From Darfur to Israel to US, refugee refines his fight for Sudan

Why We Wrote This

Which is better, education or experience? How about both? For Mutasim Ali, an activist detained in his native Sudan and in Israel, the next stop in his quest for knowledge and influence is a second law degree in Washington.

Josh Mitnick
Mutasim Ali, the first and only Sudanese asylum-seeker to be recognized as a refugee by Israel, fields a phone call at the Tel Aviv office of the African Students Organization in Israel. This month he moves to Washington for a master's in law at George Washington University.

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Mutasim Ali, a native of Darfur, is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans who crossed illegally into Israel from Egypt. Israel’s government considers them to be “infiltrators” in search of work, and has tried to pressure them to return to Africa. Jailed three times and tortured for anti-government activism in Khartoum, Sudan, Mr. Ali was also detained in a desert compound in Israel with other African migrants.

In 2016, he became the first and only Sudanese asylum-seeker to be recognized as a refugee. And on Wednesday, Mr. Ali, head of advocacy at the African Students Organization in Israel, became Israel’s first African migrant law school graduate. “He is definitely one of the loudest voices that led the human rights struggle for all asylum-seekers. He’s charismatic and eloquent. He knows what he wants to say,” says Sigan Rozen at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Now he’s moving to Washington to pursue a master’s in law that he hopes one day to use to help bolster democracy in Sudan. “The idea is to contribute to the constitution [drafting] process in Sudan,” says Mr. Ali. “We have to start working on this now.”

He fled Sudan a decade ago after being jailed for protesting the ethnic cleansing in his native Darfur. In Israel, he led a protest movement of African asylum-seekers against the incarceration of thousands at a detention center in the desert, and spent more than a year as an inmate.

Now, after becoming one of just a handful of tens of thousands of Africans to win refugee status from Israel, Mutasim Ali is about to begin another chapter in the struggle for reform in his native country. Later this month, he’ll move to Washington to pursue a master’s in law that he hopes one day to use to help bolster democracy in Sudan.

“The idea is to contribute to the constitution [drafting] process in Sudan. I want to have a major contribution,” says Mr. Ali, head of advocacy at the African Students Organization in Israel. “We have to start working on this now.”

Mr. Ali is one of tens of thousands of Sudanese and Eritreans who crossed illegally into Israel from Egypt over a seven-year period when the border fence was porous. Paralleling the U.S. administration’s approach to Central American asylum-seekers, Israel’s right-wing government considers them to be “infiltrators” in search of work, and has tried multiple ways to pressure them to return to Africa.

The son of teachers, Mr. Ali was a student in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, when government-backed janjaweed destroyed his village and forced his family into a displaced persons camp. He was jailed three times and tortured for anti-government activism in Khartoum. After fleeing Sudan, he decided to head for Israel because the Jewish state had no ties with Khartoum and because of the activism of Jewish communities condemning the Darfur genocide.

In his 10 years in Israel, Mr. Ali has gone from working in an Israeli plastics recycling plant, to being the face of the African migrant demonstration movement against detention and deportation, to becoming the country’s first African migrant law school graduate. In 2016, he became the first and only Sudanese asylum-seeker to be recognized as a refugee – a rare victory in the struggle of migrants to be granted asylum here.

Mr. Ali received his law degree from Israel’s College of Law and Business on Wednesday. In the fall, he’ll start master’s studies at George Washington University. Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, says Mr. Ali’s decision to fight for asylum together with Eritreans and non-Darfuri Sudanese was an important symbol of cross-national solidarity.

“He is definitely one of the loudest voices that led the human rights struggle for all asylum-seekers. He’s charismatic and eloquent. He knows what he wants to say, and he says it in a way that appeals to his listeners. After watching him on TV, when the average Israeli hears the word ‘infiltrator,’ he thinks of Mutasim Ali,” Ms. Rozen says.

“He’s done a great service to the community here. From the U.S., he’ll manage to do much more for his people. It’s the right move for him.”

Mr. Ali decided to pursue law while in a Sudanese jail cell, where he decided that becoming a lawyer would enable him to be a better advocate for the people of Darfur. During his year at the Holot desert detention center for Africans in Israel, he learned English and prepared an application for law school in Israel.

Picture for migrants is mixed

The results of the asylum-seekers’ movement are mixed. For the time being, government pressure on the migrants has eased. Following legal challenges heard by the Supreme Court, the government shuttered Holot. A campaign that sent about 4,300 Africans to Uganda and Rwanda over five years has petered out. A deportation plan collapsed last year. Since 2017, about 5,000 to 6,000 have left for Western countries.

On the other hand, Israel backed out of a tentative deal with the United Nations to grant thousands residency. In recent years, the government has ordered 20% of the migrants’ wages withheld for when they leave. Approximately 35,000 Africans still live in Israel in a state of limbo, without legal status and few welfare services.

As he begins a new path that will enable him to focus on Sudan activism, Mr. Ali says the status of the migrants he leaves behind in Israel remains tenuous despite the government’s abandonment of its deportation plan. “Even though there were minimal changes, the policy hasn’t changed,” he says. “The [government] narrative and discourse are the same. It could come back at any time.”

Mr. Ali’s refugee status in Israel has given him the right to travel abroad to pursue his education. It also gives him the right to vote in municipal elections. A wide smile breaks out on his face when he recalls participating in his first vote in Israel’s local elections last October.

“That was such a good feeling. I never had this opportunity in my life,” he says. “I don’t understand why people have this right and don’t exercise it.”

Though a majority of Israelis support the government’s efforts to pressure the African migrants, a vocal minority and human rights groups have sought to block deportations and improve their situation.

“The question is what to do with those that are here,” says Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “With every year that passes, it will be more difficult to expel them.”

New pride in Sudan

Mr. Ali’s relocation to the United States comes at a critical inflection point for the democracy movement in his home country. Months of street demonstrations succeeded in unseating longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir but then prompted a military crackdown last month that killed more than 120 people.

Mr. Ali says the rise of the nationwide democracy protest movement awakened a pride in his native country.

“It was mind-blowing. I never would have expected this could happen. I had already lost faith in peaceful protest,” he says. “That was the first time I was proud to say I was Sudanese. I never wanted to stand for the national anthem. I genuinely felt that [Sudan] is the country I want to be part of.”

Last Friday, the military and protest leaders announced a power-sharing agreement for the sides to jointly run the country for a three-year transitional period ahead of an election.

But Mr. Ali does not share the euphoria that broke out among demonstrators after the agreement. Instead, he worries the democracy movement is making a mistake by cutting a deal with the same militia leaders responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity in Darfur – and those accused of killing the demonstrators last month. The military, Mr. Ali warns, will use the respite in the demonstrations to find a way to split the pro-democracy movement.

“The problem is that they trusted the military; it’s the militia that killed hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “By negotiating with them, you give them legitimacy. I think we don’t need to negotiate to make change.”

Plans for advocacy

In addition to his law studies, Mr. Ali says he plans to advocate for U.S. pressure, including from Congress, on the Sudanese government for democratic reform. However, he expects little from the Trump administration because of its ties with Saudi Arabia, which had supported the Bashir government.

“We’re disappointed with the international community,” he says.

That said, Mr. Ali says he believes that calls for democratic reform unleashed by the protest movement will be hard to put back in the bottle. Despite resistance from the military, Mr. Ali says he believes there’s an unprecedented demand among Sudanese for serious change. And for the first time, he can imagine the possibility of returning home.

“We’ve got to the middle of the way and we have to continue,” he says. “There’s no way back.’’

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