Taj Jemy, 28 years old, from Darfur, Sudan
“To be honest, the most beautiful thing that I miss is the simplicity of life in my village.” Taj Jemy is 28 years old, from a small village of Hejer in the Darfur region of Sudan. “Our village is a very beautiful village surrounded by a lake and a river and a range of small mountains and two big mountains … As children we used to play so much. We have ‘janai’ [fruit orchard] which has all the trees, like mango, guava, papaya, pineapple, a whole area along the river. The river is full with trees and we would spend most of our time there playing. I kind of miss that life.”
In 2003, his village was brutally attacked by the Janjaweed and his family was forced to flee the region. They escaped to Mourney, an IDP camp in Darfur, where Taj stayed for nearly two years. “The situation in Mourney became very bad… It happened sometimes that the Janjaweed would come and kidnap the sons, especially if they were over 18… I was the oldest one among the boys [in the family] and my mother was worried about me. She sold everything to send me to her sister in Khartoum.”
“I left Darfur for Khartoum at the end of 2004. It was difficult financially but not only that, the road was very difficult. Everywhere there was a militia checkpoint." Taj remembers a particular incident in which he was ordered off the truck. "A woman, I didn’t know her, sitting next to me with three of her kids, she said ‘no, he is not going to get off because he is my son.’ She defended me as if I was her child. He [the militiaman] left me alone.” Taj made it safely to Niyala and eventually to Khartoum.
“When I came to Khartoum I went to school to study and I applied to do my diploma in English. Then I got involved with a student group focused on political activities. We were organizing demonstrations, public speeches, debates, also secretly organizing communities in the neighborhoods, especially the bigger Darfuri communities. The student government reported it to the government.” Taj officially entered the government blacklist and became a regular target of raids until his departure from Sudan.
Taj was arrested twice and, on both occasions, was interrogated for hours, tortured and humiliated by his captors. He was completely changed by this experience; he became painfully aware of the extent of violence that the authorities were willing to impose on those they deemed as enemies. He felt that his presence was putting his family in danger and decided to leave Sudan. “I took a bus to Halfa, a city in the North of Sudan, and from there I took a ship to Port Said and then I took a bus to Cairo. That was in 2007.”
Taj did not know anyone in Cairo but he received support from the Darfuri community. At the airport, Taj obtained a single entry tourist visa, which allowed him to stay in Egypt for up to six months. “That was the first time I heard about Israel,” Taj said.
Taj managed to join a group of six refugees that were being smuggled into Israel. In February 2008, he spent nearly two weeks in Sinai. “It was very difficult. We spent ten nights in the Sinai desert having only one meal per day and no water and no showers,” said Taj. With the war in Gaza at full force, it was nearly impossible to cross the Israeli border.
“We were put on a truck for transferring sand. In between the driver and the back there is a small space and they put us there. The police checked, yet they saw only sand. That’s how we passed the military base.” Having completed the first leg of the trip, Taj and others were transferred into another truck. “They put us into three cars and they were driving very, very fast. They tied us like this, three or four next to each other. People were crying in there.” They managed to cross the border, where the Israeli border police picked them up and took them to the army base. They were then transferred to Saharonim prison and afterwards, they continued to Tel Aviv.
Taj has been in Israel for eight years already. During this time, he successfully completed his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and is currently working on a Master in Political Science. The exhilaration of getting accepted into university abroad last year quickly dwindled as he was denied a student visa because of his unstable status in Israel. Nevertheless, Taj remains optimistic for himself, his family and his community. He has served as an inspiration to the refugee community in Israel for many years, being one of only few community members who managed to fully complete his higher education.
“My major hope and motivation in life is just to be with my family, no matter where. My family, I don’t like to think so much about this. It’s too hard. If I could just find a safe place, doesn’t matter where, to bring my family and be with them… Being here is challenging. No clear status, so many limitations, no rights. Even when you get stressed with a difficult situation, you feel like you have no one.” All of Taj’s family still remains in Sudan. He was supposed to pave the way to a better future for his entire family and, in spite of all of his achievements, he feels that he did not succeed.
In spite of everything, Taj maintains a touch of optimism. “Look, even though I’m in the same situation as my community, I just feel like I am in a position that I can help others. If I cannot help my family at the moment, I want to help my community.” Taj feels that education has helped him better understand the situation that he and his people face. He uses what he learned to help guide his community.
Photos: Shayanne Gal / Story: Voices of Refugees