By Mohan Xu
Mutasim A. Ali talked about his own experiences in Israel being an African refugee and about asylum seekers and refugee policy in Israel on Tuesday evening, Feb. 25, in Tydings Hall.
“One of the reasons why so many other people have to leave Sudan and other countries in Africa is primarily for genocide and human rights violations,” he said.
Ali grew up in Darfur, a region in Sudan whose government is mostly dominated by Sudanese Arab elites. In 2003 they launched a genocide campaign to change the racial makeup of the region. At that time, people who lived in Darfur were mostly from African indigenous groups.
“And so the government used Arab militia to attack indigenous people, to displace them and take their land,” he said.
In 2003, Ali and his family were forced apart after his home was attacked by the militia. From then until today, Ali said his family lives in a displaced person’s camp in Darfur, a region in western Sudan.
Ali himself moved to Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, because he wanted to apply for universities. He emphasized that for him, going to school was not about earning a degree, finding jobs and having a good life. Instead, he saw school as a platform to talk about the past and what his family had experienced in Darfur.
“Because Sudan is a dictatorship, I wasn’t able to express my views [about the genocide],” Ali said. “So university campus is the only space where you can somehow speak. You can be detained after that, but at least you can express your views in university.”
Ali did get arrested several times and in the end left Sudan, but “I didn’t have in my mind that I would end up in Israel.”
He gave two reasons for why he ended up in Israel. The primary reason was because Israel does not have any diplomatic relationships with Sudan and so would not deport him. Many people who fled to Egypt were deported back to Sudan or were subject to detention, according to Ali.
The second reason was that American Jews had advocated for Darfur people. They had also condemned the Darfur genocide through public protests. These people gave Ali hope. He said, “The whole thing gave me the feeling that going to Israel would be a safe place because of that support.”
After arriving in Israel, Ali began to think about how he could survive and help his friends but also how he could improve the situation back home. For Ali, seeking asylum and being a refugee was not the goal; using the situation of being an asylum seeker and refugee to speak publicly against the Darfur genocide was his goal.
He spent four and half months in Israel’s Saharonim Prison, an Israeli detention facility for African asylum seekers located in the Negev desert. After that, he moved to another detention camp and then eventually to south Tel Aviv. Ali became the first Sudanese refugee to receive official asylum seeker status in 2016.
It was hard for Ali to have asylum seeker status in Israel because of Israeli policy and social issues. Many refugees and asylum seekers met difficulties and challenges there.
Ali mentioned Israel’s “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which deems people who irregularly cross the border, even refugees, as infiltrators. Israel built the Holot detention center, where he lived for over a year, for Sudanese and Eritrean males only.
Israel’s Deposit Law also brought financial disadvantages to asylum seekers. Ali explained that “20% from an employee’s monthly income must be deposited in a private fund and 16% from the employer will be deposited into the same private fund.” The money in this fund cannot be touched by either the asylum seeker or their employer.
These policies made it difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, but Ali said it became even more difficult in 2018 when Israel made an agreement with third countries to deport Sudanese people there. Many people in Israel protested the agreement. “There are a lot of people who care and don’t believe that people should be treated like that,” he said.
The Israeli Supreme Court ultimately blocked the deportations, but the policies and the threatened deportations pushed many refugees and asylum seekers to leave Israel voluntarily.
However, Israel still has some benefits. For example, they have “strong judicial review,” like when the Supreme Court stopped the deportations to third countries. Also, the country has given approximately 1,300 Darfurians humanitarian status.
Now, Ali is a master’s student in law at George Washington University in D.C.
This speaking engagement was organized by junior history and secondary social studies education major Ben Rosenbaum, who is the programming chair for Terps for Israel. He has been aware of the issue of African refugees in Israel. Rosenbaum said he learned more about how African refugees and asylum seekers are not necessarily “treated so great.”
“As a concerned pro Israel student, I want to create more visibility for this issue and focus on what I was doing well and also what I can do as a student leader,” Rosenbaum said. “I also want to make a positive change on what I think is a really important issue.”