By Ty Joplin
Amani thought he would die in the desert. But for him, dying under the sun was better than drowning at sea.
Walking barefoot across mountains and dodging past gunfire, Amani finally made it to a country that was established as a refuge for people escaping genocide just as he was—Israel.
Shortly after his arrival, it became clear to Amani that he was not welcome there. After years of mistreatment and cruel policies aimed against him, Amani was forced out of Israel and taken back to Sudan.
Amani is one of tens of thousands of refugees who fled from Sudan and Eritrea into Israel only to face down a government hellbent on making their stay short and miserable. Following policies of arbitrary detention, wage garnishment and coercion, Israel has begun issuing deportation notices to thousands of asylum seekers, sending them back to the warzones from which they spent years desperately trying to escape.
Israel, once a safe haven for those fleeing genocide, now officially deems refugees as illegal ‘infiltrators.’
But Israel wasn’t always like this.
At one point in its history, it welcomed refugees as a matter of course. Scores of Israelis waited at docks to greet Jewish asylum seekers fleeing from the Holocaust in Europe and other anti-semitic movements. Israel’s inhabitants accepted refugees when nearly every other country refused them, even if they had to enter the country illegally. Millions of those who weren’t able to leave Europe for Israel or other countries were murdered—shot in the streets or in their homes, or taken to death camps.
Now it has closed itself off to certain types of refugees, ones like Amani.
When ‘Home’ is Ground Zero for Genocide
David Stoliar (Stoliar Family)
Amani’s story echoes the countless other narratives detailing attempts to escape from the clutches of the Nazi’s grasp on Europe, only to be refused and forced to return. One in particular stands out as a historical analogue to Amani's.
David Stoliar was born in Kishinev, Romania in 1922. Growing up in between Kishinev and France, David wanted to be an engineer but faced an uncertain future as war and Nazism took over Europe.
A Jew, David lived through rampant anti-semitism that hit fever pitch when Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, and began instituting laws that were eventually exported after the Nazis invaded most of Europe.
In 1941, David was conscripted into forced labor where he dug trenches, an activity that, though brutal, gave him a physical strength which he eventually used to save his life.
As it became impossible to live in Romania as a Jew, David’s father, Jacob Stolar, decided that his son needed to escape.
With only money to spare for a boat ticket, Jacob arranged for David to board a small ship called the Struma, docked at Constanta, Romania and bound for Istanbul, Turkey—a neutral country in World War II.
American military personnel view corpses in the Buchenwald concentration camp (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Almost 70 years later, a man who will be referred to as Amani to protect his identity, confronted a terror similar to David’s.
Amani stood across the street from his home in Amman, waving at neighbors and offering a wide smile. Living with his two daughters, three and eight, Amani has faced more hardship in his life than what most can imagine. But he is peaceful when he talks, and even cracks a wry smile occasionally in describing the horrors he overcame to get to Amman.
Growing up in Darfur, a desertous region in western Sudan, Amani lived for much of his life in what has become one of most violent places on Earth. After finishing his university studies in English, the Sudanese government partnered with an Arab militia to raze his community and all those around him.
In 2003, the genocide in Darfur began.
A man holds up remains in Darfur (Genocide Watch)
“Life was beautiful [in Darfur],” Amani said, sitting on a couch in his home. “But after the national government arrived, life turned from bad to worse.”
Despite having an advanced degree, Amani says he wasn’t able to find any work, because he was from Darfur and official documents that identify him mark him as a Darfuri—a way for the government to legalize discrimination against people like Amani. The Nazis, for their part, ordered Jews to brand themselves as such with a yellow Star of David, estranging them totally from non-Jews.
“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.”
Prison and economic insecurity were minor compared to the brutal campaign Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir initiated with the help of the Janjaweed militia, an ethnically Arab armed group.
Refugees from Darfur describe Janjaweed militias as gun-wielding men on camels pillaging villages, burning, stealing and slaughtering en masse. After two years, the rate of deaths from the genocide dropped. So effective and thorough was their campaign throughout Darfur that the Janjaweed and Sudanese troops began running out of villages to raze and people to kill.
Those displaced from their villages faced malnutrition and starvation. Most estimates show a majority of deaths from the genocide are attributed to disease and malnutrition, not direct violence. Those who survived the initial attacks on their villages then, faced an even more dangerous, silent death of deprivation.
By 2010, over 400,000 people had died from a mix of violence and deprivation in Darfur.
Amani finally made the decision that he had to flee rather than face the slow death of deprivation and malnourishment.
“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.”
Doomed Voyages of Desert and Sea
Map of the journeys for David Stoliar and Amani (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Traversing through hails of gunfire and massive explosions, David and Amani’s stories detailing their journeys to Israel involve feats of endurance scarcely imaginable.
The Struma was a small trading and storage ship, about 150 feet in length. David was one of 790 Romanian, Russian and Bulgarian Jewish refugees who climbed aboard it in hopes of reaching Turkey.
Many asylum seekers paid all of their money for tickets to board the Struma and were promised visas that never came.
The ship itself was not made for the journey.
The Struma (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Tiny and under-equipped, the ship had ten crewman, eight bathrooms, no real kitchen or storage for food and water. It had no life jackets and only two small lifeboats. Nonetheless, the Struma was their only hope to get out of Europe alive. It was either risk the waters of the Black Sea to reach the safety of Istanbul, or await the horrors of the Nazi war machine.
“During the journey to Istanbul, first of all we could hardly move because we were told that, you know, because of so many people, if there are too many of us on the deck on one side, the, the vessel can be in danger,” David recalled in an interview later in his life.
The journey was expected to take just a week, but the engine failed. It was repaired, then it failed again—this time just offshore from Istanbul’s harbor. It was tugged into Istanbul, where the asylum seekers eagerly awaited their departure.
But they were stopped. Afraid of helping any particular side in the war, Turkey refused them, despite pleas from the passengers.
Eventually, Turkish authorities cut the ship loose and David, along with other deprived and desperate refugees, floated out to sea. Without any electricity, hope was lost as the ship disappeared into the dark of the Black Sea.
Then, the Struma was spotted by a Soviet submarine, on orders to eliminate any and all neutral ships on the Black Sea for fear they would transport goods to the Nazis.
David was asleep under the deck when an explosion tore the ship apart.
The Soviet submarine had torpedoed the Struma.
Hundreds of bodies were flung into the air, along with twisted metal and wooden shrapnel from the ship.
In the chaos, David managed to find a piece of deck with a bench under the water. He put the bench on top of the wood, where he was able to lay on it. He then saw the Struma’s first mate, Lazar Ivanof Dikof and pulled him on the bench too. They were able to stay above the water, as they heard the screams of hundreds of passengers, drowning, freezing, dying.
“It was very, very cold,” David remembered of the sea. As night fell, the screams grew fainter and it became clear to David that only he and Lazar were left. But by the next morning, Lazar was gone too.
“He was missing. He fell off the bench,” David recalled of Lazar. “And his head was in the water, and the waves were balancing his head left and right. In other words, he was dead.”
David was alone.
Then, in the distance, he noticed a ship. Waving frantically, he was noticed and taken aboard.
Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel (Wikipedia)
Back in Amman, Amani recalls in vivid detail his journey away from the violence. after arriving in Egypt via plane, he pondered his next step. Because he feared the Sudanese security forces within Egypt, he knew he could not stay in the country for long.
Amani, like tens of thousands of other Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, had to decide whether to try and escape by ship to Europe, or to Israel through the Sinai Peninsula.
For him personally, the heart of his dilemma was not in which country would be able to help him best, but in how he wanted to die.
“Maybe it’s easier for me to die in the desert,” Amani recalled thinking. “Maybe if they find you they will take you but if you die in the water no one might find you.”
Other Sudanese asylum seekers have chosen to go through Libya, only to find themselves kidnapped by human traffickers and sold into slavery—a racket that continues to this day.
Maintaining no illusion that he would survive, Amani chose the desert. With the help of local Bedouins, he began his journey—a three-day long walk over and through the dry mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.
“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.”
Bringing only the money to pay his smugglers, Amani could not afford shoes, so he made the trek barefoot in the April heat.
“For some people it was very harsh,” Amani said. But as they neared the border and could actually see the fence separating Israel and Egypt, they began hearing guns firing.
“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.” They arrived at the border at night, so they were unable to see exactly where the bullets were coming from.
Their only hope was to run as fast as they could and climb over the fence into Israel, after which the Egyptian security forces would not dare shoot into the Israeli side.
Amani made it, and was taken in by Israel security forces. But it became clear almost immediately that he was not welcome.
Arrival to Israel
African asylum seekers walk from the Holot detention center (AFP/FILE)
After being found among the wreckage, David was taken back to Istanbul and held in prison for months as the Turkish government sought to censor the story of what happened to the Struma just a few miles off the shore of their capital city.
However Turkish authorities released him, and he finally managed to make it to Mandatory Palestine, where began his new life.
Both David and Amani had made it, either by sea or desert, to a place they considered a safe haven. But while David was accepted and integrated into Israel, Amani was roundly rejected despite facing similar hardship to reach the country.
Soon after reaching Palestine, David enlisted in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, serving in both Libya and Egypt during World War II. After the war, David got married to Adria Nacmias.
David then became an oil executive, but did not tell his story until about 50 years later. Too traumatized by the incident, David preferred to push it out of his mind as much as he could, and focus on the life that was given to him in Israel.
The general flow of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis to Mandatory Palestine is called the Fifth Aliyah, and is widely heralded as a moment in Israel’s history where it stood out among nearly every other nation on Earth as the one that genuinely welcomed as many Jewish refugees as it could.
In contrast, Amani’s escape to Israel was seen as a threat, not an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how caring Israel is in a time of global apathy towards suffering.
There were no aid workers waiting to greet Amani, or promise of citizenship or even safety awaiting. Immediately after entering the country, he was branded as an ‘infiltrator,’ which is the official government term used for asylum seekers like him—a far cry from ‘refugee fleeing genocide.’
Despite there being only around 40,000 African-origin asylum seekers at its peak and being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention that demands protection for asylum seekers, the Israeli government deemed the asylum seekers’ presence dangerous enough to take decisive action against them.
In addition to stemming the flow of asylum seekers by closing off its borders at the Sinai, the government instituted policies designed to make life miserable and thus their stay as short as possible.
Those who could find work had their wages garnished by 20%, with some demanding even more to be cut from their paychecks. The official reasoning was so that when asylum seekers left Israel, they could be given back what was taken from them. In here, the grim reasoning lurked that Israel would never grant any of them asylum, and was bribing them with their own wages to leave the country.
The EU’s rate of acceptance for Eritrean asylum seekers as refugees is about 86 percent—Israel’s is essentially zero.
While there, Amani could not find any work or indeed exist in public spaces without fear of being discriminated against. In contrast, David was immediately able to join Mandatory Palestine’s armed forces, an effective avenue to Israeli integration.
“Sometimes you’d be walking… they tell you ‘Shokhoreem’ which means black,” Amani said. Social tensions came to a head in 2014, when he remembers mobs of Israeli nativists calling for all Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers to leave the country.
Another strategy Israel deployed to make life as miserable as possible for the asylum seekers was arbitrary detention. Scores of asylum seekers were rounded up and put in the Holot Detention Center, despite never having been charged or convicted of any crime.
Although Israel insists Holot is there to house asylum seekers temporarily, and that they are free to leave during the day as long as they returned by night, it was built in the middle of the Israeli desert, far from anything accessible.
Being taken away to Holot made forming interpersonal relations or holding down a job even more difficult for asylum seekers in Israel. Inside the detention facility, medicine is scarce, food is sub-par, and there is little privacy. The only thing missing from the equation that Holot was a prison was the inconvenient fact that nobody there was technically a criminal.
Asylum seekers hold up their arms in protest in the Holot detention center (AFP/FILE)
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Holot Detention Center was simply designed to “coerce people into leaving.”
One former teacher inside Holot argued that the detention facility exemplified “the government’s moral failure when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers.”
Amani was forced to leave Israel when the government threatened to put him in Holot if he did not return to Sudan.
The Israeli “government made a decision that either they go back to their countries or they go to prison or go to prison for an undetermined amount of time.”
For Amani, the message he received from Israeli was: “we just don’t want you.”
Rather than leave his family in the dark, unable to communicate with them at all while at Holot, he decided he was better off returning to Sudan. The dream of finding refuge in Israel came to an end for Amani in 2013. Due to no wrongdoing of his own, he was left with the choice of deportation or prison.
Israel began deporting asylum seekers, but wrapped the policy in language that suggests they were leaving by their own free will. They are given $3,500 by Israel as a kind of reward for choosing to leave, not enough to genuinely change the lives of themselves and families, but enough to make them a target for robbery and human trafficking.
Israel eventually closed Holot in order to more forcefully push for the removal of refugees, trading the policy of making life in Israel miserable to making life in Israel impossible.
Behind the scenes, Israel began negotiations with Rwanda to accept a massive intake of asylum seekers. Israel and Rwanda eventually agreed on a small sum of $5,000 for each person they accept, a policy they are now seeking to implement.
In response to receiving notifications that they would be deported to Rwanda, thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans gathered in front of the Rwandan Embassy, shouting “We are refugees – we are not criminals!” and holding signs reading “Deportation kills.”
One asylum seeker grimly pleading to the government, “don’t sell me to Rwanda,” he told a reporter. “Please give us the honor of not calling us criminals. We are refugees who came to Israel for protection.”
One despondent Eritrean refugee put perfectly the irony of Israel’s anti-migrant policies: “I thought because it was the Holy Land, the people there would be kind.”
The Fates of Refugees
An asylum seeker protests Israel's policy move to deport Eritreans and Sudanese to Rwanda (AFP/Jack Guez)
David Stoliar, became a model Israeli citizen: a European Jew who risked it all to seek a better life in the promised land. A contributor to the security of the Israeli state, he was a soldier. A successful businessman, he traveled the world as an oil executive.
His telling of the Struma disaster and his miraculous survival reminded the world of the horror of the Nazis and the horrific ambivalence of the world, who stood by and watched the Holocaust happen—too afraid or apathetic to do anything about it. “Never again” the saying goes for allowing another genocide to happen as the world watches.
African origin asylum seekers protest in Tel Aviv (AFP/JACK GUEZ)
That lesson seems to be lost on Israel.
Historian J. Revell Carr, spoke of the prevailing mentality during World War II: “Everybody had a reason for saying ‘this isn’t my problem,’ and that’s the tragedy.”
With the issuance of deportation notices to tens of thousands of asylum seekers, Israel is officially moving to dump off the burden of their lives, declaring that they aren’t Israel’s problem, even though they risked everything to cross over the border into Israel.
Amani was flown back to Sudan, and had his passport promptly taken from him and put under house arrest: Sudan does not allow its people to go to Israel. He would have been stuck there if it were not for a passport control worker who empathized with his situation.
The worker, also from a city in Darfur, knew Amani had to leave the country as fast as possible, so he forged a passport for Amani under a false name. With his family, he was able to flee to Jordan.
For this, Amani is incredibly lucky. Others who have been ‘voluntarily’ deported from Israel face insurmountable hardship and even death.
A recently released report by an Israeli aid organization details the journeys of African-origin asylum seekers from Israel back to their native countries: “The interviewees described a perilous journey permeated with an all-encompassing fear of death: many witnessed the death of fellow travelers during the crossing of the Sahara Desert, in the torture camps in Libya and as they drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the dead were others who had left Israel ‘voluntarily.’”
As Israel moves to coerce the rest of the asylum seekers from its land, there appears to be no measures in place ensuring the safety of these people when they arrive back in Africa. In other words, Israel will be sending many of them to be tortured, sold, and murdered as they struggle to reach refuge.
One interviewee recounted his journey to Libya: “The road to libya… dangerous, the most dangerous… What can I say… Several people fell [out of the truck] in the Sahara… We left them and went… We were more than 20 who came from Israel altogether… Those who died on the way, I know… I don’t want to say the name…”
Another describes coping with seeing the deaths of friends, including others who had been deported from Israel: “Desert. No water. Very very hot…. We ran out of food. One young woman and one young man died…. I don’t want to remember this. It’s hard to think about this… At night it comes to us in our head, it repeats… It wakes me up, what I saw… I don’t want to remember this.”
“We are All Refugees”
African refugees protest their detainment and deportation (AFP/FILE)
Those in Israel who know all too well the legacy of the Holocaust have protested against Israel’s double-standard for refugees. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a Holocaust survivor himself, spoke out against Israel’s treatment of African-origin refugees, saying their struggles require “as much compassion, empathy and mercy that can possibly be marshalled. The experiences of the Jewish people over the ages underscore this commitment.”
“It’s unconscionable for the Jewish state to deport people to harrowing vulnerability,” said another rabbi, who launched a campaign for Israelis to accept asylum seekers into their homes.
The Israeli government however, looks unconcerned about this backlash, and is moving more forcefully than ever to purge their country of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers.
“Israel, Created out of the ashes of the Holocaust and presumably dedicated to protecting all from further genocides, is ignoring the fate that Sudanese refugees will face if forcibly repatriated,” argues Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan and its plight. “For a nation born out of one genocide to be refusing to offer safe haven to those fleeing subsequent genocides seems supremely hypocritical—finally a moral disgrace of the first order.”
To memorialize the Struma disaster, Israel erected a monument. To respond to the pleas of African asylum seekers, Israel erected a prison for them in the desert.
Struma memorial in Ashdod, Israel (Wikipedia)
Migrants enter the Holot detention center (AFP/FILE)
Amani, when asked of Israel’s people, identifies with them and their historical struggles against anti-semitism: “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.”
A key factor to justify Israel’s legitimacy as a nation is the legacy of the Holocaust: that at some point, many of those in Israel were refugees. Even more Israelis now are the children of those that managed to escape to Israel.
What does Israel stand for?
So what exactly happens to Israel after it disavows its own moral founding? What does it then stand for?
It is not simply that these Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are black that they are not wanted. Israel launched several operations to give citizenship to over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews, at one point airlifting almost 15,000 to Israel in just 36 hours.
When it chooses to be a safe haven, it can be an incredibly effective one. The inconvenient fact is the vast majority of these Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are not Jewish, and thus are perceived as a demographic threat to the Jewish makeup of Israel.
On Feb. 12, Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked defended Israel's refusal to take in more asylum seekers, saying if it were not for the fence on the border to the Sinai, “we would be seeing here a kind of creeping conquest from Africa.”
Moments later, she said exactly what African asylum seekers have long feared to be a implicit policy from Israel: "There is place to maintain a Jewish majority even at the price of violation of rights.” Hopes of finding refuge and escaping the clutches of genocide and poverty, of finding a new life, of settling down, of not having to run and flee forever—all are obliterated by the mere chance that those who hold such hopes happen to have been born to Christians or Muslims and not Jewish.
Tied to Israel’s moral foundation as a refuge against genocide has always been serving Jews first. And though this information is nothing new, its consequences can become fatal if it is decided that non-Jewish refugees aren’t just unimportant, but are actually a threat. They become 'infilatrators' rather than asylum seekers: people to be suspicious of rather than concerned for.
Israel's deportation of Sudanese and Eritreans has already killed many, and it promises to kill more as the government begins efforts to deport them all, to purge Israel.
By sea and by desert, millions have said goodbye to their families and possessions to seek safety inside Israel. What does Israel stand for, if it then sends some of these people back to die, declaring that they are not Israel’s problem?
Salim Essaid contributed to this article.
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