by Hamed Sadindin
I am a member of a community of Sudanese refugees living in south Tel Aviv. Since 2007, I have been living in Israel, working for a living and doing everything in my power to help my people as a volunteer at the Darfur Association.
It is very important to the Sudanese community that Israelis understand us, our culture, and the circumstances that brought us here. For this reason, I decided to write this open letter to the Israeli people.
We are a group of asylum seekers, forced to flee our homeland and our families. Since 2003, Darfur has been under attack by forces allied with the Sudanese government. The Darfuri people have fallen victim to genocide, organized rape and looting and mass displacement, with millions forced to leave their homes. Since 2004, 400,000 Darfuris have been slain and 6,000 villages in the Darfur region have been burned.
To this day, almost 4 million people stagnate in refugee camps, surrounded by violence and fear and in desperate need of food and medicine. It was this situation in our homeland that drove many Darfuris to flee north, to Egypt.
But the Egyptian government received us with hostility and violence. In late 2005, Egyptian police raided a protest encampment set up by Sudanese asylum seekers across from the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo. Dozens were killed, and hundreds were left homeless and penniless. In the wake of the attack, many decided to flee north once more, this time to Israel.
The journey to Israel is not an easy one. Egyptian forces police the border with orders to shoot at African refugees. Many of those who do manage to cross the border into Israel arrived injured by bullets or having lost family members en route. We do not know how many of our people have been killed trying to cross the border.
On the Israeli side, the army carries out a policy of "hot return," turning back whomever they manage to catch. Those who are not caught in the act of crossing the border are sent to Israeli prisons, where they can stay for months on end.
Once released from prison, most refugees make their way to Tel Aviv, where they find themselves in a delicate and unstable situation. Homelessness is common, especially among people suffering from psychological trauma and injuries. Last winter, many Darfuri refugees had nowhere to spend the night, and were forced to sleep in Levinsky Park, across from the Central Bus Station.
In March 2008 our community began to organize itself, and we rented a shelter to house Sudanese refugees. The rent and bills cost us several thousand shekels a month, more than we could afford.
Although the shelter was originally meant to house only the injured and minors, we soon had about 100 people sleeping there. Over the course of the year we accommodated over 1,000 refugees, most of them only for a brief time until they managed to get on their feet and rent apartments. For most, this was their first stop in the country after being released from detention by Israeli authorities.
In September of 2008, the immigration police decided we were no longer permitted to stay in Tel Aviv. Many of us were detained. Others left Tel Aviv to seek work in Eilat. The shelter was kept open, but only the wounded and a handful of students, teenage boys who study at an ulpan in Jaffa, remained.
Since then, the shelter has filled up once again, and now houses around a hundred people. In late February of this year, we were again on the verge of closing the shelter due to lack of funds, when private individuals from the Sudanese community stepped in and offered us their support.
All that we ask from Israel is the right to work, so that we may take care of ourselves and live freely and in peace and security. The shelter is dependent on contributions from its residents for monthly rent and bills, but without work visas it is increasingly difficult to cover these expenses.
Several hundred Sudanese were granted official refugee status, and with it the right to work. Most, however, are still denied the right to work in Israel legally. This despite the fact that they are displaced refugees, and receive no support from the government.
Officially prohibited from working between Hadera and Gedera, many of us have tried to look for jobs outside of Tel Aviv, but there are few to be found. Darfuris are also forced to compete for jobs with migrant workers and other refugees, many of whom are allowed to work legally.
Unfortunately, the handful of organizations that are involved in helping us are limited in their resources and capacity to help. Also, education programs promised to us by the government have not materialized.
We are displaced people looking for peace and security. We live in Tel Aviv because it is the only place in Israel where we have access to jobs and health care. I believe that, given the right to work in Israel, we could take care of ourselves and be a benefit to the communities that we live in.
Our organization needs support. Our immediate need is for funds to cover the shelter?s rent, in order to have a place for injured people and minors to sleep.
In the longer term, all we ask is the right to live and work in Israel and take care of ourselves while we are here.
Hamed Sadindin is Director of Humanitarian Affairs of the Darfur Association/Sudan Liberation Movement Israel Branch. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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