Armed with a Master’s in political science, Taj Haroun still could not take advantage of educational and professional opportunities he had due to his limited legal rights under his legal status as an asylum seeker in Israel.
When Taj Haroun, a young Darfuri man, completed his Master’s degree at Tel Aviv University, graduation brought a smile to his face. But remembering the life experiences that led him there added a somber tone to this otherwise happy moment.
“The reason we ran away is that if you remain, they kill you…the last time we didn’t come back because everything was destroyed.”
“Our village was attacked many times,” Taj says, recalling the events that forced his family to flee their village in Darfur, Sudan. “The reason we ran away is that if you remain, they kill you. There’s no option for survival. We ran a few times, but the last time we didn’t come back because everything was destroyed.”
Seeking safety, Taj and his family headed West until they arrived in Murnei, Sudan. There, the effects of the conflict in Darfur were everywhere.
“Sometimes you find a kid without any family. Sometimes you find injured people. People are crying because of the death. It’s so terrible,” Taj says.
In Murnei, members of the Janjaweed militia had begun kidnapping young boys from the town. From then on, the fate of these boys seemed inevitable; they would either be enslaved as workers, trained as soldiers and forced to fight, or killed.
“That’s when my family decided to send me to Khartoum,” Taj says. “My mom told me to stay there for two or three months and when the war is over, to come back. The war had been destroying Sudan for fourteen years by this point.”
Once in Khartoum, Taj enrolled at Khartoum University, where he became involved in activities aimed at bringing an end to the war. Students and activists began staging protests, public debates, and demonstrations. One day, after a heated debate, Taj and a friend were arrested. After a few months, Taj’s aunt’s house was attacked and he was arrested and tortured again. After his release, he knew he had to leave Sudan. But to where?
“I don’t have a passport. No documents. And I need money to travel,” he explains.
After much insistence, the young Darfuri man was able to secure a passport and an Egyptian travel visa.
In 2007, Taj arrived in Egypt but was unable to secure refugee protection documentation from UNHCR, since the office had temporarily closed. Staying in Egypt felt like a potentially fatal decision; Taj knew he would eventually be arrested by the authorities and deported back to Sudan. With few other options, Taj joined a group of asylum-seekers and was smuggled across the border to Israel.
The journey across the Sinai desert was harrowing. The group of asylum-seekers survived for ten days with minimal food and water. Then, they were tied down to the back of a truck until they reached the border with Israel, where they were released and told to run.
“It was around 3:30 at night and the Egyptian border police started shooting at us as if we were in Darfur,” Taj recalls.
After crossing the border, Taj registered with the local UNHCR office.
In Israel, Taj was able to pursue his university studies and completed his undergraduate degree at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) in 2014. Taj was then accepted into three different British universities, to complete his master’s degree. However, due to his limited legal rights under his status Taj was not authorized to obtain a travel document, hence he could not take advantage of the new academic opportunities he got.
Instead, Taj pursued his MA in Political Science and Communications at Tel Aviv University.
“I would like to work in my field and to work with NGOs or with the UN. The problem is that, even if I get a job, I can’t travel,” explains Taj.
“I have a lot of offers to work…but if I want to go work with the UN in Syria or in Jordan, I have to have at least a valid document saying who I am. I have very good qualifications from Israel, but I have no options of using them.”
One thing Taj knows for sure is that when he does arrive in a safe place, he must help his family members who remain in a refugee camp in Chad.
“When I talk to them I feel completely destroyed emotionally. I become like a child, crying. It affects me very badly because I feel their needs. But in order to help them, I have to establish myself first.”
According to Taj, the lack of refugee status in Israel creates a situation which leads to more displacement.
“Between 2015-2018, some asylum seekers registered for the departure program. They left to Uganda or Rwanda and new destinations where there is no guarantee of what their legal status will be or if they will even have one. Many ended up going to South Sudan, Kenya, or Cairo. From there, they decided to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Some ended up dying, but others were lucky and arrived at a safe place. So, the lack of refugee status in Israel makes the life of many people very complicated.”
In 2019, Taj was lucky and succeeded to immigrate to Montreal, Canada, under a refugee sponsorship programme through which Canadian citizens or organizations vouch for a refugee and help them resettle and integrate into Canada.
Taj was sponsored by strangers – a family that had never met him, and only knew of him through their daughter, a refugee activist in Israel. The news that this family would help Taj rebuild his life came just after Taj learned that he had been accepted to university in London, but would be unable to attend because of his lack of legal status.
“Suddenly, with the stress of not knowing what I can do or where I am going, this family came like a light in a very dark situation,” said Taj.
Canada granted Taj permanent residency and supplied him with all the necessary papers, including his social security card and health insurance, upon his arrival to the airport. At the airport, he also met his sponsors for the first time ever and went to live with them for several months as he adjusted to life in a new home country.
“Since I arrived in Canada, I have been very relieved,” said Taj. “Whatever I need, my sponsor family is there to help me and make sure I integrate. It’s a huge thing. They didn’t even know me and they sponsored me and took me out of the situation in Tel Aviv. Look where I am now. I live in Canada and I have full rights.”
Today, Taj is a Teaching Assistant at McGill University. He hopes to one day pursue his MBA.