I first heard the incredible story of Usumain’s perilous journey from Sudan to Israel on the same day that he tried to treat me to dinner.
I was almost moved to tears when I witnessed his warmth and generosity. A young man who came to Israel with nothing but the shirt on his back now wanted to pay for my meal.
Usumain’s graciousness is equalled by his drive and determination. He is a BA student in Government in IDC Herzliya, one of the top colleges in Israel. He aspires to work either in an international NGO or in a foreign embassy in Israel. But his big dream is to return to Sudan and help build relations between Israelis and Sudanese. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Sudan is ruled by an Islamist dictator and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. From Usumain’s report, anti-Semitism runs deep in the population – as a young boy, he was told by his uncle that Jews have devil’s horns on their head.
But Usumain is an optimist fuelled by aspiration. When he saw the name “Canada-Israel” prominently displayed on an office building in Herzliya Pituach, he turned to me and said, “One day, I will open an office with a big sign that says “Darfur-Israel”.
“Darfur” usually conjures bloodcurdling images of massacres and mayhem, but it is home for Usumain. He fled from the Darfur genocide in 2003 when his village was attacked by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. His father and older brother were killed by the militants, and the entire village was razed to the ground. He was only nine.
He miraculously escaped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, where he spent the next four years of his life with his mother and siblings. As he interacted with the UN workers, he picked up English and was inspired to leave the refugee camp to further his education. With childlike innocence and wisdom beyond his years, he promised his mother that he would “learn to be a leader without spilling any blood” and went off to Libya to study at the age of 13.
Although he benefited from the English lessons in the international school he attended in Libya, Usumain struggled tremendously since he was not granted refugee status. He eventually left for Egypt because he had heard that school fees were cheaper there. He travelled across the border with his friend who was barely a year older than him.
While in Cairo, the two boys went into hiding when they heard that there were Egyptian and Sudanese agents collaborating to arrest and deport Darfurians. While watching TV one day, they chanced upon a documentary about Israel on Al-Jazeera. For the first time in his life, Usumain learned about the Holocaust and the waves of Jewish refugees to Israel. It dawned on him that of all the countries he had passed through, none of them had ever experienced the horrors of genocide. Chad, Libya and Egypt have certainly been ravaged by internecine fighting and violent oppression, but not ethnic cleansing like in Darfur. Usumain thought that Israel would truly understand his plight. He decided to make his own Exodus from Egypt.
Usumain convinced his friend that brighter prospects awaited them in Israel. They managed to contact a Bedouin smuggler, who grouped the duo together with ten other refugees. The twelve refugees hid in the smuggler’s delivery truck, with nylon draped over them and boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads. The smuggler drove them through the Sinai and was stopped twice by the police. In one inspection, the policeman took an apple from the box atop Usumain’s head! He sat like a statue, and was not discovered.
After several nights of travelling under the cloak of darkness, the smuggler stopped a distance from the border and told the group that they were on their own. They approached the border with caution, crawling as they got closer. They were like the 12 spies of Israel, scouting out the Promised Land. But instead of the giants of Canaan, they faced armed Egyptian soldiers.
Every nerve-wracking step towards the border was possible only because fear was suppressed by desperation. But the mental strain was too much to bear for one member of the crew, who had a panic attack and started screaming uncontrollably. He was immediately shot by the Egyptian border guard.
All caution was abandoned. The remaining eleven ran to the border with all their might. In the frenzy, another refugee was shot and wounded, and his loyal friend refused to leave his side. Both were tragically killed by the Egyptians.
On the other side of the fence, Israeli soldiers prepared to receive the survivors, but could not fire back at the Egyptians. The soldiers instructed the refugees in Arabic to run towards them for safety. But they didn’t heed their call, because they hadn’t expected Israeli soldiers to speak Arabic and thought that they were still in Egypt. Ironically, the language that should have inspired trust in the soldiers served instead to arouse suspicion. At last, the refugees realised that the soldiers’ uniforms were different from the Egyptians, and they turned to them for help.
I stared at Usumain in disbelief as he recounted his harrowing brush with death. He was animated in his narration but seemed surprisingly calm. He paused for a while, allowing me to digest everything I had just heard.
“I’ve met good and bad people here in Israel,” he said, “just like in every other country.”
He recalled the moment when one of the Israeli soldiers at the border took off his own socks to help a barefooted refugee. That auspicious beginning was then overshadowed by the deceit of another soldier who collected the refugees’ money and valuables for “safekeeping”. They never saw their money or belongings again.
Usumain was transported with the other refugees to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, a detention centre for African asylum seekers. He spent 6 weeks there, during which he was referred to by number and not by name. When he was released at Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station, he was left completely alone as an unaccompanied minor who knew no Hebrew. The only Arabic he saw was the sign for the taxi stand, so he approached a driver, handed him the US dollars that he had hidden under his collar, and was on the road to Eilat.
Standing in the central bus station of Eilat, he saw an African man in the distance and ran headlong towards him. As it turned out, the man was Ghanaian but knew other Sudanese refugees that he could put Usumain in touch with. Through a series of miraculous connections, Usumain was enrolled in Yemin Orde, a boarding school on Mount Carmel for at-risk and immigrant youth. Not only did he study Hebrew in Ulpan, he had to study every subject in Hebrew too!
Grateful for the opportunity to study, Usumain believed that he needed to make an effort to integrate with the school population. In an impressive display of leadership and influence, he convinced his five other Sudanese friends that they should participate in religious services, even though they were not required to do so. He dressed like an Orthodox Jew with a kippah, white shirt and black trousers, read the Tanakh (Bible), and ate only kosher food.
Through grit and perseverance, Usumain excelled in his studies and qualified for university. But motivated by his desire to integrate, he volunteered to serve in the IDF. To his disappointment, he was rejected because he was not a citizen. He decided to further his education in university, and was accepted to the BA Government programme in IDC Herzliya.
Usumain came to Israel eight years ago believing that the country would identify with his experience and show him compassion as a refugee. Was he right?
Despite his harsh and terrifying stint in the detention centre, he was welcomed by an Israeli boarding school and his education was sponsored by the Israeli government. He developed strong friendships with Israelis and was assisted by NGOs and volunteers. He is now studying in a top-notch Israeli university with the support of Jewish philanthropists and netizens who donated to his Indiegogo campaign.
However, life is not all smooth-sailing for him. He has no passport or refugee status in Israel. All he has is a visa that has to be renewed every two months in Bnei Brak – a process which requires waiting in line for hours. He is also not permitted to work on his visa. Apparently, enforcement of this rule is ambiguous, but he has been rejected at multiple job interviews.
Worst of all, asylum seekers like Usumain are subject to interminable haranguing from right-wing politicians and religious leaders who tell them they do not belong to the Jewish nation. Miri Regev, for example, called African migrants a “cancer” to Israeli society. According to current policy, African asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally can be detained for a year without trial. As for refugee status, of the 3,165 asylum applications received between 2009 and 2015, only 5 were granted temporary residency. These policies are designed to encourage asylum seekers to accept government-assisted repatriation to Uganda or Rwanda.
Usumain knows all this. And yet, he keeps his chin up and smiles. He has been tested severely through his life, and has shown the famously resilient Israelis that he too is made of real steel.