The Shelter Hostel – a blessing amid hardship and tragedy

Avram, a Sudanese refugee, who died in a drowning accident (Photo: The Shelter/Facebook)

Back in 2017, KNI interviewed John and Judith Pex about The Shelter Hostel ministry she runs with her husband John in the southern Israeli city of Eilat. It’s a unique travel-hosting project that has impacted many thousands of lives over the last 30 years. We wrote about The Shelter and how it has offered “economical accommodation in a peaceful, international atmosphere since 1984” with the hostel continuing “to host believers and unbelievers — meeting together, mixing together in a community setting that facilitates networking, relationship-building and a platform for the Gospel to be lived, shared, and spread.”

The story you’re about to read is a testimony to how God has used The Shelter Hostel to be a blessing amid hardship and tragedy. It’s the courageous story of a Sudanese woman named Nayrut and her two sons, Avram and Dabul.

The Shelter began hosting Sudanese refugees as far back as 2006 when a group arrived over the Egyptian border by the tens of thousands, attracted by the job opportunities in Eilat, known for being a popular Israeli and European holiday destination. John explained their hostel received a large number of requests to provide accommodations for the new arrivals.

“We started getting phone calls from congregations and organizations. ‘We got another 20 people that came last night. Do you have a place for them?’ Our hostel became a refugee camp for a while. When we didn’t have more space, we found a motel where we could rent rooms for them,” John told KNI.

“We started having Bible studies with them in the Shelter,” John continued. “We received help from believers all over the country. Arab believers from the Galilee, for example, brought truckloads of shoes, clothes, food, you name it. Since most Sudanese speak Arabic, they were able to communicate.”

 “We were really blessed by helping them. Our congregation grew from 80 people to double. I can’t count how many baptisms we’ve had. Including Muslims. I know of one occasion where a local Arab girl married a Sudanese refugee. They have two children now.”

Once the Sudanese were allowed to work and receive their own first salaries, they would rent their own place and were no longer depending on The Shelter.

After the wave of the South Sudanese refugees, a new wave of Eritrean refugees from arrived in Israel. Eritrea, in northeast Africa, is a country with a population of less than 4 million people – the majority of whom are Orthodox Christians. Located on the coast of the Red Sea, it shares borders with Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti.

“Most of them [refugees] were Orthodox Ethiopian Christians. We tried to offer them Bibles in their language, and they refused. It wasn’t kosher for them because the Bible didn’t have a cross on it. And they argue I am not a true believer because I don’t pray to Maria. The Sudanese came to us by the hundreds, but only a few Eritreans came,” John said.

One of these refugees was Nayrut, who arrived in Israel in 2008 with her two sons. Her husband had been killed in a terrorist incident in South Sudan and that same attack also claimed the leg of her son Avram.

While John doesn’t know the exact story of Nayrut and her sons, he knows many of these refugees started their journey by arriving in Egypt under harsh conditions – walking by night, sleeping hidden in the bushes by day and sneaking over the border – some by walking, some via the Nile River. Nayrut picked up two boys, Avram with only one leg, and walked with them from Sudan into Egypt.

Beginning in 2006, many Sudanese left Egypt because the authorities made their lives difficult, and they suffered racism and police brutality.

The refugees wanted to seek asylum and be repatriated to other countries from the UN offices in Cairo, but the procedure was tedious. Many found a way to pay Bedouin smugglers who would take them through Sinai and bring them just 100 meters from the Israeli border. The Egyptian border soldiers shot at them, but Israeli soldiers provided food to those who successfully crossed into Israel and then brought them to Beersheva. (The current six-meter barrier fence on the border between Egypt and Israel was eventually erected between 2010 and 2013 and put a stop to most attempts to cross the border.)

“After a few years in Egypt, [Nayrut and the boys] went through the Sinai desert and came to Israel where the boys learned English and Hebrew proficiently, but Nayrut still only spoke her native language, Nuer. I asked Dabul how they managed, and he said that wherever they went, they met kind people who helped them,” John shared. In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence, and Israel deported many of the refugees back to their home country, as they deemed there was no longer any threat to their lives. Nayrut and the boys stayed in Eilat where they have made their home for the last 13 years.

Nayrut and her sons have had many victories and blessings and have overcoming difficult obstacles. But nothing could have prepared them for tragedy this past summer.

In July, Avram – at the age of 21 – drowned in a diving accident in Eilat. The news made few headlines in the Israeli media, as several other drowning accidents occurred in Israel at the same time. The media also did not mention that Avram was a Sudanese refugee, a believer in Yeshua, a friend of The Shelter Hostel and a cherished member of their congregation.

John reflected upon the time when he first met Nayrut and her sons.

“We all took an interest in Avram when he arrived, as he only had one leg. He was very shy in the beginning. Very closed up because of all the traumas he had been through. But then he opened up and became a sportsman, playing football.”

“He was growing so fast, so every year he needed a new prosthesis,” John continued, “We gathered the money in the congregation to finance it. A leg like that cost 16-17 thousand shekels. Then, one day, he had a pain in his leg, and a doctor told us since he was growing so fast, and the leg was cut off above the knee – the bone was growing through his flesh. We took him to the hospital in Tel Aviv because he needed surgery to cut off part of his bone.”

“He was so amazing, he never complained. He was very positive and pleasant. Everyone loved him. We have had hundreds of volunteers go through the Shelter throughout the years, and they all remember him, and they all cried for him when they heard what happened.”

John also shared the frustration of Avram’s seemingly unnecessary and undeserving death.

“Why did he have to die there? There are so many questions. Of course, we can ask a million questions. The answers are with God. Why God does this and why God does that. It was very hard for the mother. A lot of questions, and a lot of tragedy. Any answer we try to think of will never be satisfactory. We know Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ But why was this His purpose? I don’t know. I know God will bring something good out of it. People keep asking me, but I don’t know, I’m not God,” John said.

A large amount of the Sudanese community in Israel came to Eilat for the memorial service to pay their last respects to Avram and arranged a large gathering with Sudanese songs and food.

Because Israel only allows immigration of Jews and doesn’t offer permanent asylum to refugees, Nayrut and Dabul were referred to the UN to seek asylum in a different country.

At the time of the interview with the Pexs, Nayrut and Dabul had just boarded a plane to the United States where they hope to start over with a new life and future in Minneapolis.

When Sudanese refugees work in Israel, the Israeli government withholds 20% of their earnings which they get it back when they leave. Nayrut received that lump sum from the government, as well as a stipend ($3,500 is given to every Sudanese who leaves Israel from their free will). In addition, she received severance pay from the hotel she worked for. Finally, the Shelter congregation provided her with a gift that they collected from members of the congregation. With this provision and the blessing of their community in Israel, there is much hope for their future.

The following statement is posted on the Shelter’s Facebook page:

“Avram was buried here in Eilat. The last words Nayrut said when she left were ‘take care of Avram.’ She was crying. She has to leave her son’s grave behind. So, a day later we went to his grave and took this picture of members of the congregation at the grave of Avram, and we sent it to Nayrut and Dabul. They were so happy to see that we take care of Avram.”

Judith Pex has written several books, some of them about the Shelter, including one specifically about the Sudanese refugees. “A People Tall and Smooth – Stories of Escape from Sudan to Israel,” was published in 2011 by Cladach publishing.