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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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27 Comments »

  • Marilyn Shepherd says:

    I am afraid I do have to giggle at the notion of Jewish refugee aid because the jews have created the largest and most long term group of refugees in the world over the last 53 years and refuse to even mention them let alone recognise their human rights in their own country.

    If these Africans get to Israel they don’t get treated one jot better than in Egypt and are deported as soon as Israel can do it.

  • Malki Rose says:

    Keren,
    Kol Hakavod on a wonderful and timely reminder.
    Jewish Aid does spectacular work with Sudanese refugees and their communities.
    May Karim and all his people be granted the right to live as all others, to live freely without oppression and prejudice.
    Chag Sameach!

  • frosh says:

    Hi Keren,

    This article was really inspiring. I’m definitely going to be making use of your message and example at our Seder table this year.

    Marilyn Shepherd,

    Haven’t seen you in a while. How are things going these days at the Online League of Holocaust Deniers and Anti-Semites? Those pesky Jews still keeping you flat out busy?

    http://theblankpagesoftheage.blogspot.com/2009/05/politics-of-marilyn.html

  • Grandma C says:

    I would refer Marilyn Shepherd to the short documentary which won the Academy Award in its category, called Strangers No More, and get real…
    For those of you who are genuinely interested in an example of Israel’s treatment of refugee children (from various places in Africa and elsewhere), I have been told that Strangers No More will be screened at Limmud Oz in Sydney in June.

    Also Marilyn should note that post 1948 there were approximately an equal number ( i.e. 800,000) of Jewish refugees (as opposed to Arab refugees) who were forced to flee all the Arab countries their families had been living in for centuries, and were all resettled eventually in Israel. That is the difference. Israel absorbed, but many neighbouring Arab countries did not attempt to absorb their brethren who were refugees from the 1948 war, which the Arab countries initiated.

  • Keren Tuch says:

    Hi Marilyn,

    I’n glad the notion of a Jewish Aid organisation amuses you. I equally hope Muslim Aid (an international humanitarian aid organisation) and World Vision (a Christian Aid organisation) elicits some giggles from you as people from all of these religions have caused havoc on another people in modern history. I do not think that this negates people from all of these religions from helping their own people and others too.

    For more giggles, please refer to the Peres Peace foundation or the Abraham Fund. (Israeli organisations that are helping ‘the most long term group of refugees.’)

    I can’t comment on Israeli treatment of African refugees as I have not interviewed any Sudanese that are living in Israel. I just pray that that the Israeli police are not randomly beating up Sudanese on the street. I also hope that organisations like African Refugee Development Centre and Tov Ladaat (Good To Know – an organisation that financially supports refugees receiving higher education) are making life a little more bearable for the refugees.

  • Marky says:

    Marilyn Shepherd: the giggling troll. AKA the notorious holocaust denying dole bludger

  • Back to the topic of the story: is Pesach about celebrating our freedom from slavery and subsequent formation as a nation? or about seeking to free others who are still in slavery?

    Can it be both? Must it be both? Is one more important than the other?

  • samo says:

    Pesach is about celebrating our freedom from slavery.
    It is a story about the Jewish people and our journey towards becoming a nation.

    But how we can sit for 3 hours and be told that we must feel like we were slaves in Egypt, and then at the same time not feel a deep empathy for slaves who exist in the world today.

    Very similar to going on a trip to Poland, standing in Auschwitz and exclaiming Never Again! when ‘Again’ is happening today in Sudan.

    Remembering for the sake of remembering is worthless!

    We remember so that we can learn from the past to ensure that injustices are not repeated.

    We will lean, we will drink the 4 cups and we will find the afikoman. But let’s also use our seders this year as a forum to mobilise our family and friends towards proactively seeking out opportunities to assist those, like Karim, who are still yearning for a taste of the freedom that we are so lucky to enjoy.

  • samo says:

    A great quote from Chief Rabbi Sacks:

    “Why should you not hate the stranger?” asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

  • Marky says:

    On the other hand there are those who are/were demonstrating in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen Kurds etc., holding and shouting slogans and celebrating the murder of Jews in Israel, who have zero to do with their misery. I can’t see why we should have any sympathy for these.

  • Marky -it has nothing to do with how much oppressed people in those countries hate us.

    Samo said it’s about OUR freedom, and the JEWISH people becoming a nation. I can easily sit for 3 hours and talk about the history of OUR people and this most important and formative event. Why can’t we just keep it at that?

  • Marky says:

    David, where did I write anything about the Seder? I also very much doubt that the Chief Rabbi was discussing the Seder.

  • Marky – my comment about the Seder was directed at Samo’s earlier comment: “But how we can sit for 3 hours …”

  • samo says:

    I heard an awesome insight last week:

    When we dip our fingers in the wine whilst reciting the ten plagues, we are doing this to acknowledge the pain and bloodshed of the Egyptians (our enemies).

    We are taking wine out of our glass to show sympathy for people who enslaved us for generations.

    Marky, our tradition teaches us that our enemies are still humans (made in the image of god) and that we should never rejoice in their suffering. (even if they rejoice in ours)

  • Samo – this is why we don’t say the full Hallel for the entire festival of Pesach (only the first two days). As the Talmud says: “[God says] My creations are drowning in the sea, and you sing?”. Also in Proverbs: “do not rejoice when your enemies fall”.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    This isn’t quite on point for this very interesting discussion (And if I wasnt under pressure cos of Pesach prep and days away from the office Id love to discuss properly) but heres Rabbi Sacks on the meaning of freedom and what we might teach our children about that.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chief-rabbi-lord-sacks/passover-message-for-huff_b_849623.html

    Chag Sameach all.

  • Marky says:

    David and Samo, It’s not so simple as we also say “Shfoch Chamoscho”. Of course it is because “achal es Yaakov ve’es novehui heshamu”.

  • Marky – there are multiple contradictory feelings here. We are definitely allowed to feel joy at redemption, but it is tempered because it comes at the expense of others. The notion of limiting our joy could even apply when God’s wrath is poured out against His/our enemies, as per the quote from Proverbs. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray for their destruction. After all, they want to kill us!

    Note that I disagree strongly with Samo about the nature of Pesach being about empathy with ALL others who suffer from slavery. It’s about US!

  • Mandi Katz says:

    In Rabbi Sack’s piece but certainly in his writing more generally (including the book of essays whcih he has written about the haggada) I see a lot of implicit support for the idea expressed by Keren.

    He talks about the unique mix in Judaism of the universal and the particular – yes this is our particualr story and we need to celebrate that but it it is even richer and more powerful when we see its broader application and meaning. For some that might translate into an imperative to take action to try to make the world better but even awareness itself is powerful.

    The haggada itches to be made new each year – its always about us and our particular story, thats for sure, but its not only about us because of course, what would we be if that were true?….(and perhaps thetein its longevity and enduring relevance?)

    What does that balance between “us” and “beyond us” mean for each of us? Its a beautiful, age old, very very Jewish struggle to work that out. And the wonderful part is we dont have to agree with each other.

  • Keren Tuch says:

    Thanks for sharing the article Mandi.

    It is mentioned in the Torah about 36 times to remember that “you were once slaves in Egypt therefore you should help the orphan, widow and stranger.”

    This resonates with me personally, and why I find Pesach important and meaningful.

  • Marky says:

    Samo, I never wrote anything about rejoicing. I said having sympathy. Surely you don’t think I should have sympathy for someone sitting in jail for blowing up a bus, killing a family or for a nazi murderer being hanged etc or for their sympathisers??

  • Akiva says:

    I can’t believe that this article can have been written without a mention of the Palestinians. Nor a mention in the comments thread. Talk about an elephant in the room. How cowardly.

  • frosh says:

    Jenny/Akiva,

    You’re incorrect. Palestinians were alluded to by the Holocaust denier who opened the comments – once again, you’re in good company!

    I don’t think anyone else here is being cowardly. They just don’t think it is particularly relevant to the discussion. I know you find this difficult to believe, since you see everything through the prism of your obsessive anti-Israel politics. I doubt we could have discussion over our favourite brand of pickled cucumbers without you trying to politicise it in the same way as you have attempted here.

  • Marky says:

    Akiva, who do you think I was referring to when I wrote ……”for someone sitting in jail for blowing up a bus, killing a family…… ?

  • Marky says:

    There will definitely be plenty of rejoicing upon the recent news of Osama’s demise..

  • Ittay says:

    Samo is right when he writes “ how we can sit for 3 hours and be told that we must feel like we were slaves in Egypt, and then at the same time not feel a deep empathy for slaves who exist in the world today.
    Very similar to going on a trip to Poland, standing in Auschwitz and exclaiming Never Again! when ‘Again’ is happening today in Sudan.
    Remembering for the sake of remembering is worthless!”

    Two weeks ago, Professor Irwin Cotler wrote a powerful call to action in the Jpost regarding the ongoing genocides in the South Kordofan, Blue Nile and the Abyei region’s of Sudan.

    http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=254847

    The article lists a number of practical steps that can be taken right now to stop the atrocities going on in Sudan. Definitely worth reading this Shabbat, and taking action about on Sunday through lobbying our politicians and marching in the streets.

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