Mutasim Ali always believed that he would succeed in his fight to secure refugee status for the thousands of asylum seekers in Israel. He just never thought that he would attain the status himself.
As a leader in the movement for refugee rights, Ali, 29, assumed that his activism — which included organizing large-scale protests that drew international attention — had ruffled the Israeli government enough to make him persona non grata inside Israel.
So it came as a great surprise when, on June 23, he learned that he was the first Sudanese national in Israel to receive refugee status from the Ministry of Interior.
The following day, he sat at a cafe in South Tel Aviv, drinking a glass of Coca- Cola with lemon, as his phone lit up with calls and texts from friends and journalists. As the head of the African Refugee Development Center, Ali is accustomed to dealing with the media. But he looked a little overwhelmed at all the attention, focused so suddenly on him alone. His elation at the news, he said, was tempered by the fact that so many other asylum seekers are still living in limbo in Israel.
“My happiness will not be complete unless this will apply to the rest of the community,” he said.
Of the close to 40,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel, just five of them — four Eritreans and now Ali — have received refugee status. According to Human Rights Watch, in most other countries, a majority of Eritreans and Sudanese are given protection as refugees. Israel’s paltry record by comparison reflects a hostile climate toward the asylum seekers there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called them a “threat” to Israel’s national identity and security.
Ali was born in Darfur, in Western Sudan, in 1986. At the age of 5, his father sent him to a distant village to go to school. For most of his adolescence, Ali believed that his father made him leave because he disliked him, but he later understood that he wanted a better future for his son. Since then, his father has been his personal hero, a guiding force through Ali’s tumultuous life.
In 2003, when Ali was a teenager, he enrolled in university in Omdurman, not far from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. There he became an activist for Darfur. In 2005, Ali’s family was forced to flee its village when regime-backed militias set it aflame. Until today, his parents and five siblings remain in an internally displaced persons camp in Sudan, where his parents have continued their careers as teachers. The day after Ali learned that he had been given refugee status, he planned to call his parents over Skype through a line that would obscure his location. Receiving phone calls from Israel is considered a “betrayal of the country,” Ali said.
At university, Ali became involved in groups trying to raise awareness about the human rights abuses by the government against the people of Darfur. He said he was imprisoned and tortured for his activism, but he would not provide details, saying, “I’m not comfortable speaking about that.” In 2008, after university, he worked as a teacher and found that he was unable to continue his advocacy. He was no longer allowed on campus, and off-campus activism was too dangerous. He felt that he had a choice: Either return to Darfur to take up arms against the regime, or become a refugee and advocate for Darfur from abroad.
A pacifist at heart, he decided to come to Israel in 2009, which he chose in part because of the fact that it has no relationship to Sudan and therefore could not deport him. After a harrowing trip across the Egyptian border, Ali was picked up by Israeli forces, that sent him to Saharonim, a detention facility in the Negev, for four months. He was let out with a temporary visa that did not allow him to work legally or to access health care. Ali made his way to Lewinsky Park in South Tel Aviv, a patch of concrete and grass that has become the de facto hub for asylum seekers in Israel. He soon found work in a plastics factory in northern Israel, and then worked as a waiter and a chef in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s policy toward asylum seekers is one of temporary protection, which allows them to stay in the country until they can be safely deported to their countries of origin. Israel considers Eritrea too dangerous for deportation and it has no relations with Sudan, making it impossible to send asylum seekers back there. Yet up until recently, Israel did not allow asylum seekers to apply for refugee status, leaving them in a legal limbo as they renewed their temporary visas again and again.
In Israel, Ali shifted his activism away from Darfuri rights and toward the status of asylum seekers. Ali was instrumental in organizing a series of protests called March for Freedom. According to Daria Carmon, a close friend who met him when volunteering at the ARDC, Ali brought together the Sudanese and Eritrean communities, overcoming differences to unite for the same cause. “He was born to do this,” she said of his activism.
Meanwhile, like the people he served, Ali was struggling to attain refugee status. According to his lawyer, Asaf Weitzen, Ali went to the Ministry of Interior several times to ask for an asylum application, but was told to come back within months or a year, only to be told the same thing when he would return. In 2012, Ali refused to leave the ministry until he was given an application for refugee status, and finally he was able to submit one. Then he waited.
“Nothing happened, nobody called him for an interview, and nobody processed it,” Weitzen said.
In 2014, Ali was ordered to report to Holot, a new facility for asylum seekers in the Negev. Israel says that Holot is a “residency center,” but asylum seekers describe it as a harsh detention camp. After a year in Holot, asylum seekers are allowed to return to the Israeli streets, once again with temporary visas. Ali continued his activism from inside, staying in close touch with other advocates.
As the months passed, Carmon said, she sensed a creeping bitterness in his perspective on Israeli society, but she also noted that he ultimately remained optimistic. “He kept hope alive for me and for people who were out here, whose rights weren’t abridged,” she said. After six months, three administrative petitions and three appeals to the High Court of Justice, Ali was released.
According to HRW, because of the difficult conditions for asylum seekers, thousands of Sudanese have sought refuge elsewhere or have returned to Sudan, sometimes facing prison and torture. Many of Ali’s friends have left. But he said that he decided to stay in Israel because he was tired of fleeing over and over again. He also wanted to see if he could attain asylum. “I said I am here, and I have to pursue this,” he said.
As Ali waited for news on his case, he decided to continue his education. In 2015, he was able to enroll in the law program at the College of Law and Business, a private school in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. Ali said that he knew the university was taking a chance on him because of his temporary visa, but that it decided to give him the opportunity when several of his supporters wrote recommendations.
On Thurdsay, June 23, Ali was taking an exam in contracts law when he saw a text from Weitzen, telling him to call immediately. Ali finished the exam and, upon Weitzen’s instructions, took a taxi to the Tel Aviv office of the Hotline For Refugees and Migrants. It was there that Weitzen presented him with the document that had just been faxed in from the Ministry of Interior, declaring Ali a refugee.
Ali said that he cried when he learned the news. “I was so emotional that it took me so much for this situation,” he said.
Ali said that now that he has refugee status, he will be able to travel outside the country for the first time in the seven years since he came to Israel. He plans to restart his activism for Darfuri rights. Ultimately, he said, he hopes to return to Darfur.
According to Weitzen, Ali’s case could set a precedent for other Darfuri refugees.
“It says that someone from Darfur is a refugee, according to the Israeli standard and measures. It gives hope that people will stay and persist and not give up,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ali will be able to live in Tel Aviv without fear of being detained again. He will also have Israeli health care, and be able to vote in municipal elections. Ali, who carries a Hand of God keychain that says “I love Israel,” and who speaks fluent Hebrew, says that he owes a debt of gratitude to the state.
“It is his dream come true to become an Israeli,” Carmon said. “Never has there been a more worthy person to become an Israeli.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.