Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Which I am Dead Serious

I made a promise I intend to keep.
B is a refugee from Southern Sudan. He and his family arrived in Israel in late July of 2007 along with thousands of other African refugees who slipped through the Egyptian border with the help of Bedouin trackers. Unlike many of the other refugees, B was not jailed. He was boarded onto a bus, along with about 6 other refugee families and dumped on the grounds of the Rose Garden adjacent to the Knesset- the home of Israel's parliament- in Jerusalem. It is there that I met him.
To be fair, I will say that I met B's daughter, Y, before I met him. When I arrived at the Rose Garden, laden with clothing and food, (none of which was actually needed), the refugees were huddled in distinct groups, talking in Arabic and looking slightly bewildered by the mass of disorganized volunteers that had come to help. Y was standing amidst a group of men, dressed in a bright pink faux leather winter coat, clutching her father's arm. I waved at her, figuring that if nobody would direct me as to how I could be helpful, I might as well play with the children. She smiled and buried her face in her father's body. I was entranced by her smile and by her incongruent coat which she wore so proudly in the summer heat. I would follow her anywhere and I did.
B's family, through the kindness of various Jewish Believers (Jews who believe in Jesus), found a home first in one suburb of Jerusalem and then in another. They've been living in relative peace now for almost a year. B and his wife, M, both work menial jobs in the community where they reside and Y has started Israeli kindergarten. Her Hebrew is almost fluent. The other two kids, J and A stay at home. At the beginning, I would visit them at least once a week, now a days I'm lucky if I get there once a month. I miss them. The visits I pay them are sometimes for my own benefit as well as theirs. Sometimes I just need to get out of the city; out of my life and play with some kids for a while.
I told B that I would write down his story if he told it to me. This is more complicated than it seems. His English is manageable, but not entirely coherent, and my spoken Arabic is almost non-existent. This is what I know: B was born in Southern Sudan to father who was wealthy and involved in the separatist government during the Civil War. He was a pagan and had two wives. B is one his youngest children. During the war, all his property was destroyed and he and four of his sons escaped into Ethiopia. Of those four sons, one made it to the United States, two may have made it back to Sudan and one was killed. B's father himself returned to Sudan, but was killed along with B's mother soon afterwards. As for B, at some point he left his village for Khartoum, where he was educated. I don't know the extent of his education. At some point he told me that he worked during the day and learned at night, which seemed to imply that he has some sort of higher education. However, he has also told me that he was unable to attend university because he was avoiding a mandatory draft, which would have meant sure death.
It was the draft that compelled B and his new wife, M to Egypt. B had converted to Christianity along with his brothers, and the combination of being both a Christian and from Southern Sudan, meant that he would almost certainly be killed. Most of his classmates were killed in exactly those circumstances. At first, the army sent him letters, then it threatened him with jail, and then with death. With the help of the English missionaries who ran the school he worked in, B changed his name and fled to Egypt. He reached Egypt via boat, which he was able to board only by the kindness of a fellow Southern Sudanese policeman who didn't challenge his assumed name.
B stayed in Egypt for five years. At first it went well for him and his family. He had two more children (Y was born in Sudan) and he and M had opened up a restaurant. But soon the mood changed and the Sudanese in Egypt were being attacked and told they should leave. Then there were the notorious shootings in front of the Sudanese embassy. B knew he couldn't stay in Egypt. He payed some Bedouin friends of his to smuggle him and his family over the boarder into Israel. I don't know how he knew that Israel would give him save haven. Maybe he just knew to go north. In any case, he has told me numerous times that he had always dreamed to see his holy land and now he has. He also dreams of going back to a peaceful Sudan to fix his broken country. I am not sure that dream will come to pass.
Y is prone to asking the oddest theological questions. One day she asks me whether Jesus has a body or not. I want to tell her that wars have been fought over that very question, but I don't even know how to explain to her that I am a Jew and that Jesus is not exactly my area of expertise let alone discuss complicated spiritual matters. I assure her that God loves her (no matter His form) and tell her to ask her father.
One Thursday before Passover we are swinging in the little playground next to her house and she says: "Adam and Eve ate from the tree and then the Egyptians were evil, right?" I pause for a second, but then answer in assent. After all, that's as good an explanation for presence of evil in the world as any I've got. Later, we sit in the trailer and sing the Passover songs that she learned in kindergarten, while her mother looks on, amused, but not understanding a word. I do not realize how moved I am until I am waiting for the bus back to Jerusalem on a lonely stretch of road. Here I am, in Israel, singing songs that generations of Jews have sung, with a little Christian girl who indeed came up from Egypt. Maybe she has just as much right to the song as I do. Sometimes the world is a good place to be.
The next time I see B, I am going to urge him to try and get a visa to the United States. His brother now has U.S. citizenship. This might make things easier. and he might be safer there. I want to say that B and his family will be able to stay in Israel and live in security. I can't say that. There is a distinct possibility that the state will deport the thousands of African refugees that have illegally entered its boarders. It will claim that it is doing so for the safety and security of its citizens and not many people will gainsay the state's right to do so. The politics of these sort of things are always complicated. Except, sometimes they're not. Sometimes, there's a right thing to do and there's a wrong thing to do. Now is one of those times.

Thesis Watch: No Comment

Book Rec: What is the What, by Dave Eggers

Cubbie Watch: 4.5 games up.

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