Friedman: Israel's got its own refugee dilemma: African 'Dreamers'

Friedman: Israel's got its own refugee dilemma: African 'Dreamers'

April 29th, 2018 by Thomas Friedman in Opinion Times Commentary

TEL AVIV, Israel — It's been obvious to me for some time that the Israeli-Arab conflict is to wider global geopolitical trends what off-Broadway is to Broadway. If you want a hint of what's coming to a geopolitical theater near you, study this region. You can see it all here in miniature. That certainly applies to what's becoming the most destabilizing and morally wrenching geopolitical divide on the planet today — the divide between what I call the "World of Order" and the "World of Disorder."

And Israel is right on the seam — which is why the last major fence Israel built was not to keep West Bank Palestinians from crossing into Israel but to keep more Africans from walking from their homes in Africa, across the Sinai Desert, into Israel.

So many new nations that were created in the last century are failing or falling apart under the stresses of population explosions, climate change, corruption, tribalism and unemployment. As those states deteriorate, they're hemorrhaging millions of people — more refugees and migrants are on the road today than at any other time since World War II — people trying to get out of the violent and unstable World of Disorder and into the World of Order.

The Broadway versions are the vast number of migrants from failing states in Central America trying to get into the United States and from the Arab world and Africa trying to get into Europe. The off-Broadway version is playing out in Israel, to which, since 2012, roughly 60,000 Africans from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia have trekked — not to find kosher food, al-Aqsa Mosque or the Via Dolorosa, but stability and a job.

Their presence poses a huge ethical dilemma for a Jewish state, a nation of refugees. Many Israelis on the right believe there is no place — culturally, religiously or financially — for these Africans. Other Israelis believe it a moral imperative to let them stay. Sound familiar?

Israel has persuaded about 20,000 of the Africans who came to take $3,500 and one-way air tickets back to an African state, but about 40,000 are still here — where their kids are growing up speaking Hebrew — Israel's "Dreamers."

I was curious to understand how people got here from Darfur, in Western Sudan. Israel's Reut think tank got me together with Taj Haroun, 29, a Darfur refugee who traveled that path and is now one of the leaders of Israel's Darfur community.

When war broke out in 2003, Haroun's family made its way to a camp for internally displaced persons in Sudan, "but that also became too dangerous, so my mom sent me to live with her sister in Khartoum to be safe." In 2007, he obtained a legal Sudanese passport and made his way to Cairo.

After getting into Egypt on a tourist visa, he overstayed, slipping out of Cairo and working in the countryside as a guard.

"I heard about Dafuris who had gone to Israel and were safe and protected and were not being deported back to Sudan. When I heard that I said, 'That is my place.'"

So how did he get here? On Feb. 4, 2008, he joined a group of Darfur refugees in Cairo who had hired a Bedouin — at $300 a person — to take them across Sinai and smuggle them into Israel. He actually didn't have the $300, but because the six others could pay, "the Bedouin took me for free," said Haroun.

After 10 days there, the Bedouin came with a truck with sand in the back, he dug a hole in it and put his passengers in it, covered it with a tarp, and that way got them past the Egyptian army checkpoints and nearer the border.

"When we got to the border there was an Egyptian fence you had to climb, a road and then an Israeli fence. He told us to run and don't look back. So we ran into Israel, and the Egyptians were shooting at us the whole time."

Once safely inside Israel they were picked up by an Israeli army patrol, transferred to Tel Aviv, linked up with the Darfuri community there and applied for political asylum. But he and others are in limbo: The Israeli government won't give them asylum and permanent residency, but many Israelis don't want to evict them.

"The Israeli people are super welcoming," said Haroun. "I have been invited for Shabbat dinners and the weddings of friends. They are giving us opportunities and fighting for our rights. But the government is working hard to push us out."

How can Israel turn them away? But how can Israel take them all, which will only invite more, and the supply is now endless? That's what's playing off-Broadway. And unless the World of Order comes up with a collective strategy to help stabilize the World of Disorder — not just build walls — this play will have a long, wide run.

The New York Times

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