by Salim Essaid
Amani is 39, a father of two young girls, and has not had a place to call home for the past eight years.
He is not homeless, but a Sudanese refugee from Geneina in Sudan’s west Darfur. A place that has been drowned in a civil war between rebel groups, the government, and between tribes.
With hundreds of thousands killed and more than 2.6 million having fled their homes since the conflict erupted in 2003, the United Nations (U.N.) described the region where Amani is from as having one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2009 for crimes against humanity, and a second one in 2010 for genocide against his own people.
Many internally displaced Darfurians are living in camps, but Amani was able to leave in 2010 with the hope of finding a safe place to call home in a new and welcoming country. Eight years later he is still on this journey.
Today he lives in Amman with his three and eight-year-old daughters. Amani sat down with Al Bawaba to discuss his arduous journey.
He spoke to us in Arabic and chose not to use his real name, so we will refer to him as Amani throughout this interview.
Why did you feel that you needed to leave your home in Geneina, in Darfur, Sudan?
“Life in Darfur was very very difficult. It was… life was beautiful. But after the national government arrived... life turned from bad to worse. The people of the city, from the country, many of them were killed and most people left Darfur.
Most of them that were living in their country are now refugees. About 65% of them became refugees, outside of the country.”
How did life become that bad in Darfur? Can you describe what happened?
“This is of course a plan from the Sudanese government, so they brought militias from outside of Sudan, from Niger, from Chad to rent them. They gave them money, business, in order to change Darfur from this name to another name.
They want to move the original residents of Darfur so that they can replace them, to change the residents of Darfur with another people.”
Amani studied English language, yet he still couldn't find employment. Describing the job hunt in Darfur, Amani said the first question he would be asked was "what tribe are you from?" And that was the main factor to getting a job or not. As a result he wasn't able to find work. And in order to support his wife and new baby daughter, he had to leave them and the only home he's evern known in Darfur.
Why did you decide to leave Darfur and Sudan altogether?
"When I left from university I faced a number of challenges and you would never work because when you come it shows that you are from Darfur. You are from there and it shows, the first thing they ask, to which tribe are you related to?
They classify you and it prevents you from being employed, so this was one of the challenges. In addition to that if you speak the truth about the problems that happen in Darfur the government takes you and puts you in prison.
So this made me need to leave this country and find a place a little safer to be able to breathe."
You’ve had a long journey before arriving here in Jordan, can you describe the journey you took?
“I went from Sudan to Egypt, from the Sinai desert to Israel. [...] At first I didn’t want to go to Israel, I was looking for a place for me to work because I faced a number of challenges in Sudan from the militias of the government[...].
So I moved to Egypt and found that there were even more things that were harassing, also because there were security forces from the (Sudanese) government also there I found that Egypt doesn’t have the right situation for us, so I thought to go to the sea but the idea of Israel was closer.
Maybe it’s easier for me to die in the desert. Maybe if they find you they will take you but if you die in the water no one might find you. So I went to the desert and thank God I went to Israel."
Amani goes on to describe his harrowing trek from Sudan to Israel that started in 2010
“It was an adventure. The adventure from Egypt to Israel was very difficult also. We came to the desert and they hosted us, the bedouins that were there in Sinai and we spent with them about three days. And after that they took us to the border and told us over there is Israel. You climb over the wire and you’ll arrive there.
The entrance was very difficult because they were shooting at us with ammunition, the Egyptian border patrol, and let me tell you we were running until we climbed the wires from the Egyptian side and we entered thank God.
(Salim: So the Egyptian border militias were shooting at you?)
They shot with guns and the time was night and in the mountains. So we didn’t know, we were climbing the mountain, having come from the top of the mountain and they don’t see you and they just shoot the ammunition so that you don’t cross the wire. That is the goal. They don’t hit you on the Israeli side [...]. So they shoot in your direction so that you don’t cross but we crossed right away of course.
(Salim: Did they know what country or where you were fleeing from?)
No, no. They just hear a noise if they saw you of course they’d shoot you. They just hear a noise and see that there are men, people running, and they shoot.
(Salim: Did you know where in Sinai you were exactly?)
They brought us at night to a room and that room was so small where even in the afternoon, for three days were weren’t allowed to leave even 10 meters we weren’t allowed. You have to stay here in the same place and your food and drink, they bring there until you leave. They brought us in at night and they took us out at night.
In Egypt there are a large number of smugglers (of the world), you can say, they’re available in Egypt. When you first come they tell you that there are people that move people, that guide you along the way and all that.
So we found that one of the Egyptian bedouins said, you are Sudanese? There are bedouins that will guide you. This bedouin that we met, we took the way of the Sweis and then we found that there were other bedouins from Sinai, in their cars and they had their guns to withstand the Egyptian police and right away they took us with their cars to reach to the border.
So they delivered us to other bedouins. (And they said) those bedouins will arrange for you what time you wake up and and when you make the move to Israel.
(Salim: How much did this cost you?)
It was negotiable, some were paying $1000 some paid $500. I paid $600.”
Amani spent all his money to pay his guides, which left him without enough money to buy shoes. He trekked for more than a month and a half, through the winter, the desert and mountains — barefoot.
“Of course on foot. After we entered Israel and we were walking barefoot on the mountains , you can’t be without shoes. So for some people it was very harsh, so also even after they found us…. the Israeli police they met us and said welcome in Israel.
After they took us in the jeep to… a small camp in the market. So I spent with them the span of a day and they took us to medical for a medical examination and they met/took us into the city.”
What did going through that experience feel like? What state of mind does going through something like that leave you in?
“To be honest, a person finds death in front of them. I ran away from death and I saw death ahead of me because at the same time but what gave me hope is that one can maybe reach a point of safety.
I didn’t plan it. So when I left from the suffering in Darfur that I was living. A person… if you died right away it’s always better than to be suffering all the time. Suffering has its torture but death is completely normal, it is one of the Sunnah of life. We all die."
Amani crossed the Israeli border on April 23, 2010 from the Sinai hoping he had found a place that would allow him to work, and eventually provide for his family.
You spent three years in Israel Tel Aviv, Harel and Kfar Saba and other cities. How were you treated there? Did they welcome you?
“Honestly… some would be good, some would be bad. So the Israeli country is a Hebrew country, so they welcomed us [...]. Sometimes you’d be walking in the ‘straight’ and they tell you ‘Shokhoreem’ which means black… and “shokhomotoko” [...].
But there were also humane people as well. That when you smile at them, they welcome you and they know that you’re coming from war torn lands.
Yet especially in 2014 citizens would come out in large numbers and you might be able to say they looked like extremists and they would say we can’t find prospects (work) and if they find you in the street they might hit you and it happened."
How were you treated there overall while living in Israel?
“Of course the treatment was very difficult. First of all you have to stop working, you don’t work. Of course if you can’t work you still need a place to stay… you need to eat and drink. If I can’t work how can I live?
It’s not your choice. So either go to jail or go to your country or also be homeless walking around looking… so it was difficult. If you went to renew your visa, they say no, that’s it, the visa is written on it “asoora voda” (in Hebrew), no work. So there’s nothing else.”
Did you feel discriminatd against, or racism there?
“We are all refugees. The Jews in Israel they all applied as refugees, but the country doesn’t acknowledge that. (They say) there are no refugees at all. Rarely from them will you hear, very few of them will say… about 3% will admit that they are refugees. So it’s (refugees are) all the people from Darfur, specifically from Sudan.
You are an African person. In a general sense, this color is not acceptable with us. Your color we don’t want to see. This is the talk. (what they say) If you were… like if you were on the road and when your wheel, a sound comes out of it, they say “shakhoor asaba lagan” as if from this black person this problem happened.
Your color, this color brings, us problems. This is something that we realized of course.
Even if you are in your place they come and hit you. Even on the road you are not safe, you are not safe on the road, anything can happen to you. And the police doesn’t even try to help or solve these problems, [...] instead they say oh you’re African, then they take you to prison.
Even if you worked for someone and you want to get money from them, if you go to complain about him. The police will say, that’s it, what are you going to do? The last period I was there was very very difficult.
From this racism, this insult, to also experience from a different country it’s better that someone just goes back to their country and see what happens."
Amani said his situation took a sudden turn for the worst when a new Israeli policy to effect in targetting African refugees.
"Finally the Jewish government made a decision that either they (African refugees) go back to their countries or they go to prison for an undetermined amount of time. They say what’s your problem, they say there isn’t one so either you go to prison or you go to your country.
(Salim: Was there a specific reason why they did this?)
I don’t know what the reason is at all. Maybe it was the citizens, they refused African people. Maybe that was the reason and they don’t let you know at all, why do you want us to return? No that’s it, we just don’t want you.”
"So I was thinking it’s completely okay. You can die to completely relieve yourself… instead of every time that they torture you, and your family, they’re (family) are the ones that suffer more. Because everytime they hear you’re being tortured so of course they are feeling more torment than you are. So of course it was very very difficult but I said it’s preferable for me to say bye to life then to be sitting in prison each time.”
Israel began deporting asylum seekers, but wrapped the policy in language that suggests they were leaving by their own free will. Amani said he was given the choice to go to prison or leave Israel at his own expense. He chose to leave. Luckily the U.N. paid for his flight back to Sudan in May 2013, but that fortune was short lived as Amani returned to a different type of prison. The open prison he left mor than three years ago.
What happened after you left Israel?
“After I returned to Sudan, they relocated me from the airport to a temporary security facility, and to their intelligence agencies so they told me you’re coming from Israel? I said yes[...].
So at the end they took our passports and made 'a cancel' so that you can’t travel except for after five years to undo the ban on the passport. It was house arrest, where every week you had to come to sign here in Khartoum. Meaning you’re not allowed to leave Khartoum, unless… you have to come and sign and to get permission [...].
If there is no permission, you stay. So this way every week you have to come to sign.”
Amani said that he was trapped. Unable to officially communicate with his family. After befriending a person at the passport office who was also from Darfur who understood his situation. After six months in Khartoum, Amani received a fake passport with a different name for he and his family and they fled the country to Jordan in November of 2013. Until this point, Amani hadn’t seen his wife and daughter for four years.
How has life been for you in Jordan?
“When I came to Jordan I didn’t think that I would face any problems but even so, I did. I noticed that after the birth of my (second) daughter I went to the Sudanese embassy to get her birth certificate but unfortunately I faced another problem. When I got there and they told me that you have to go back to Sudan. So I said inshallah (God willing) I will return to Sudan soon.
So I didn’t go back to them at all [...]. The other problem was that they were sending back Sudanese. I felt that when I first came to Jordan I had found protection, I thought this position would benefit me more but then the sending of Sudanese continued.”
On December 18, 2015 Amani’s wife was forced to go back to Sudan, with the embassy pressuring Amani to do so as well. Amani stayed in Amman with his eldest daughter, and recent newborn daughter as well. None of them have real passports, but Amani said that through the Red Cross his wife was able to move to Egypt in January of 2016.
Amani is unable to work as a refugee, also because he has to take care of his two daughters. He’s receives 250 JD ($352) a month from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he says about half of that is spent on rent for his one bedroom apartment and he uses the other approximately 125 JD ($175) to buy food and clothes for himself and his two young daughters.
What do you think of Israel’s policy to kick out Ethiopians and Sudanese?
“Of course it is the choice of the country so I don’t want to say anything but this decision is going to make those refugees face problems, even more in those countries. Because in Africa today, generally there are only a few countries that are liveable [...]. If you sent them to Rwanda or to Eritrea of course they are going to face these problems again.
(Salim: Will they be safe?)
Of course they will not be safe or have peace at all.”
Do you believe Israel or even the world should be doing more to help refugees? If so, why?
“I wish. The message to all the humanitarian agencies, and to the hearts; for the humanly conscious to feel with those who have left their countries.
No one leaves their mother country and moves to another country except if they’re living in problems and dangers in their life. So my hope is that the problem (Darfur) gets solved so that they are not returning them to a where they living in danger and there is no safety at the same time.
I wish from Israel to to help them (refugees) as much as they can and not send them to Africa because the African countries like Eritrea and those countries. They will face these problems again. They should take them in as refugees and help them.”
How do you feel after having gone through all this? Five years of your life has been away from your family, and it's been a total of eight years travelling in hardship and being kicked out of each country you moved to. Do you feel that hope lies ahead?
“A person always has to be optimistic. I personally have a saying that says “no sweet without fire.” There is no sweetness without fire, you have to endure… to taste the sweetness [...].
Tomorrow will be better, so honestly all that after suffering there is after hardship, ease. So we don’t expect Sudan as well to only have this domineering government.
I can’t imagine that it would stay this way forever. So in the future I believe the government will change and also it will be better, and Sudan will be what it was again before."
So what do you plan to do next?
“The children are away from the mother and they need their mother more so we need to go to a third country so that we can make a 'joining'.”
Amani's journey is not over yet. He needs to leave Jordan so that he can bring his family together and also be able to work. He has plans to relocate to Newcastle in the U.K. and hopes to finally reunite his kids with his wife who has been living in Egypt for the past two years. He says UNHCR, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the British Embassy are helping him to make this move by the end of March 2018.
Amani is optimistic that this next destination will be his final move after eight years of searching for a place that will welcome him.
Ty Joplin contributed to this report.
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