Refugees in the Holy Land
It was spring 2009 when I was walking through the bus station in south Tel Aviv and a bomb scare trapped me indoors. As I searched the exits trying to find a way out and away, I met Adam, a refugee from Darfur. He knew his way around the bus station and found an exit that we both slipped through, leaving the chaos behind us for the sunshine and fresh air.
As we walked side by side I learnt that he had been living in Israel for the past decade and was an English teacher. He had a classroom nearby where he taught other refugees from Sudan and invited me for a visit.
I will never forget the evening that I stood in front of a packed, windowless classroom which also doubled as Adam's bedroom. About twenty sets of white eyes stared at me, starkly contrasted against the rich tones of their deep black skin and the occasional flash of white teeth as they smiled. I gave my impromptu introduction to two full classes, allowing questions, and encouraging their introductions. In my early twenties I had been an English teacher in Korea for a couple of years, though standing before these young men was very different. I sensed the importance of my presence and interest in their lives. I had heard about the African refugee crisis in Israel a couple of years before I stood in that room, but I had no idea that I would become so intimately involved with this community and develop such a profound empathy for their plight.
Though refugees from the crisis in Darfur have escaped genocide in their homeland, an experience they historically share with Jews, they are mostly unwelcome and unwanted in Israel. After suffering severe trauma in Sudan they are subjected to further marginalization in the place they seek refuge. Naturally, it is a complex situation with arguments on both sides. To this day there remains thousands of refugees from Africa in Israel that face very uncertain futures.
I spent four months teaching English to the Sudanese Refugee community of Tel Aviv though it was them that truly taught me. I learnt about the resilience of the human spirit, our inherent capacity to survive, and the beauty alive in the hearts of people who have suffered some of humanity's gravest tragedies. Constantly facing the threat of deportation, racism on the streets, and danger if they return to Darfur, my students became my friends.
Their toothy grins and warm, generous spirits are permanently inscribed upon my heart.
:: Below I share a personal memoir from my experience of traveling in Sudan where I reflect upon my experience with the refugees in Israel and the injustice I feel that I can travel to the country that has traumatized and exiled my former students. ::