‘One of the finest hours of the State of Israel’

‘One of the finest hours of the State of Israel’

Giving shelter to Sudanese refugees

Many of you throughout the world and in Israel are aware of the bloody war that has been taking place for some time in the Sudan. This is a war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of victims and spawned a vast number of refugees, particularly in the Darfur region.

In recent weeks since hundreds of refugees from Sudan have crossed the Egyptian border, after an arduous journey on foot, and have entered the areas of the State of Israel, we have been exposed to the terrible tragedy and by force of events have become parties to finding a solution to the problem of the refugees who have arrived in Israel.

In the evening hours of July 8, I received an urgent request from the prime minister’s office to help a group of refugees who were left stranded without anything in a public park in Jerusalem. We responded immediately to the request, and within hours we geared up for the absorption of dozens of refugees at the Ibim Youth Village near the town of Sderot, in order to provide them with refuge and shelter. From the very first moment, I had no doubts that as sons of the Jewish people, a people which has experienced persecution, expulsion, and exile, and which during the Holocaust enjoyed no support and received no offers of protection and asylum, we could not stand aside and witness the plight of the refugees, bereft of home and homeland, who are in mortal danger in their country. I knew that we had to enlist immediately, for humanitarian reasons and out of a sense of identity with the travails of the refugees, and provide them with shelter and a sense of security.

The 58 refugees, whom we absorbed in Ibim, encountered the devoted staff of the youth village upon their arrival. The staff organized itself expeditiously and efficiently and placed itself at the ready to assist the refugees in entering the housing units. During the academic year these units house young immigrants who participate in the many programs of the Jewish Agency but during this time, due to the summer vacation, were vacant.

With the aid of a ‘3-year-old Sudanese refugee who speaks English, and became a translator and liaison between the village staff and the refugees, those absorbed were briefed on life’s routine in the region including rules of conduct in emergency situations dictated by the firing of Qassam missiles. We had to put in a great deal of effort to explain to them the unique situation which the region’s residents have been subjected to in the last seven years.

Among members of the group, there are ‘4 children and youths under the age of 18, two pregnant women, and 11 young men, all under the age of 4’. Therefore our first concern, aside from providing food and basic commodities such as diapers, baby food, mineral water, and elementary equipment for babies, was how to occupy the children. Two students from Ibim, Mulo from Ethiopia and Robert from the Caucasus in the former Soviet Union, enlisted in this task immediately and are occupying the children with games, songs, and creative artistic activity.

Contributions of clothes and toys on behalf of the refugees flowed from the very outset from Sderot and regional communities as well as from Sapir College, which is adjacent to our youth village and which itself is contending with difficulties in registering students for the upcoming academic year due to the threat of the Qassams.

The Health Ministry and doctors from the Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) organization, with the help of volunteer students, conducted medical examinations on the refugees and immunized the babies and children with inoculations that are customary in the Western world and are obligatory in Israel.

With the collaboration of the Committee on Behalf of the Darfur Refugees in Israel, the young men were provided employment in agricultural work within the region’s communities, to enable them to make a decent living.

On behalf of all my colleagues in the Jewish Agency I would like to express my pride and congratulate ourselves that we had the privilege to lend a helping hand to refugees who had lost everything and provided them with a sense of security and protection. As one of the refugees put it aptly, "On our way here, our Muslim brothers trained their weapons at me and here in Israel, you the Jews are stretching out your hand."

This is an opportunity for me to thank all the workers of the Jewish Agency who took part in this operation, first and foremost the director general, Moshe Vigdor; the director of the absorption unit in the aliyah department, Zalman Perlmuter; and the director of the Ibim Youth Village, Sony Singer, and the wonderful staff at her side.

This is one of the finest hours of the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency. This is one of the finest hours of the Jewish people, for whom the values of mercy, charity, and compassion will always be central.

Zeev Bielski is chairman of the Jewish Agency. This piece is adapted from a letter he sent to Jewish leaders around the world.