for this story insisted that their
names not be printed nor their faces photographed.) In their ragged
sprint to the border, says Mary, a Sudanese friend they'd made the trip
with from Cairo was shot to death by Egyptian soldiers.
"Our life in Egypt was no good," she says. "Because we are black, the
Arabs there don't like us, the same as in Sudan. Many Sudanese are
killed in Egypt. We heard of housekeepers from Sudan who got thrown off
balconies. Sometimes if you work for an Egyptian, he doesn't pay you and
beats you instead and threatens to send you to the police. The police
can deport you back to Sudan, and then your life is over."
Mary shows me the welts on her left arm. She explains: "Once a car
pulled up beside me in Cairo and some man got out and slashed me with a
Robert says his children - he has two younger ones still with his wife
in Cairo - used to get chased by Egyptian kids throwing stones and eggs
at them. "They laugh at you, make fun of you, call you 'black slave.'
That's how the Egyptians see us - because we're black, they think we're
their slaves."
Robert, 35, John, 36, and Mary, 31, were interviewed last Friday in the
Eilat hotels where they've been working for the last month or so, under
house arrest in the custody of their employers. (So long as they show up
for work, though, they're free to come and go as they please.) They are
among the 580 Sudanese refugees who've illegally crossed the border into
Israel since late 2004 after enduring years of racist cruelty and
brutality in Egypt, where they had first sought refuge from the civil
war, genocide and famine in their homeland.
Thus, while they are originally refugees from Sudan, they are in this
country as immediate refugees from Egypt. And despite what Israelis
commonly think, only a minority are from Darfur, the western Sudanese
region where lighter-skinned Janjaweed Arab Muslim militias are
committing genocide against black Muslims. Instead, the refugees here
are mainly black Christians and Muslims from southern Sudan who fled
that region's other lighter-skinned Arab militias, described as "the
same sort of characters as the Janjaweed" by George, an Eilat hotel
employee from southern Sudan who fled Egypt in April.
On Saturday night, a day after these interviews took place, two more
Sudanese refugees racing through the Sinai for the border were shot to
death by Egyptian soldiers, says Gal Lousky of Israeli Flying Aid, an
NGO that helps foreign refugees.
The last roughly 30-km. leg of the journey through the Sinai, which is
guided by local Beduin, involves days of waiting out the passing
Egyptian army patrols, and hours of crawling, walking and running in the
desert. Many aren't strong enough to survive. "Some refugees told us
about places along the route where it was difficult to pass because of
the stench from the corpses lying on the sand," says Sigal Rozen of the
Hot Line for Migrant Workers.
Last Saturday night, although two Sudanese were shot to death, others
made it safely into Israel, notes Lousky. Like their countrymen who
preceded them, these survivors waited for IDF soldiers to arrest them.
(Soldiers ordinarily make these arrests not only peacefully but
helpfully, although once, in March of last year, a soldier killed a
refugee, mistakenly believing he presented a threat, says Rozen.)
Chances are pretty good that these newest arrivals won't have to sit in
jails like many other Sudanese did and still do, and instead will soon
be living in Eilat and working in the hotels as part of their house
arrest - which they consider to be paradise compared to the life they'd
THE ABSORPTION of many Sudanese as janitors and housekeepers in Eilat
hotels marks the biggest improvement yet in the country's handling of
the refugees; ever since they started arriving about three years ago,
the authorities haven't really known what to do with them.
For the first year after their arrival, all the refugees were held in
jails except for mothers with small children, who were placed in women's
shelters. The state's argument was that they were all illegal
"infiltrators" from an enemy country - Sudan. The Shin Bet (Israel
Security Agency) argued further that since they came through the Sinai,
which is thick with al-Qaida operatives, they also presented a potential
terrorist threat - even though not one shred of evidence of involvement
in terror was ever found against any of the refugees.
"They're really generous, warm people," says Dina Cohen, social worker
at Eilat's Isrotel chain, which employs more than 90 of them while
caring for the 16 children they brought with them. "They're very
industrious," adds David Blum, Isrotel's head of human resources.
A year or so after the first refugees' arrival, a few teenage boys were
released from jail to kibbutzim. However, the refugees' situation only
changed substantially for the better after the Supreme Court ruled last
year that every one of them was entitled to a hearing before a legal
authority to try to win release from prison. A legal authority was
appointed and he went to the prisons where the refugees were held -
Ketziot, Ma'asiyahu, Ramon, Nafha and Shikma - to hear the appeals. The
result is that all of those early refugees who spent a year or more in
prison have by now been released and given over to the custody of Eilat
hotels - Club, Herod's and the Fattal and Isrotel chains - or to Negev
kibbutzim and moshavim.
Of the 580 Sudanese now here, 110 are in prison, with some there for
nearly a year, says Michael Bavly, local representative of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since April, when the
Eilat hotels, with the IDF's consent, began to take custody of the
refugees - "for both business and humanitarian reasons," explains Blum -
the new refugees crossing the border every month are now usually
transferred to the hotels within a few days.
"The ones who come to us straight from the border arrive with nothing,"
says Blum. "Two days ago we got this man - two meters tall and
barefoot." Between the newcomers and the "veteran" refugees released
from prison, about 200 Sudanese are now working in Eilat, with more on
the way. "We have a terrible shortage of hotel employees in the city,"
he notes.
Some of those arrested at the border, though, are still being sent to
jail. Asked what determines a refugee's destination, Bavly replies: "I
can't explain it. I don't see any consistency to the policy." Rozen,
however, says a refugee's immediate fate "often depends on whether the
jails are full on a particular night or not."
Still, the big question is what to do in the long run about the refugees
who've come here from Egypt - and about the unknowable number of others
planning to risk the journey in the future.
IT IS a very difficult question. The country's leading Holocaust
scholar, Yehuda Bauer, and Yad Vashem director-general Avner Shalev are
among those who have called for these refugees from catastrophe to be
granted citizenship. Rozen points to the 1977 precedent of Menachem
Begin's granting of citizenship to 66 Vietnamese boat people.
But there are an estimated 3.5 million Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Asked
how many would like to come here, Lousky of Israeli Flying Aid replies:
"All of them. Their life in Egypt is terrible." She notes that a cottage
industry has sprung up in Cairo with agencies transporting refugees by
van to El Arish in Sinai, where they are picked up by local Beduin who
guide them to the border across the sands by night. "The going rate is
$300 per refugee," says Lousky.
Blum hopes that at least many of those already here will be allowed to
stay, but he agrees that the country has to be very careful about the
message it sends to those still in Egypt. "Our workers talk to their
families in Cairo on the phone and tell them it's like the Garden of
Eden here, and the news travels very fast. If we grant citizenship to
whoever wants it, one day we could wake up with a crowd of 3,000
Sudanese waiting at our border. What do we tell our soldiers to do?" he
Rozen, however, says these fears are exaggerated, insisting that the
cost, hardship and danger of crossing the Sinai are prohibitive for all
but relatively few refugees.
Since the Sudanese first began arriving, Israel has asked the US,
Australia and other Western countries to grant them political asylum -
with no success. Led by the US and Australia, Western nations have
granted asylum to about 50,000 in recent years, and Rozen says their
response to Israel's request is: "We're already giving asylum to tens of
thousands, why can't Israel give asylum to a few hundred?"
Israel has promised not to deport the refugees back to Egypt because
Egypt has been known to deport them to Sudan, which can be a death
sentence. At any rate, says Bavly, Egypt "hasn't shown any interest in
taking them." What the refugees want is political asylum - either from
Israel or a Western country - so they can start new lives without having
to worry about being jailed or deported or otherwise persecuted.
George, who fled to Egypt six years ago at 15, and crossed the border in
April, says: "If Israel gives me asylum and allows me to go to school
here, then I'd like to stay. Israel is one of the best countries there
is. But if I can't stay here and study, then I want to go somewhere
else. All of us are young; we want to do something with our lives. How
many more years will I have to study?"
This drive for education is common among the refugees mopping floors and
making beds at Isrotel, says Blum. When they were invited to choose from
the used clothing, household goods, toys and other belongings donated to
them by the staff, he says, "The first thing they chose were the books
in English."
DURING MY interviews with six refugees in Eilat - five of whom spoke
broken English, the other speaking Arabic through a Sudanese translator
- only George broke down in sobs while describing scenes from his past.
Dina Cohen, the social worker, says that as far as she's seen, "they
haven't shown signs of psychological suffering, but I'm sure they will
later. For now, they're still caught up in the culture shock of being in
But whether they show it or not, these people have been battered or
traumatized by their experiences - worst by far being what they went
through in Sudan, but also what they endured in Egypt.
Recalls Robert: "I had buckets of dirty water thrown on me by Egyptians
from their balconies. People called me 'slave,' and I kept it all inside
because if you make a scene, they'll call the police on you and then
you're in real trouble. I didn't want my children to have to go on
living with that, being chased and called names all the time."
Robert says he had to leave his wife and two younger children in Cairo
because after borrowing money from a friend in the US and selling what
he could, he still only had enough money to take his two older boys
across the border. "I don't know what's going to happen to my family
back in Cairo."
I asked an official at the Egyptian Embassy if anyone there would
explain why Egyptian soldiers shoot refugees trying to flee the country
or respond to the accusations of systemic racist abuse of Sudanese in
Egypt. He said he would pass the request on, but he doubted there would
be a reply because "we are here in Israel, and these matters are handled
by the authorities in Egypt."
However bad it was for the refugees in Egypt, their memories from
southern Sudan are another matter entirely. Mary, sitting in the
functionally furnished room in an Eilat high-rise she shares with her
husband, says she "ran with many other people" from her village one day
in 1990, "because of the war between the Arabic people and the people
from southern Sudan. Everybody saw the Arabs' guns and started running
in different directions. There were bombs. There was fire. You know - war."
Her father survived, but she doesn't know what happened to her seven
brothers and sisters. "My mother died in the war. We were there." Her
ordinarily animated expression becomes slack. I ask if she saw her
mother get killed. "Yeah. I saw."
Like other refugees in Cairo who have gone to the UN office for asylum
papers - and where, in December 2005, Egyptian police killed at least 27
of them in a crowd protesting the UN's endless delays - Mary has a
letter detailing why she fled Sudan. In faulty English (corrected
below), it describes what happened to her at the end of 2002, when she
was a street vendor in Khartoum, the capital.
"Three men in plain clothes came to my door one night. They searched my
room, blindfolded me and accused me of being an informer for the
Sudanese People's Liberation Army rebels. I denied these false
accusations, but they didn't listen to me. I was taken into another room
and tortured. They poured cold water over my body and whipped me all
over until I collapsed. They put me in a cell for seven days, giving me
little food and water and refusing to let me go to the toilet for hours
on end.
"When they released me, they ordered me to report to the police station
every Monday morning with names and addresses of rebel spies. I didn't
know the rebels, so I knew I couldn't do what they ordered. So on
January 2, 2003, I took a train to the Egyptian border, then a ship to
Aswan and then a bus to Cairo. I believe that if I go back to my country
of citizenship, I will be arrested and killed because I violated the
conditions of my release. I don't think the present authorities will
protect me because they are part of the same government that was in
power when I escaped."
AFTER WHAT they went through in Sudan and Egypt, the refugees are almost
glowing with gratitude toward Israel and the way Israelis have treated
them, beginning with the soldiers who arrest them after they cross the
Recalls Robert, who was arrested with his two sons: "The Israeli
soldiers started talking to us in Arabic, and I thought we were dead.
But then they smiled at us, and gave us food, water and blankets. They
took us to some army base so we could shower and sleep."
Mary says she was shocked that the soldiers didn't point their guns at
her. Her husband John, who is very quiet during the interview, grins
widely and gives the thumbs-up sign at my mention of Israeli soldiers.
"They are good people," he says.
Even George, who sat in jail for 11 months before being released to go
to work in Eilat, doesn't seem to hold any grudges. "Look, jail is jail,
but I can't say the Israelis there were bad to us. We had no problems,
all the police were very nice to us. Ramon [Prison] was the best - Dudu
was a very nice guy. They had a very nice social welfare lady, Galit.
Really nice people. No one hits you. I've been in different jails, and
the ones in Israel are the best."
It's clear they're also being treated extremely well at the Eilat
hotels. "Fantastic," is how Sigal Rozen of Hot Line for Migrant Workers
describes the arrangement. "I only wish all Israeli employees were
getting the salary and benefits they're getting," says Gal Lousky of
Israeli Flying Aid.
The salary they get from Isrotel, says Blum, is NIS 4,000 a month for a
40-hour workweek, slightly higher than the minimum wage. "But they're
very eager to work, and with overtime and Shabbat they can make NIS
5,000 or NIS 6,000," he says, adding that they also get health insurance
and other standard employee's benefits "just like any of our other
Everyone is examined by doctors and treated if necessary; the children
are inoculated; each adult gets NIS 300 pocket money and a free monthly
bus pass; and everyone receives toiletries, donated clothing, three free
meals a day at the hotels and an apartment that costs them about NIS 600
monthly rent. Isrotel has set up a nursery and kindergarten for the
children, while the two oldest kids have been enrolled at Eilat's Etzion
Gever Elementary School. A Hebrew ulpan is in the works. "The goal is
for them to become fully independent," says social worker Dina Cohen.
While they're all working as janitors and house cleaners in this, their
first or second month at work, Blum says that as they gain experience,
they'll be eligible for higher-paying jobs such as waiters.
"The Israelis have done something good for us. For the rest of our
lives, we will not forget this," says Mary.
On Monday, the subject of what to do about the refugees was discussed in
a meeting convened by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with people from
various government ministries and the IDF. No policy was decided on, but
Interior Minister Roni Bar-On was told to report back with proposals for
how to ensure decent treatment for the Sudanese here without signaling
an open-door policy to those in Egypt.
For them, Israel is the promised land. But it can't be said that getting
to Israel is the happy ending to their story.
George is sitting in an office at the King Solomon Hotel, dressed in the
hotel janitor's uniform of white polo shirt and khaki slacks. He says
the Arab militias invaded his village in southern Sudan about 4 a.m. one
day in 1998. He was 13 and living with his parents, four brothers and
four sisters.
"They came on horseback, large numbers of them. They killed all the
adults and the young children. I saw them come into our house and rape
my sister. My mother heard her crying and she came into the room, and
they killed my mother and my sister in front of me. I don't know what
happened to the rest of my family. They kidnapped the older children in
the village to work for Arab farmers. They beat me and blindfolded me
and made us walk. I don't know how many days, I had no sense of time.
"We were put on a train and when it stopped, a man told me to get into
his car and he drove me to a big house with a farm. The owner's name was
Muhammad Suleiman. Later I learned that he was a very powerful man in
the government. The first thing he told me was: 'You are a black boy and
you are now my slave.' I was there for two years."
To life stories such as these people have to tell, there really is no
happy ending.


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