YEMIN ORDE, Israel (Apr. 25)
In the days leading up to Yom Ha’atzmaut, a young African Muslim refugee recalled how the Jewish state shared its hard-won freedom and haven with him. Chen Geffen, then called Salah, was a child shepherd, taking camels out to the dry fields near Tibesti, Chad.
Soldiers began coming to the village and enlisting local children in the army to fight against rebel forces. The soldiers blindfolded the children, and anyone who tried to escape was shot.
Geffen’s older brother and father were taken to an army camp. He never saw them again. However, his mother managed to bribe an officer with a cow, and Geffen found himself in a truck heading for the Sudanese border.
Geffen stayed for three months at his grandfather’s house in Darfur, Sudan, never going outside because he saw soldiers rounding up children.
"I heard about massacres, and then my grandfather told me to leave," he said. "In fact, I had walked into another civil war."
His mother had taught him that the greatest Muslim prophet was Musa, known to Jews as Moses, so he prayed to Musa as he walked and hitchhiked to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
From there he took a bus to Shelatin, on the border with Egypt. He saw people loading camels onto trucks heading for Cairo, and instinct told him to get a job with them.
In Cairo he met other Chadians, who told him to go to the Sinai region, where there was work in tourism. After police hassled him for not having ID papers, Geffen and a companion made it to the Sharm el-Sheik resort area.
There he met a freckled, redheaded man. His friend said that the "man was a child of Moses and lived in a country called Israel," recalled Geffen, who until then had not heard of Israel. "He said that Israelis ate people and were dangerous. I was afraid of his red hair. But then I talked to him."
The Israeli, who spoke Arabic, told Geffen he could have a better life in Israel. He gave Geffen money and told him to go to Israel.
"I prayed to Musa, and that’s when I made the connection between what my mother always told me about the prophet, and Moses of Israel," Geffen said.
He began walking north.
He made it to the border at Taba and found a hill where people crossed over. He tried to pass at night, but was caught by Israeli soldiers and taken to a jail cell in Ramle, in the center of the country.
His jailers were immediately won over by his perpetual, optimistic smile, but didn’t know what to do with the teen. They talked about returning him to Egypt.
"I told them I would kill myself," Geffen said.
Israeli officials talked to officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After several days and much paperwork, the youth became a member of the Geffen family on Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev.
"I have four children," Ya’acov Geffen said, "and they all took Chen in as a brother. You see, my father came to Mandate Palestine in 1932. Half of his family was killed by the Germans in WWII. They couldn’t get out of Poland, and had nowhere to go anyway. Now we have given this kid a place to go."
Geffen stayed several months on Tze’elim but could not resist the lure of the big city. He went to Tel Aviv with a friend from prison and spent a year there working in a restaurant. Everyone thought he was Ethiopian.
"People treated me very well," he said, "even when I told them I was not Ethiopian and that I was Muslim. I decided then that I wanted to become Jewish. I want to be a part of the people who saved my life."
One contact led to another. Geffen went to live in the Yemin Orde Youth Village, where educator Chaim Peri has put together a school for immigrant youngsters, mostly Russians and Ethiopians.
Geffen studies English, history and math at Yemin Orde and takes classes in religion to prepare for his conversion.
Then came a surprise. After three years in Israel, Geffen was given a medical test to determine his age, which he never knew for sure. He had told the Israelis that he left Chad at age 16, but tests revealed that, in fact, he had left home and crossed three borders at age 13.
The story would end there if not for Peri. Four other African boys aged 13 to 17, two from Guinea-Conakry and two from Sudan, crossed the border from Egypt near Gaza just before Pesach and wound up jailed in the Negev.
Peri intervened with the courts and arranged to have the boys moved to Kibbutz Tze’elim, and for them to attend a seder at Yemin Orde. The UNHCR has granted the Guinean boys the right to live in Yemin Orde, and they are already enrolled as students there.
However, because the Sudanese boys are subjects of a country officially at war with Israel, Peri says the United Nations has denied them the right to attend school in Yemin Orde and has given them until December in Tze’elim.
"I have a court order signed by an Israeli judge giving them the right to live in Yemin Orde and go to school here," Peri said.
UNHCR official Mickey Bavli denies this, saying it is Israeli law that forbids them, as enemy subjects, to live in the country.
"We do not want to disappoint them by allowing them to go to school there with the hope of staying, and then forcing them to leave," Bavli said. "We are actively looking for a third country to send them to. No Israeli judge can work against Israeli law."
The four already have a person they look up to in Israel, someone who made the same journey they did — Chen Geffen. Geffen took a petition around to Yemin Orde students, asking that the four be allowed to go to school there. Peri says all 450 students signed the petition.
"I want them here," Peri said."I believe that kids who escape genocide and make it to Israel should be allowed to live here."