A Refugee Passover in Israel

Refugee seder, photo courtesy of Nicky Kelvin.

Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists broke matzo with Jewish Israelis in a Tel Aviv basketball court before this year’s Passover began. The “Out of Egypt” seder, a thousand-strong gathering in a seedy park near the central bus station, was four days early; many of the guests—African refugees and Asian migrant workers—are busy cleaning Israeli homes during Passover proper. The Sudanese and Eritrean guests have literal Out-of-Egypt stories to tell: Most lived in Cairo for months or years before crossing the Sinai by foot to get to Israel. But there’s no Moses in their exodus stories. There are Bedouin smugglers who charge thousands of dollars to lead them through the desert. There are Egyptian border guards who shoot. There are barbed-wire fences to run and jump—if they make it, into another people’s Zion.

The day before the refugee seder, anti-immigrant protestors in South Tel Aviv were calling on the government to do something about all the illegal “infiltrators” coming into Israel. “To ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state,” Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans for a security barrier along the Egypt-Israel border: a combination of fencing and surveillance technology, to stop the flow of Africans (one to two hundred per week) crossing into Israel.

The new barrier may keep Africans out, but there are hundreds already on their way through the Sinai, now stuck indefinitely in torture camps, where their traffickers abuse them for ransom. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reports that groups of 200 to 300 men are held in metal containers, while women are taken off and raped in secluded rooms.

For the over 20,000 African refugees who have made it out of Egypt, the Israeli Cabinet has approved a detention facility in the Negev desert, allotting 55 square feet (little more than enough room to lie down) for each detainee. According to human rights activist Roi Maor, a Housing Ministry official involved in the project says the goal of the crowded facility is for Africans “to have no reason to come here, not to spoil them, while maintaining a humanitarian line.”

For African Muslims and Christians who make it to Jewish state, deliverance from Egypt is a far cry from liberation. Most do time in immigration detention; most do not have refugee status or work permits. Most get by with a little help from NGOs, like the African Refugee Development Center, one of the groups who organized the “Out of Egypt” Pre-Passover seder in Lewinsky Park.

Why was this night different from all other nights? There were no drug deals in the park, no fights with broken liquor bottles. There was Elijah’s cup of Manishewitz on the basketball court; the bread of affliction spread with charoset, sprigs of bitter herbs on fold-out tables. There were recent exodus stories—in Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya; broken English and Hebrew. There were Bob Marley songs, in lieu of the traditional conclusion of the Passover seder—“Next year, in Jerusalem!”

The last time I was in Levinsky Park, Sudanese refugees were rallying, as polling stations opened in Sudan on January 9, 2011. One man was shaking a Star-of-David tambourine, waving the flag of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and carrying a cross with an eagle at Christ’s feet. Crowds were chanting “Bye, Bye, North Sudan.”  A Sudanese community leader thanked the Israelis who welcome them to the country and explained to those who don’t, “We are not migrant workers; we are not infiltrators; we are asylum seekers.”  A twenty-five-year-old named Gabriel said “This is a final day for us”: Finally, a day for the Southern Sudanese to vote for separation from the Northern government in Khartoum.


I first met Gabriel at All Saints Cathedral, an Anglican mission for African refugees in Cairo. That day, a Sudanese priest preached in Arabic. He began the sermon with a vision:  al Sudan al Jedeed, the New Sudan, where there’s no more war, a time of prosperity and peace. He said there are two million Sudanese in Egypt, more than the ancient Israelites. He likened all the children who were killed in Sudan to the Hebrew children Pharoah wanted to kill.

After church, Gabriel showed me a photo of himself, posing in the All Saints courtyard next to a sign: Out of Egypt engraved in parchment-colored marble. The limestone is sculpted in the shape of an open book, resting on a palm frond. He’s got his right arm around the top of the book, left finger pointing to the word Out.

In July 2005, when I started following stories of Sudanese refugees who came to Egypt, hoping the United Nations would resettle them, I heard a prophecy on a Cairo balcony. Outside a Sudanese family’s apartment, I spoke with Gabriel and his cousin Lazarus, days after their hero John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, died in a plane crash. They were sure the Sudanese government assassinated Garang, though the BBC was reporting no evidence of foul play. Southern Sudanese youth were rioting in Khartoum, throwing bottles and smashings windows. Government security was shooting back. Gabriel wondered if they would go to war again and what they would do without Garang: “Who’s God going to send next for Sudan?”

On his way over, Lazarus stopped to drink an orange Fanta—not because he was thirsty, he told us, but because that was the deal he’d made with God. He wouldn’t drink or eat anything, wouldn’t move or talk to anyone, until God showed him something. For two days, he was lying on his bed, searching the Bible: Nothing, from Exodus to Leviticus, was encouraging him, nothing—until he turned to Isaiah 14: The Lord has founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall find refuge in it.

“God protected Israel in Egypt,” Gabriel told me. “Then they went home. That’s how we feel.”

The next exodus story I heard from Gabriel was in Jerusalem, in June 2009, when he showed me the sneakers he wore to cross the Sinai. Like thousands of other Sudanese refugees in Egypt, Gabriel and a friend paid Bedouin smugglers to lead them across the desert. They don’t go because they expect Israel to be their promised land. They go because Egypt is no place for refugees, and Israel is a better bet than Libya. They go because they’ve heard, from history and holy books, that Israel is a decent place for those who were strangers in Egypt.

"Aushchwitz" by Daniel Cherrin, for Active Vision.

When Gabriel visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, he had a flashback to his childhood in southern Sudan that made him feel sick. If he’d had a camera during the war, he would have taken a picture like that—“exactly,” he told me. That was a photograph from Auschwitz. What exactly did he see? “They didn’t have food,” Gabriel told me. The Jews have survived, he said—they have Israel, because they keep telling these stories. That’s what the Holocaust means to Gabriel. Remembering everyone who died, by name, so it will never happen again. When he saw that photograph of Jews starving at Auschwitz, he had an epiphany: “These are the people who will understand us in this world.”

After three years in Israel, Gabriel doesn’t believe that anymore. Although he knows a few Israelis who understand him—his Sephardic girlfriend, the college students who tutor him in Hebrew, the Rabbis for Human Rights who invite him over for Shabbat dinner—the government won’t recognize him as a refugee; he’s officially considered an “enemy infiltrator,” because Sudan and Israel are enemies. Xenophobic protestors call his people “vermin” on the street.

Though Gabriel loves Manishewitz wine, he could not recline for long at the refugee seder. He could not afford to do no servile work, as Leviticus commands, for the first day of Passover. He had to get back to Jerusalem, to bus tables at the five-star restaurant of the King David Hotel.

Southern Sudan will declare its independence this coming July. But there’s already been violence in the contested oil-rich region between North and South Sudan. And the Darfur genocide goes on. The prognosis for peace looks bleak. Sudanese refugees await “a final day” when they can go home. In the meanwhile, those in diaspora in Israel can sit, once a year, as Passover guests, and raise a plastic cup of hope, saying “Next year, in the New Sudan.”

Parts of this essay were originally published in Tablet Magazine.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.