TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — The two men, Naji and Abrahiem, refugee and local friend, drove in a state of worry through the night across the Sinai desert in Egypt. It was June 6th, 2004. They were headed for Israel.
Naji, then in his early 20s, was told by Ibrahim after several hours of driving that he would need to walk. He traversed the peninsula for what he says was another six hours to reach an Israeli Defense Forces position near Ezuz, in the Negev desert. He was jailed in a tumbledown room, alone in a strange country, no access to his phone. And even if he'd had a phone, there was no one to call.
"I was jailed there for three months for processing and, after that, I came to meet the worst thing I faced: deportation," Naji, who fled to Cairo from Sudan, tells me. He was held at an Israeli detention center because he had entered the country illegally. "At that time, they hadn't heard about the Darfur situation. It was a misunderstanding. I think at that time that's why they sent me back."
He was flown from the military base in Israel back to Cairo and faced further jailing and hardships, unable to get steady work, a continual place of dashed hopes over several years of seeking asylum. Once again, Naji found himself unwelcome.
Israel marks its 70th anniversary today. It was founded in 1948 as a safe haven for Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II. But critics say the country's reception of migrants seeking assistance and safe harboring is lukewarm at best, antithetical to its founding principles. And while the government has since softened its approach to harboring migrants, many African asylum-seekers are stuck between two countries that refuse to offer them a home.
By 2008 Egypt had begun refusing the United Nations Refugee Agency access to jails where migrants from Eritrea were being held, "many of whom military tribunals had sentenced to one to three years in prison for illegally entering the country from Sudan," according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Naji had arrived in Egypt after fleeing Al-Fasher, the capital of north Darfur in Sudan, a desert sprawl abundant in grains. Naji lived there in quiet prosperity. He was raised in a small village outside of the city and later studied law at a local university. "Then the war began," he says. His father was executed one day during the armed conflict that broke out in 2004 between factions accusing the government of neglecting the region and suppressing the non-Arab population. His father was a bystander. "I lost my father before my eyes," he says, not wanting to say more.
Shortly after, his mother was also killed by government forces. He was forced out of college. The government jailed him, as with many others, in a feint effort to squash the uprising. Elsewhere in Sudan, murders and rape by militias ravaged villages throughout one of the world's most destitute regions. Foodstuffs and suppliers were taken, and many were jailed along with Naji, who asked not to be identified because he fears repercussions for his siblings who still live in the country.
Naji fled to Egypt at the start of the conflict when he was 21 years old. Within months of the conflict's outbreak, one million others fled their homes. More than 80,000 were killed. By 2007, the death toll ballooned to 400,000.
When he arrived by plane in Egypt in 2004, there were no camps for refugees, but he was issued an identification card by the government, recognizing his refugee status. But the card did not sway Egyptian officials from jailing him along with other migrants for illegally entering the country or overstaying visas. He was jailed for roughly 10 days, he says, before being released back onto the streets in Cairo.
"I didn't feel safe there," Naji says. "So I prepared to leave Cairo to look for someplace safe."
While looking for work, he traveled to the north and asked those he met what other options might be. A one- or two-month salary for labor would not sustain him. He had heard it might be possible to make his way to Israel. A friend named Abrahiem offered to put him up and soon take him to the border. "For me, that was a better choice," Naji says of deciding to head for Israel. "I was faced with many difficulties in my life. It was better for me to be in Israel."
Earlier that year, in a break for Naji, Israel granted temporary residence visas to 600 Darfuris. Naji was among this group. All the while, as he settled into life inside his new home country, Israeli officials worried about a "tsunami" of migrants fleeing economical and violent depredations.
Now, the Israeli government has relaxed its policies, but only slightly, by allowing more refugees into the country. Naji is now one of 7,481 migrants from Sudan who have sought refuge in Israel. More than 36,000 Africans fleeing violence have sought asylum in Israel, having navigated the Sinai peninsula toward the southern Israeli border between 2006 and 2012, according to the Ministry of Interior.
In February of 2014, the country began incentivizing asylum-seekers to leave by offering Ugandans a grant for $3,500 and a plane ticket back to their home country. It was a practice aligned with the government's "voluntary departure" process.
Sudanese like Naji did not receive an offer because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. Yet the Israeli government has pressured many to leave, backed by a community in Tel Aviv that received the majority of the African migrants. The community members felt their needs were being overshadowed by that of the refugees, likened to the exact mentality that spurred the conflict in Darfur.
Neve Sha'anan, a community in South Tel Aviv abutting the Central Bus Station, is home to more than half of the African migrant community, including Naji. An area watch group, self-described as "extremists," were a vocal opposition, a "black-shirt clad group ... well known in the neighborhood for 'citizen patrols,' during which they harass black residents on the street or interrupt community events," according to a report in the Times of Israel.
"The fact of the matter is that most refugees don't get a good process, they don't get an opportunity to have their concerns heard, their life stories shared," says Uri Weltmann, 34, a parliamentary adviser and national field organizer for Standing Together, a grassroots movement addressing social issues throughout Israel. "They live here on temporary visas, not being recognized as refugees by the Israeli political establishment, but the majority of which are also not labeled as non-refugees. They are merely in a state of in-between."
Many of the migrants moved into flats in Neve Sha'anan, sometimes eight to 10 living in one apartment, straining an already dismal economic and social situation.
"Not surprisingly, even people who are involved in the issue of African refugees in Israel don't draw analogies with the situation of Syrian refugees elsewhere," Weltmann says. "I think it goes to the bottom of how the Israeli society views the Arab world surrounding it."
Israel was one of the early champions of the International Agreement of Refugee Rights, signed in 1951. "An initiator and founder of the international covenant on refugee rights is turning its back on its legal obligations, not speaking of its moral or historical obligations," Weltmann says.
Meanwhile, the government pursued various politics aimed at limiting the numbers of African asylum seekers entering Israel and encouraging many to leave. An upgrade was made to the country's border wall with Egypt. Forced deportations continued.
Supporters of the Standing Together movement held a rally and demonstration, and moved South Tel Aviv residents who were against deportation to hang signs and banners protesting the forced relocations. It showed a community divided.
In March, responding to shifting statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on whether he would move forward with a deal between the Israeli government and the U.N.'s refugee agency, families signed a petition to house Africans seeking asylum to ensure they are not forcibly deported. More than 2,000 members of the Kibbutz movement, which promulgates community living, signed on to the initiative started by an advocate, Avi Ofer.
"We found that some of them would just hide. Some of them said, 'If the authorities want to put us in jail we will go to jail together and we will struggle together,'" Ofer tells me. "It became not an issue of hiding them, but as issue of helping them."
"Look at the Israelis, the issues they suffered in Sinai, in the torture camps of the Bedouins there," Ofer, 62, says. "From this point of view they are like Holocaust survivors."
Naji was one of those who received housing and assistance through goodwill. He now lives with Inat, a member of the Kibbutz who shelters Naji and who also asked to withhold her name for privacy concerns, in an affluent neighborhood north of Tel Aviv.
"He came here because he was wounded and found himself in the streets," Inat says, referring to the treatment Naji received while imprisoned in Cairo. "Some of his ribs were broken."
Naji has since found sporadic work in construction and often thinks of his family back home. He is scared to contact his younger siblings for fear that his government may mistreat them. "Even if there is any economical change to my family, it will be dangerous," Naji says when asked if he is able to send money home. "They are still alive because I made connection by other means."
In a gray collared shirt, he sat at ease on a sofa, recounting the story of his journey as Inat sat nearby. He dreams of one day bringing his family to safety. He also dreams of refugee status in the United States as the precarious and uncertain future of African asylum-seekers plays out in the theater of Israeli politics.
Until then, he has a home.
"We cannot part with him," Inat says. "He is much better since coming here."
Lands of Metamorphosis is a month-long column chronicling the social, cultural, and political paroxysms of the Middle East today.