JUBA, South Sudan — It’s early morning in Juba and the sun is already high. A chartered plane delivering the fourth consignment of South Sudanese returnees from Israel is running late — as usual. “When Middle East Time meets African Time, all one can do is hope for the best,” jokes Mr. Paul from the South Sudanese Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
Finally the plane appears, shudders to a landing. The door opens and the ramp is lowered. The returnees exit one by one, shading their eyes from the glaring sun: a woman in a pink dress and white high heels carrying a sleeping baby in her arms; a man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey and a baseball cap flipped backwards; a young boy with a guitar on his back and massive light blue headphones. Another boy has a skateboard in his hand — it won’t take him long to realize that unlike in Tel Aviv, the dirt roads in South Sudan will show no mercy on his slick “Vans” board. Most of the children are speaking Hebrew.
These 135 returnees are the fourth group of approximately 600 South Sudanese Israel is in the process of sending back following a recent Israeli Court ruling which revoked their collective protection status. According to the ruling, which was based on both an Israeli Foreign Ministry report and information supplied by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the situation in post-independence South Sudan has ceased to be life threatening, and Israel is no longer legally obligated to offer asylum to its South Sudanese refugees.
Now, like it or not, they are going home.
Most of the returnees are dressed for an occasion, as if going to a family event or an important meeting. One such 14-year-old is sweating profusely in the dark three-piece suit his mother made him put on before they left their home in Arad. After years of exile the family will finally be reaching the other Promised Land and he is begrudgingly dressed for the occasion.
A long line of dignitaries queue up to greet the returnees: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Undersecretary of Humanitarian Affairs, the Director of Early Warning Systems, the Director of Disaster Management, the Director of Communications, the Director of Logistics, the Deputy Director of Registration… shaking hands, kissing babies, extending solemn “welcome homes.”
The dazed returnees, many of whom haven’t been to Sudan in years, smile awkwardly and nod politely with confusion evident in their eyes
The dazed returnees, many of whom haven’t been to Sudan in years, smile awkwardly and nod politely, with confusion evident in their eyes. They are ushered into five small mini-vans and driven to a nearby soccer field to complete the registration process. A separate truck is allocated for the luggage: suitcases, backpacks and boxes, LCD screens, stereo systems, a selection of printers and a pair of brand-new mountain bikes.
The “reception” is being organized by the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), the South Sudanese Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, in addition to an Israeli non-governmental organization, IsraAID, recruited the day before to provide the newly arrived returnees with food and water and translate the lists of names supplied by the Israeli foreign office — written out in Hebrew.
“The South Sudanese love Israel, it’s true,” comments Mr. Paul, smiling, “but we don’t speak Hebrew yet. Maybe one day, God willing.”
“The returnees from Israel are generally doing better than those from other locations,” says a UN field officer, mentioning the “grants” given to volunteer returnees by the Israeli authorities. “The adults were each awarded 1,000 Euro, and the children 500 Euro each. I mean, just look at those LCD screens. There’s no room in the luggage truck for all the stuff they brought with them.”
‘The returnees from Israel are generally doing better than those from other locations’
“The other returnees,” the official is referring to are South Sudanese who escaped the region during the past 50 years of conflict, seeking refuge in neighboring states and in places like Israel, Egypt and Syria. But there are also many who have been living in Khartoum in the North and are now migrating to join their families and friends in the newborn country.
According to publicly available UNHCR data, over 700,000 South Sudanese have returned to the region since independence.
It’s nearly mid-day and the sun is at its hottest — there is no shade, no chairs, no tables and no restrooms. I’m here as a journalist, but am happy to help with the distribution when asked. One of the girls, Josey, 11, from Eilat, thanks me for the bottle of mineral water and banana I hand her, but when she takes a bite, she frowns. What’s wrong, I ask.
“I’m happy to be here in South Sudan,” she responds in flawless Hebrew, “but the bananas taste much better over there.” Josey is one of 17 children on this flight who were born in Israel.
‘I’m happy to be here in South Sudan, but the bananas taste much better over there’
“Don’t worry about them,” an official from the ministry of humanitarian affairs offers. “The Israelis all disappear from the transit centers within hours — they much prefer to get a room in one of the many newly constructed Juba hotels. They are doing well. They’re not refugees like you see on the news. They’re coming back willingly, based on an agreement between the state of Israel and the state of South Sudan.
“It’s for the best,” he says, grinning. “There is no place like home. You go east, you go west, but home is the best!”
“This sense of optimism is short-lived,” we are told by a local radio journalist who’s been covering the Israeli returnees story for the last few weeks. “Just ask the returnees a few weeks down the line, and they will tell you.”
Indeed, South Sudanese state officials admit that they don’t have a proper “reintegration program,” as they put it. This is the reason IsraAID is in the process of conducting a need assessment to determine if and how to include the South Sudanese returnees from Israel into its programs.
IsraAID, it seems, is well positioned to provide this kind of service. The Israeli NGO has been present in South Sudan since the country’s independence a year ago, implementing both humanitarian and long-term development programs in close partnership with the Ted Arison Family Foundation, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and it’s local partners, the Ministry of Social Development of Central Equatoria State and local community-based organizations.
IsraAID has been developing training programs to increase the capacity of the 90 social workers recently hired by the Ministry of Social Development as well as key service providers – such as the police, church leaders, community leaders and teachers – who work on a daily basis to address the most pressing social challenges of the Juba region, especially gender-based violence, human trafficking and child abuse. The training programs essentially focus on basic delivery of social services, child protection and post-trauma assistance. IsraAID also offers small-scale vocational training projects for the most vulnerable communities — especially women and youth. They are considering expanding this program to include the newly arrived returnees.
“If we identify a need and an impactful intervention mechanism, we will develop new projects to accompany the returnees in their professional and social reintegration process,” says Ophelie Namiech, IsraAID’s South Sudan Country Director. “The goal will be to supply them with tools to efficiently contribute to the nation-building and development process of their new country.”
Most of the returnees claim to be happy and excited. South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation, celebrated a year of independence just a few days ago. “We loved Israel, but we also love South Sudan — we are happy to be back,” I’ve been told.
‘You try to move to a village with no electricity or water, after growing up in Tel Aviv!’
However, the transition is not easy. Says the radio journalist, “With hotel prices at a minimum of $80 a night, and the ex-pat scene dominating the market, a meager 1000 Euros won’t go very far in Juba. They are expected to return to their homelands in the countryside where 1,000 Euros is a small fortune, true, but you try to move to a village with no electricity or water, after growing up in Tel Aviv!”