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Sudanese refugees face harsh passage from Egypt to Israel

ICC Note

“Of course I am afraid to go back to Sudan because I am a Christian,”

By Judith Sudilovsky

July 18, 2007 Sudan (Catholic News Service) — Grace’s eyes were cool and revealed no emotion as she described how she was kidnapped by a Muslim man as a young girl during the war in Sudan .

“I would run away to the church for comfort, and he would be very angry,” said Grace, a 24-year-old Catholic from southern Sudan and now the mother of three young girls.

Grace — who, like the other refugees interviewed, asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals — was among a group of 45 Sudanese who camped in front of the Israeli parliament building in mid-July, seeking asylum from the Israeli government.

Eight years ago she met her husband, Anthony, and the two escaped to Egypt , where she was reunited with a younger sister and her mother.

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Grace said that “there is no hope in Sudan , and life in Egypt is very difficult.”

In Egypt , someone pushed her into a moving car as she was waiting for a bus because she was black and from Sudan , she said, adding that she did not die because “God did not let that happen.”

Most Sudanese have no legal status in Egypt because they arrived illegally from Sudan , although some have received refugee status from the United Nations. In December 2005, Egyptian police violently dispersed a Sudanese protest, and many Sudanese Christians started to feel they could no longer remain there.

The only escape route left to the Sudanese is Israel , Anthony said.

Paul, 35, a fellow Christian Sudanese refugee, said that following the violence in Egypt he was afraid to leave his family alone in their apartment.

“Of course I am afraid to go back to Sudan because I am a Christian,” he said, noting that the Sudanese government does not allow Christians to pray freely.

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Ahmed, 42, a Muslim refugee from the western Sudanese region of Darfur , where he lost two of his six children, said Egyptians hurled stones at the Sudanese as easily as they did insults. He said he kept his family indoors for a whole year out of fear for their safety.

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Ahmed said that despite hearing stories of Israeli officials putting refugees into prison he believed that an Israeli jail was better than the conditions in Egypt .

Ahmed and his family were taken to the Suez Canal in a bus, then were put in the flatbed of a pickup truck and covered with straw. He and his wife cuddled the two youngest, and their teenage daughter held an older girl. They traveled for three hours and hid in the mountains near the Israeli border for three days until there was a full moon. Then their Bedouin guide led them for two hours to the border, which they had to cross in complete silence.

“(Getting) to Israel , it was not easy, but we started to dance and were happy when we crossed the border. We felt safe,” he said.

Ahmed said his family waited behind a makeshift shelter as he went out to be spotted by Israeli soldiers patrolling the area. The soldiers gave them food and blankets and took them to Beersheba , he said.

The first time he felt safe letting his children run and play out of his sight since they were born, he said, was at a Jerusalem park where they camped.

Sigal Rosen, who works with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a group that helps find work and housing for Sudanese refugees, said currently about 1,250 Sudanese refugees live in Israel , compared to April, when there were only 397. Two-hundred fifty of the refugees are from Darfur , where Arab militias have been carrying out ethnic cleansing with the support of the Muslim government, and 800 are Christian.

Israel was caught by surprise as the small trickle of mostly male refugees coming into Israel transformed into a stream of refugee families infiltrating the border. Initially, the male refugees were imprisoned as illegal aliens from an enemy country, while the women and children were absorbed by kibbutzim and communal villages.

After their stories led to a public outcry, the men also were permitted to go to various kibbutzim, and government officials began to realize they would have to confront the problem.

Private individuals and a few cities have taken the initiative to help the Sudanese. When the Beersheba mayor felt his budget could no longer handle the load, he bused the refugees to Jerusalem in hopes that their presence in front of the parliament would push the government into action.

Some refugees met with parliament members, but their pleas to be allowed to remain in Israel or to be sent to a third country were not met with affirmative responses.

The city of Jerusalem sent a nurse to the refugees, and all children under age 12 were given vaccinations, said Esam Baya, a Palestinian nurse who later took two huge trays of rice to the exiles.

While university students and social workers rallied around the refugees, organizing donations and looking for housing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government would deport the refugees back to Egypt .

He has begun setting up a long-term “hospitality facility” in the south near the Ketziot prison to house the refugees until they can be sent back to Egypt .

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