(Haaretz) — Hassan Shakur has made a deliberate decision not to be negative or bitter.
He will be optimistic, he says, despite the horrific “times of misery,” as he refers to them, in his homeland, Darfur. Despite a gruesome experience in Cairo and then the escape to Israel. And despite the racism he has encountered in this country, and the empty, numbing days at the Holot detention center deep in the southern Negev, where Israeli authorities are holding him, apparently indefinitely.
Short and thin, with a trim build and wire-rimmed glasses, Shakur, 26, entered Israel illegally four years ago. He is too young to remember the outset of the drought, famine and epidemics that have left his homeland in a state of humanitarian emergency. But he remembers well the beginning of the war between the Arab Sudanese and the rebels – mostly black Sudanese Darfuri like him – which, after years of low intensity, flared up fiercely in 2003. He remembers the killings, the displacement, the terror, the starvation.
Maybe that is why Shakur has forced himself to accept difficulties without being fatalistic and to push forward with quiet determination. Maybe that’s why the screen saver on his laptop is a bright, kitschy sunflower with the slogan, “Always expect something wonderful to happen.”
Since the middle of this month, Shakur, who had been living on Yesud Hama’aleh Street, not far from the central bus station in south Tel Aviv, has been at Holot. Before his detention, he talked at length with Haaretz and since then has been in phone contact.
Shakur’s native language is Fur, a dominant language in Darfur, but he also speaks Sudanese Arabic as well as passable English and Hebrew. His friends, he says, “think it’s worse than useless to talk to the media. But I don’t want to give up. You have to be helpful before you can get help.”
Shakur’s fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Tel Aviv is shabby but clean. The names and stickers on the doors in the building indicate that about half of the apartments belong to veteran Israelis and the rest to Africans. There are many baby carriages in the stairwell. He shares the large apartment with five or six other tenants, most of them Darfuris like him.
The living room is crowded with beds and sofas, and cans of K300 bug spray are everywhere. Incongruously, a shelf holds colorful, plush stuffed toys. Underneath, a sign reads, “We are refugees.”
But these people are not refugees, at least not formally. Currently, there is no official way to know the status of Shakur or any of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Africans in Israel. According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel is signatory, a person who comes from a country where he or she faces persecution is entitled to request asylum from the country to which he or she has escaped. The host country is subsequently obligated to investigate, on an individual basis, whether the person is indeed entitled to refugee status, according to specific UN-mandated criteria, which confers residency rights and numerous other benefits.
During such procedures an interim situation is created, which leads either to formal recognition of refugee status or rejection and possible deportation. But not in Israel. Despite knowing that the population of Africans residing in the country is made up of different people from different countries with different political situations – many local politicians simply refer to the asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” and threaten to deport them.
“These are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and whom we will deal with to the fullest extent of the law,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at a cabinet meeting about a month ago. Subsequently, Daniel Solomon, legal adviser to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, told reporters that “Israel has never considered itself open to immigration on a broad scale [other than in allowing special arrangements for Jewish immigrants]. We see most of this group as illegal economic migrants.”
According to UN regulations, most of the Africans here cannot be forcibly deported back to their native countries or to a third country, and lack collective protection – meaning that the asylum seekers can live here, but cannot work legally and are not entitled to health care or other benefits.
This unique limbo status will apparently continue until they can be repatriated to their homelands. For Darfuris and Sudanese – estimated to constitute less than one-quarter of the total number of African asylum seekers in Israel – this situation could continue indefinitely. And their plight is further complicated by the fact that Israel and Sudan consider each other to be enemy states, and individuals like Shakur could be charged with treason if they returned.
In 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to its Prevention of Infiltration Law that allowed authorities to imprison the “infiltrators” for repeated periods of up to three years. When the High Court of Justice struck that legislation down, Israel established Holot, a so-called open detention center, run by the Israel Prison Service, in the middle of the Negev. Although detainees are allowed to leave for a few hours a day, they have nowhere to go – the city of Be’er Sheva is over an hour away and bus service is sporadic – and they must report for roll call three times a day.
“As a survivor of my people’s genocide,” says Shakur, “I understand why Jews want their own country. And I must appreciate the Israelis, because they have saved my life. I feel bad that I am disturbing the Jewish people. But it is not right to send me to prison. I did not come here to stay. I have nowhere else to go. My mother and father went hungry so that I could go to school and be educated and help my people. Even if I wanted to live here, I would be betraying them if I stayed.
He points to his precious books – a guide for teaching oneself algebra; an intermediate physics textbook; a collection of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore; Nelson Mandela’s, “Conversations with Myself”; a Koran; and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.”
“I want to become an engineer so that I can go back and help my country,” Shakur explains. “That is why I am studying at every opportunity.”
‘Covered in wounds’
Shakur’s earliest memories are of hunger. His desperately poor, illiterate parents separated when he was young, and he was frequently sent off to farms or schools, to study, work, and be taken care of. He was often beaten and abused, by employers, teachers, terrorist rebels or soldiers. Each time he returned to his mother, he recalls, “She made me strong and respectable. Each time I was in misery, her loving taught me to love again.”
His tone of voice is even, almost dull – except when talking about his family. That’s when he tears up. “When I was 10, I ran away to the city. One day, a relative recognized me. I was so surprised to see that someone still loved me. He took me to his house and washed me. My body was covered in wounds and my hair was white from lice eggs. He helped me get better and gave me a small wheelbarrow so I could work in the market helping shoppers with their groceries.”
When he was able to attend school, Shakur did well. By the time he was 19, he had received scholarships and was studying on a regular basis, with hopes of going to university: “But then the misery came back. Our village in Darfur was burnt down and my family was in a displacement camp. An uncle was killed. I lost my mind. I was devastated.
“I was supposed to serve in the military before going to university. Instead, I wanted to join the resistance. But my mother sold her rations from the camp so that I would have money to study. One day a group of terrorists attacked, and the people beat them off and they were all killed. Kids, as young as 4 years old, were stabbing the dead bodies over and over again, screaming, ‘Revenge! Revenge!’ At that moment I understood why my family wanted me to study instead of fighting, so I could be a true human being.”
His voice cracks again. “No one has been as beloved as I. Every time there has been misery, love has saved me.”
When he was on the run, Shakur learned that soldiers had murdered his mother and family, and that Sudanese officials were searching for him. He was in danger – and was a danger to his remaining family members. His father gave him the little money he had.
Israel wasn’t his first choice. He first fled to Cairo, where the Egyptian authorities robbed him and then detained him, starving and cold, in a room full of rancid water and mosquitoes.
Shakur then found traffickers who agreed to take a group of Darfuris to Israel. On the Egyptian side of the border, they were chained and beaten; the women in the group were raped in front of them. Then, as the Egyptians fired at them, Shakur and his friends somehow scrambled, barefoot and weak, across the border.
Send-off by friends
Israelis soldiers found Shakur and took him to a detention center, then released him – an “illegal infiltrator” without papers, money or anywhere to go. Over the years, he has worked in various cities, including for two years in Tel Aviv. He has been hungry, beaten and cursed. He has also, he says, “met wonderful Israelis, who have offered me kindness and friendship.”
“But why, do some of your officials call us ‘cancer,’” he said, referring to the May, 2012 demonstration at which MK Miri Regev (Likud) referred to the Africans as “a cancer in our body.”
“Not everyone is a refugee, I agree. But some of us, like me, are. You could ask us, you could learn about us, check us out. I just need a place to be for a while, and if you let me work, I will contribute what I can, I will pay taxes, I will help others, and then I will go home when I can.”
The immigration authorities sent Shakur papers instructing him to report on February 9 to the parking lot outside the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. Half a dozen or so Israeli friends come to his apartment to see him off. He has carefully packed his belongings – and especially his precious books – in a trolley suitcase. He is leaving his laptop with its sunny slogan behind, because he has heard that laptops are not allowed at Holot. (A prison official confirmed this, but insisted that “soon detainees will be allowed to have laptops, too.”)
The immigration officials have set up a gazebo-like tent and address the prospective detainees politely, offering sandwiches and juice as they check them off against a long list. The day is balmy and sunny, the atmosphere oddly cordial, as if the detainees were boarding a bus to summer camp.
According to the officials on hand, at least 2,000 asylum seekers have to date received summonses to report to Holot. About 50 show up on this particular day; those who do not appear and are apprehended by the immigration police will be sent to a “full-fledged prison” not far from Holot.
Goor, an Israeli friend of Shakur’s, says: “I am ashamed of the way my country is treating you.”
“You should not be ashamed,” Shakur embraces Goor. “I will find a way to my rights, and this is not your fault. Most Israelis have done so much for me. Don’t feel sorry – it is I who is thanking you. I will think of Holot as a possibility. I will have nothing to do, so I will have time to study and, since I have an education, I will try to teach my friends, too.”
Shakur and the others board the large, powder-blue tourist bus. He sits near a window, waving good bye. As the driver revs the engines, they cross their wrists over their heads as if handcuffed, in the universal sign of nonviolent resistance.
Freeze on summonses
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, has publicly stated that the process of indefinite detention in Holot does not comply with the norms of international human rights.
On February 20, Haaretz reported that Israeli courts have cancelled summonses of African asylum seekers to the Holot detention facility and frozen others until appeals can be heard against them. The courts have also cited serious, fundamental problems in the call-up process.
The government has replied to petitions on behalf of asylum seekers by stating that it does not see a need to hold hearings before ordering them to go to the Holot facility, because no violation of their rights is involved.
Israeli officials do acknowledge that instead of organizing outright deportations, Holot is one of the means being used to convince asylum seekers to leave “voluntarily” – along with cash incentives.
One official in the Population and Immigration Authority, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to reporters, tells Haaretz: “Israeli policy is clear. As the Jewish state, we cannot allow unlimited numbers of infiltrators to settle here. Most of them are economic migrants. In accordance with international law and our own standards as the Jewish people, we will treat these people humanely and decently, and respect their human rights.”
Last week, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that a record 1,705 African asylum seekers left Israel in February. According to Sa’ar, this is proof that the Africans are coming to Israel for economic reasons and that the majority face no dangers in their native countries and that Israeli policies of encouraging them to leave is succeeding.Reporters are not allowed into Holot, although they can talk with the prisoners through the chain-link, razor-wire-topped fences, or by phone. In recent media reports, detainees have complained of inadequate food, a lack of heat, and numbing, debilitating boredom and despair.
“This is like being in prison in our homelands,” some detainees have told reporters.
An officer of the prison service, who also does not want to be identified, says in response that “we don’t think of these people as criminals, but this is the prison service … We will be as lenient as we can. Some of the detainees’ complaints are valid – the food isn’t great, and I myself don’t know why we take away their laptops. I hope that things will be smoothed out – after all, we only opened Holot about two months ago – and that the situation will improve.”
Shakur continues to be positive. In a recent SMS he writes, “I am fine. Please don’t worry about me. Everything is going well. I have all the time in the world – so I am able to study.”
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Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.