´South Sudanese in Israel no longer refugees´ (JERUSALEM POST) By BEN HARTMAN 03/25/12)
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Now that they have their own state, South Sudanese can no longer be
considered refugees and should prepare for return to their country in
the near future, a prominent South Sudanese activist and refugee said
Visiting Israel on what he called a privately funded mission
to “rescue the situation” that faces Southern Sudanese following a
government decision in late January to begin deporting them starting
April 1, Simon Deng described the changes that independence has
brought to the South Sudanese diaspora, during an interview Thursday
in a small hotel off Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv.
“The country is independent so the refugee card is gone in my
opinion, but when they came here they were refugees,” Deng said.
Deng, who met with members of Israel’s South Sudanese community as
well as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and
the Foreign Ministry during his four-day visit, also rejected a claim
made by many in the South Sudanese community of Israel that they
should not be returned yet or should be given asylum because of the
dire living standards and lack of clean water and health services in
“We became refugees not because of the water or because there was no
food,” said Deng. “We became refugees because of the war.
I disagree with that, I respect peoples’ opinions but let’s be
realistic and practical.”
He did however describe South Sudan as a child, a young country that
cannot be expected to hit the ground running after only eight months
On January 31, the Interior Ministry announced that all South
Sudanese in Israel would no longer be considered refugees due to the
founding of their state, and would have until April 1 to leave or
face forced deportation.
According to the UNHCR, around 60 South Sudanese have agreed to
voluntarily return before April 1, out of a population that South
Sudanese number at around 700 and the Interior Ministry says is more
than 3,000 strong. The Interior Ministry said last week that no South
Sudanese have tried to appeal their deportation or apply for refugee
status since it announced the decision.
While he agrees with the Israeli decision that South Sudanese must
return home now that they have an independent country, he believes,
like nearly all members of the community in Israel that the return
must be more organized and gradual, and the population receive more
time to prepare to leave.
When asked how he thinks the return should be carried out, Deng
suggested the government give South Sudanese around 12 months to
return, giving them a transition period to prepare their children
psychologically for moving to South Sudan, a country where their
children have never before set foot.
That said, he rebuked an oft-repeated claim in the South Sudanese
community that the forced deportations could harm relations between
the two countries, saying that the government in Juba does not care
about the small community in Israel and that “they have too many
problems on their table right now.”
Deng has a bizarre resume to go along with a tragic life story.
At nine years old he was kidnapped and forced into domestic slavery
for a family in north Sudan, where he was tortured and “did the work
of donkeys,” he said.
When he was 12, he was rescued by a group of Shilluk tribesmen who
recognized him as one of their own and brought him back to South
Sudan. He said he later became a national Sudanese swimming champion
in the 1980s, before fleeing to the US, where he has lived since
1989. In the US he became a full-time lifeguard at Coney Island, a
job he maintains, when he is not on speaking tours or visiting
relatives in South Sudan. Tall and broad-shouldered with a line of
traditional Shilluk tribal markings on his forehead, it is safe to
assume he does not resemble the average Coney Island lifeguard.
Today, aged 53, he could be considered the Southern Sudanese
equivalent of “professional Jews;” those who work in Israel advocacy
and travel widely to support causes close to the hearts of the global
Deng carries a business card that says “Human Rights Activist” and
advertises the “Sudan Freedom Walk,” an anti-slavery and genocide
march in which he participated three times between 2006 and 2007 from
New York to Washington, later from Brussels to The Hague, and finally
a walk held in Chicago.
Deng has visited Israel five times and has worked for the cause of
Among other engagements, he addressed the “Durban Watch Conference”
on behalf of pro-Israel organization Stand With Us in 2011.
In his remarks he called the United Nations “a tool against Israel”
and spoke of how the body’s focus on Israel and the “so-called
Palestinian refugees” has prevented the world from focusing on the
issue of Arab racism against black Africans.
In conversation he also appears to speak in hasbaratinted (pro-Israel
diplomacy) language, referring to the UN as the “United do nothing
Nations” and talking of how claims of Israeli apartheid are
ridiculous when compared to racism in Iran or the treatment of Coptic
Christians in Egypt.
Deng said that independence has not changed the cause for activists
like himself, saying that he still spends much of the year traveling
to South Sudan to help with development issues.
The message of his short trip to Israel seems easily summed up by a
single statement made Thursday, when he called on the government to
carry out a kinder, gentler series of deportations.
“Israel should not send them off with anger, with handcuffs. A friend
has to listen to a friend.” (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post 03/25/12)
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