Written by our volunteer Ben Silsbee to conclude his four month of work with a family from the Darfuree community:
In many ways it’s difficult to tell Faris and Hussein apart from any other Israeli children. They attend school taught in Hebrew, play soccer in the evenings, go on field trips to Jerusalem with their Scouting groups (Tzofim), listen to Israeli music, and think Tel Aviv is far too hot in the summertime. I met Faris and Hussein through a program of Bnai Darfur seeking to provide English lessons to Sudanese families living in Tel Aviv, and I’ve been working with them twice weekly for four months. Their English is like my Hebrew – a lot of understanding and some reading with some hesitancy when they speak. They have been taking English for quite a while, but the schools in Cairo, where they lived before coming to Israel six years ago, did not make English a high priority. They speak Arabic at home, but their Sudanese dialect is different from Palestinian Arabic and they prefer to speak Hebrew in public. The children do not know fusha, formal Arabic, and look forward to learning it in high school along with their peers.
Coming to Israel has been a mixed blessing for their family. Their parents are very glad they made it out of Egypt, where even before the current political turmoil Sudanese refugees were unwelcome at best. After three years, they fled north to Israel, hoping for safety. Yet in Israel they face many challenges. Faris and Hussein’s parents work long hours for little money, and because the State of Israel has deliberately avoided processing their status, they enjoy none of the protections normally afforded to workers, such as paid vacation, travel reimbursement, or avenues of redress. They are highly educated people; their mother tells me she studied in university before violence forced them to flee. Today, they work in restaurants.
It has been nine years since they have seen any of their other family members, who remained behind in Sudan. Muwada, their youngest sister, aged 5, has not ever met her relatives, though she has spoken to them on the phone. Faris, Hussein, Muwada, and their parents exist in a liminal state in Israel. Culturally, the children are Israeli, yet neither they nor their parents possess Israeli documents. Their residency in Israel could mean imprisonment upon their return to Sudan, a country officially hostile to the State of Israel.
Many Sudanese refugees have been deported without regard to this threat, and it is not clear that their family will not suffer the same fate. The parents are clear that they wish to return to Sudan some day, but hope to postpone that return until the violence has passed. Though several peace accords have been signed, war between tribal factions has continued unabated and shows little sign of lessening. International organizations have re-prioritized, focusing their attention elsewhere. The Israeli government continues to refuse to determine the status of many Sudanese, many of whom would most likely be considered refugees under international law, subject to legal protections and resettlement assistance.
It is easy to ignore these children, their family, and the thousands of others like them. They live in HaTikva, Neve Shaanan, and Shapira, neighborhoods most Tel Avivim never see except on the way to somewhere else. Yet to ignore them is to risk the most avoidable of tragedies; to stand idly by as these families suffer the anxiety of undocumented status and the threat of deportation in a country which does not refuse them, but rather refuses to admit that they exist at all.