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Fleeing genocide, Darfurian searches for sympathy in Israel

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Christa Case Bryant / The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Motassim Ali explains his personal journey as an estimated 10,000 African protesters amassed near the Knesset in Jerusalem shout, 'We are not criminals! We are refugees! We need protection!'

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Motassim Ali didn’t have a plan when he fled the Darfur genocide five years ago; he didn’t even have a map. But because of Sudan’s close ties with nearby countries such as Egypt, the fresh college graduate was wary of sticking around the neighborhood, even though he had escaped immediate danger.

So for about $300, he says, he arranged to cross illegally into Israel, reasoning that the Jewish experience in the Holocaust would give his hosts a unique grasp of the situation he had fled.

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“I know from history that Jews … have experienced one of the worst human tragedies,” says Mr. Ali, speaking at a protest today near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. “So I thought maybe Jews in Israel are the only people who would understand what [it’s like] fleeing genocide.”

He succeeded in crossing the border, despite coming under heavy fire from Egyptian guards, and today praises the “really amazing welcome” he received from Israeli soldiers, who gave him food, water, and shelter that first night.

But then, he says, the immigration police put him in a detention center for months, including a spell in solitary confinement for organizing a protest, and then gave him a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv.

Mr. Ali is one of about 50,000 Africans who have entered Israel illegally and are caught between hardship back home and legal difficulties and discrimination here, as the Monitor’s Joshua Mitnick reported earlier this week. Today, an estimated 10,000 Africans protested at the Knesset in Jerusalem, the fourth straight day of protests after the Israeli government began to crack down on illegal migrants in recent months.

While many of the Africans spent years living in crowded apartments and working long hours – Ali says he shared a room with 10 people and worked up to 14 hours a day – there is now a much more concerted push to pressure the Israeli government to grant them asylum. Ali has been active in helping to spearhead protests like today’s, which called on Israel to live up to its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention.

While he and others are disappointed in the government – an associate of Ali’s said they shouldn’t have to demand something that Israel already promised to do – he blames Israeli leaders, not the people.

“What’s going on here has nothing to do with Judaism,” says Ali, as yet another Israeli supporter stops by to give him a big hug.