Sudanese Refugees, Inspired by Israel’s Success, Want to Go Home

By Julie Stahl | September 19, 2008 | 11:06 AM EDT

Jerusalem ( – Inspired by what they see as Israel’s success in nation building, hundreds of refugees from South Sudan say they want Israel to help train them for jobs so they can go home and build their own country.
“We learned a lot from Israel,” said Akon, a Christian refugee from South Sudan. The Jewish people founded the State of Israel from nothing, starting from zero, he said.
Akon said he wants to take that inspiration back home with him. “It encourages me to do more.”
There are an estimated 4,400 Sudanese refugees – most from South Sudan -- among the 12,000 African refugees and migrant workers who have fled to Israel from Egypt over the last few years. They are looking for a better way of life in the only democracy in the Middle East.
South Sudan -- populated primarily by Christians, animists and those holding indigenous beliefs -- signed a peace agreement with the Islamic northern government in 2005. It grants the South autonomy and promises a referendum on independence in six years.
An estimated 2 million South Sudanese refugees already have returned home.
For those who fled to Israel ,the situation is more complicated. Sudan has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, although South Sudan says it is friendly to Israel. And the South Sudanese refugees here entered from Egypt, so technically they could be returned to Egypt.
About 300 South Sudanese refugees in Israel are volunteering to be repatriated to their country rather than be returned to Egypt.
In August, they formed what they are calling the “The Sudan Council in Israel.” Its objectives include training the Sudanese community here for “voluntary repatriation” to South Sudan.
Akon is the spokesman for the council.
War has taken a toll on his country, he said. Many of the people don’t have even a high school education. They would like to be trained in computer technology, agriculture or mechanical engineering, Akon said.
Akon’s father was a teacher in a Catholic school in South Sudan. In 1999, the government closed all Christian schools. Militiamen killed his mother and raped his sisters, he said.. When he refused to go to a Muslim school, he was taken to northern Sudan where he was enslaved for two years until a Christian organization bought his freedom in 2001. He was 16 at the time.
 The experience encouraged him to “do good for my people, for myself, for my country,” Akon told
Akon fled to Egypt and eventually trekked across the Sinai Desert into Israel in 2006. He spent about a year in an Israeli jail, because at the time, Israel that’s where Israel was putting illegal immigrants from an enemy nation.
But in May of last year, Akon was released and given work, first in a hotel and now in a restaurant in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv.
It’s not clear what if any help Israel is willing to offer in training. But Israel does have an extensive program through its Foreign Ministry that offers training in various fields such as medicine and agriculture to Third World countries.
Akon is adamant that the South Sudanese don’t want to stay in Israel forever. Israel is a small country with enough complexities of its own, he said. They want Israel be their friend and ally. But he likened the relationship to that of a parent whose son or daughter gets married.
“You can take him [in] for awhile [until] you find a place for him,” he said. “That is why we need to go back home to our country.”