A Sudanese-born model who grew up in Israel says she is under threat of deportation, despite representing some of Israel’s largest fashion companies.
Monica Joseph, 19, arrived in Israel in 2007 after surviving a harrowing journey across Egypt. She told Channel 12 news in a feature broadcast on Friday that she often relives her traumatic transit to Israel, and lives in fear of authorities.
“When I see police I’m afraid, even though they’re just walking past me. There’s always a chance they’ll ask for my ID or something like that,” she said.
She was born in Sudan, but fled for Egypt while still an infant with her mother. As a young girl, her mother hired human smugglers to move the family to Israel.
She recalled Bedouin traffickers packing the family, along with other asylum seekers, into a shipping crate under the cover of darkness without any food or water. After departing, her baby brother, who is autistic, started crying, she said. One of the traffickers stopped the vehicle, opened the crate bearing a weapon. He told her mother that he would shoot the baby, or she would throw him off the vehicle.
Her brother suddenly stopped crying, and the smuggler let him remain in the container, she said.
After a few days, the smugglers opened the container doors at night and pushed the refugees out. She saw lights on the Israeli side of the border with Egypt and began running toward the border fence. Egyptian soldiers saw the group running and opened fire, she said.
She made for a hole in the fence which had likely been opened by the smugglers and ran to Israeli soldiers on the other side. Her mother, she said, got caught in the fencing and threw her brother over the barrier.
All three safely crossed the border and were transferred to the Saharonim Prison detention facility, where they stayed for four months, Joseph recalled. At seven years old, she viewed the facility akin to a summer camp, she said.
The family then moved to the southern city of Arad, where her mother found work, and Joseph stayed home to care for her brother. They later moved to the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv.
Joseph attended the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv in a class with students from around 10 different countries.
One of her closest friends from the school was deported to Sudan in 2012.
Her mother struggled with depression and developed a drinking problem, and Joseph began staying out late to avoid problems at home. Her teachers took notice and facilitated her transfer to a boarding school in northern Tel Aviv when she was nine years old.
While at the school, a makeup artist and model named Shelly Gaffney visited the facility to apply makeup on a group of girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs. Gaffney noticed Joseph, whom she called already striking in her appearance.
“I said, ‘she is going to be something really amazing,'” Gaffney told Channel 12.
Joseph was reluctant to enter the world of modeling, fearing that she would be rejected due to her dark complexion.
“What I’d seen until then was just models that looked like, blonde hair and blue eyes,” she told Channel 12.
She contacted a modeling agency at age 18, and now represents Israeli fashion brands Castro and Adika, among others.
Modeling provides her with an income to support her family and a relief of sorts, she said.
“It’s something that’s living inside me, the fear is still there. The experiences repeat themselves in my mind all the time. I can’t go on set and think about how I came to Israel,” she said. “It’s like an escape to a better place. I don’t think about deportations, it doesn’t enter my mind.”
Ziva Michael, director of the July modeling agency, described Joseph as a rising star.
“We’re doing everything possible right now to build her up,” Michael said. “The next natural step after this is for her to leave Israel and take over the world.”
Joseph is unable to leave Israel, however, as she does not have legal status or a passport.
Every few months she needs to present herself at an immigration facility in Bnei Brak to apply for status, a nerve-wracking process which takes hours, she said.
“There’s a fear I have every time I come here. There’s a chance I can come here one day and they’ll deny me,” she said.
She said had been reluctant to speak about her experiences for years but decided to speak publicly in the hopes it would help others.
“There are a lot of kids in a situation like mine and someone needs to do something about it,” she said.
There are about 35,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the vast majority from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered to Israel starting in 2005. Many are fleeing persecution in their homelands and civil rights groups in Israel and abroad consider them refugees, but Israeli right-wing politicians say most are only in Israel for economic opportunities.
In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ramped up plans to forcibly deport almost half of the asylum seekers in Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, a program that had previously been undertaken clandestinely. That April, he eventually agreed to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees plan to resettle refugees in other countries. But, bowing to pressure from activists, he canceled the plan hours later, and the asylum seeker community has continued to live in a legal limbo that allows them to work, live, and access social services in Israel with strict conditions.