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It’s Time for all People to have their Festival of Freedom

April 17, 2011 – 2:55 pm27 Comments

Karim on a recent trip to Sudan

By Keren Tuch

In a couple of days time we will be reciting the familiar Hebrew song from the Passover Haggadah  “Avadim hayinu ata b’nei chorin – We were once slaves, but now we are free.”  This motif is repetitive throughout the Jewish scripture, especially the Torah.  Whilst I am grateful for this freedom, my mind casts out to those who are still in servitude in Egypt today including the political prisoners who have tried to change a corrupt system, and the myriad of asylum seekers who are seemingly stuck in a country that doesn’t want them.

Karim was one of the ‘fortunate’ asylum seekers who managed to leave Cairo for Melbourne 6 years ago.  My first encounter with Karim was at the Jewish Aid Office in Melbourne in Feb 2011. He was invited to talk to the Year Nine students of Bialik College as part of their social justice curriculum.  He had fled his hometown and family in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan 11 years before arriving in Australia, due to heavy conflict and persecution in his region.   The Nuba Mountain range is in central Sudan and has seen bloodshed since 1987 between the Nuba people and government forces supported by the indigenous Arab Baggara.

As a 16 year old, Karim embarked on a 25 hour journey by stealth to reach Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to then flee towards the Egyptian border. Upon arrival in Egypt he applied for refugee status, and had to wait 10 years before it was approved, after two rejections and appeals.  For a decade he felt he was stuck in a country that did not want him. He recounts numerous stories of mistreatment and abuse to him and the other estimated 23,000* Sudanese in Egypt.  When Karim would go for a walk on the streets, he would be called ‘black African’.  Police brutality, abuse and discrimination were rampant.

Life was tough for Karim.  He shared a small house with 11 others from his tribe and worked illegally as a cleaner so he could pay the rent and survive.  Other asylum seekers today are not as lucky, unable to find work, and struggling to get by.  An asylum seeker in Egypt is not allowed to work and is not allowed to access government services.  Unemployment is rife for the Egyptian people, even menial manual jobs, let alone foreigners. Asylum seekers live in transit, not really knowing what will become of their future.

Due to the appalling conditions for refugees in Egypt, many try to cross the border into Israel, despite the risk of being shot or captured by the Egyptian border patrols.

Karim was patient and after 11 years of waiting in perilous conditions, he was granted freedom in the form of resettlement in Australia, where he has lived with his wife and daughter for the past 6 years.  In December 2010 he returned to Sudan for the first time in 17 years to visit his parents and vote in the momentous referendum.

Karim’s story is not one of bricks, mortar and traditional slavery.  However asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt are oppressed and abused and their freedom is left in the hands of fate.

Chag sameach, and may all people of the world be freed from oppression and slavery.

* This figure is based on UNHCR Feb 2011 statistics. However, this figure is likely to be much higher as some Sudanese might not register with UNHCR.

Keren Tuch is the Education Director of Jewish Aid Australia (JAA).  JAA mobilises the Australian Jewish community in the pursuit of humanitarian relief and social justice for disadvantaged people in Australia and overseas, including the Nuba Mountains and Darfuri communities in Melbourne and Sydney.

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