The American and European teenagers in G Thon Kuol’s class at Hebrew University’s preparatory programme could be forgiven if they do not appreciate their studies quite as much as he does, after two decades as a refugee on the run.
“I now have a golden chance, really the best chance I’ve had in my life,” says Kuol, a lanky man who talks with his hands. “It’s really a miracle.”
That is no exaggeration. Kuol, 31, who works as a gardener when he is not in class, is among a handful of African refugees to be enrolled in higher education in Israel. A cowherd as a child and a shepherd, more recently, in central Israel, Kuol hopes to start studies in the university’s agriculture school next year
A Christian from the Dinka tribe, Kuol is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese “lost boys” — children displaced or orphaned during the 1983-2005 civil war, in which two million people were killed. Threatened with capture by government troops bent on enslaving him and converting him to Islam, “I ran alone to the bush, joining other lost boys there,” he recalled. “Many died from hunger, thirst, wild animals and tribal militias.”
At a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Kuol and others cut down trees and built a school building. He finished year four there, before a change of regime meant he had to flee again, this time for Kenya. In a refugee camp there, conditions were difficult — locals attacked the Sudanese newcomers. But Kuol was tenacious about studying and was able to complete another two years of classes in the camp.
“Studying was the only hope I had,” he says in fluent English. “I had lost everything so education was my main target wherever I was.”
Over the next few years, he moved between south Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. Nevertheless, he managed to continue some schooling.
Later, he was arrested by government troops in south Sudan, who accused him of being a rebel fighter. He was transferred to Khartoum, where he was kept in isolation for a year before escaping to Egypt, where he says he was still followed by Sudanese intelligence agents.
“I was assaulted several times. Many people were disappearing. I decided that because I can’t go back to Sudan, I can’t go to Libya, that my only hope was Israel — that I’d have protection there.”
He crossed from Sinai in June 2006, among the first of what was to become a steady flow of Sudanese refugees. He was imprisoned for a year for “illegal infiltration” and then released on condition he worked at a hotel in Eilat. An expulsion order was issued against him that is still valid.
While working as a shepherd, he travelled to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem twice a week to attend an ulpan, or intensive Hebrew studies.
It was then that Kuol’s luck took a decisive turn for the better.
He worked once a week as an assistant to Jerusalem gardener Aryeh Fannama, who introduced Kuol to one of his clients, Ellen Aguiar, mother of Betar Jerusalem owner Guma Aguiar.
Ms Aguiar encouraged him to study and offered to pay his fees. He easily passed the Hebrew University preparatory programme’s entrance exam.
In his classes, Kuol leaves his own harrowing story aside.
“My classmates treat me very well. Some wanted to know about my past but I am reluctant to tell them because we don’t have enough time for that.”
Many refugees are still struggling to find employment because most are not allowed to work legally. While the majority are law-abiding, Tel Aviv police complain that African gangs are becoming involved in drug trade and crime. But those among Kuon’s refugee friends who hear about his studies “are happy for me and hope more people could get such a chance”.
Kuol’s hope is that a real peace will be achieved in Sudan so that he can return there with the agricultural know-how he is poised to acquire in Israel. But he adds that “no one knows what will
happen there so we are asking the
government to let us stay”.
Asked about Israeli treatment of refugees, Kuol says he was encouraged last year when the government cancelled a ban on refugees living south of Hadera and north of Gadera. “In general the treatment is good. Life is not easy but there is improvement. The cancellation provided hope and we hope Israel will do more.”
Meanwhile, Ms Aguiar says that helping Kuol has enriched her.
“It was a blessing for us to see a person with this past of suffering who kept a positive attitude of faith and generosity. He’s a wonderful man. It is my desire to see him achieve his goals.”