Lunch with Jack: From Sudan to Jerusalem

by Brian on January 20, 2011

in In the News,Politics

Refugees travel from Sudan north through Egypt to Israel

One of the hot topics in the news these past months has been the steady influx of refugees from Africa who have crossed the border between Egypt and Israel, and Israel’s subsequent response of building a fence to keep the Africans out.

With 1,000 refugees arriving every month now, the issue is not trivial. It’s further complicated by the historical Jewish imperative to treat the less fortunate with kindness and compassion and not close the floodgates.

Until recently, the subject was mostly theoretical for me. I had never sat down and actually talked with someone who had made the long journey northward and slipped across the Sinai border.

So I was very intrigued when the opportunity arose to spend a Shabbat meal with a refugee from Darfur, now living in Jerusalem and working as a cleaner. Ma’awiya Mohamed Adam, who goes by his “cultural” name Jack, had earlier in the day given a talk at our synagogue. He joined us at the Shabbat table of our friends Bob and Ruth, accompanied by a volunteer from the U.S. who is helping him write and edit his speaking material.

Jack was quite articulate as he explained who was fighting whom, why, and for how long. We learned about peace agreements that have been broken, and the current struggles by southern Sudan to secede from the violent north.

Near the end of the conversation, I decided to ask a tough and potentially inflammatory question. What did Jack think of the fence Israel is building? He must be against something that would prevent his country-mates from finding safe haven in Israel, I imagined. His answer surprised me.

Jack was all for the fence, he said. He understood Israel’s dilemma and explained that, as a small country, Israel could not be expected to absorb refugees indefinitely. The fence should be built…but here was the kicker: all refugees already in Israel should receive legal resident status and be allowed to work and build their families here, at least until the fighting stops in Darfur.

”I feel like I am family with many Israelis,” Jack said during his formal talk in shul. “But inside I am still Sudanese and I will go back to Sudan when peace comes.”

What would happen to other would-be asylum seekers, I asked? There were other countries in Africa that would take in the displaced Sudanese, Jack assured us. Once word filtered south that there was now a wall preventing entry into Israel, the flow would surely stop.

I’m not sure what to make of Jack’s response. Was he presenting a politically balanced position calculated to win Israeli favor, or was he thinking mostly about how to make the best of his own situation, while averting his eyes to others in a similar, bleak predicament?

The fence and the African migration test Israel’s conceptions about what kind of country we want to be. Should we be a refuge for at least some of the world’s most downtrodden? Or must we protect ourselves from the slippery slope of a demographic danger.

I don’t have an easy answer. And neither, apparently, did our new friend Jack.

This post appeared on the Israelity blog after our Shabbat meal with Jack

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