encounter with sudanese refugees
Over the last generation, Israel -- founded as a refuge for the Jewish people -- has also served as a haven for thousands of Sudanese fleeing the conflict in Sudan. After spending years in Egypt, further turmoil led the Sudanese to cross the Sinai desert by foot into Israel – a journey that brings visions of the biblical exodus. Yet their lives have not become easier since their arrival, due in part to the fact that Sudan and Israel are technically enemy states. Many were initially detained, and some were returned to Egypt and Sudan. Even those allowed to remain have not had an easy experience.
In Eliot, near the southern tip of Israel, a number of families are struggling to get by. Aid organizations, including the United Nations and local governmental organizations, provide assistance, but the children of these refugees have received little attention. This is where the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies comes in. Students from the institute, which comprises Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Americans, and others, are working with NGOs to give these children an education and a better life.
Early this semester, the students, including myself, met with a Sudanese community leader in his home well outside the tourist area of Eliot. Though the house is small, it doubles as a community center, where Sudanese children and adults can learn English and Hebrew. The children also have a school by a nearby kibbutz which is funded by local hotels. We discussed building an after-school program for the children that would combine the unique skills of the Arava Institute students with the needs of the community.
Gaining community support in the early stages was challenging, yet we managed to start right away and have built a strong base. Each session we are reminded of the value of our efforts. It is remarkable to look into the eyes of a smiling child who needs so much and has so little, but is yearning for a chance to play.
Before one session, for example, there was a miscommunication with our contact about where to meet the children. At first we thought that unfortunately no program would occur that day, but our drive was not so easily perturbed. Heading to the bare apartment space where the families live, we knocked on doors and eventually got a group of more than a dozen smiling boys and girls of all ages eager to share some time with us. We took over the playground in front of the complex with its packed earthen floors, sparse play equipment, and unkempt flora. The children brought the moment to life. The boys ran about, chasing a soccer ball, while the girls joined a counting and drawing game. The energy levels jumped when we brought out fruit and sandwiches, which they happily snatched right up. Even with a crisp and windy afternoon, smiles were abundant and the playfulness never stopped.
It was also a time for learning. A few of us taught English and basic math to individual children, a challenge given that Hebrew and Arabic were their main languages. Helped by a few native speakers, I used my broken Hebrew to ask a girl if she would like to learn English. “Yes,” she said with a smile. We spent the next 30 minutes learning the alphabet and basic words; I smiled when I noticed that her block letters soon rivaled the quality of my own.
The gem of the afternoon occurred as we were standing in a circle toward the beginning of the session, learning each others’ names. A curious Israeli boy the same age as the Sudanese discovered us while he was walking home from school. At first he was hesitant, but after a little encouragement he joined in with the other children. Our new guest and the other children could not have appeared more different, but the genuine sharing between them showed that our differences are truly only skin deep.
Projects such as these are only a beginning, but they are an important sign of hope for the future. If college students from all over the world can come together to help the children of refugees, then there is a chance. If a well-off Israeli boy can fit right in with Sudanese refugees of his own age, then a dream is possible. The process has surely begun.