Dan Balilty, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Four years ago, the wives of the leaders of Israel and Egypt used their clout to help an African family reunite with a child who vanished in a hail of gunfire as they stole across the Egyptian border into Israel.
The child's dramatic arrival in Israel drew attention to the plight of the tens of thousands of Africans who have come to Israel seeking prosperity and asylum in the Jewish state.
That family is among hundreds of South Sudanese Israel plans to expel this month.
With the establishment of an independent state of South Sudan in July, Israel is intent on repatriating them and the other 700 to 2,000 South Sudanese who live here. Those who leave voluntarily will be given plane tickets and $1,300.
So far, 50 people have applied to leave, said William Tall of the United Nation's High Commission of Refugees. Tall said the U.N. has asked Israel to ensure South Sudanese can individually petition to stay in Israel.
An Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman wasn't available to say if individuals could request asylum status.
Venus Mahroum was three years old when her mother lost her after Egyptian soldiers opened fire at a group of Sudanese trying to sneak into Israel across its desert frontier with Egypt's Sinai desert.
Aliza Olmert, the wife of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, heard about the family's plight and appealed to Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's since-deposed ruler, Hosni Mubarak, to find the child in Egypt and send her to Israel.
"We were afraid she was killed in the desert," said her father Cassiase Mahroum, 32. "If Aliza Olmert had not stood beside us, we never would have found her."
The Mahroums are among about 50,000 Africans who have entered Israel since 2005, seeking sanctuary from conflict and poverty in the prosperous Jewish state. Most are from wartorn Sudan and impoverished Eritrea.
The country's Jewish majority is divided over what to do with them. Some believe Israel, which emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust, must offer refuge, and challenge the government's sweeping description of most of them as economic migrants and not asylum seekers.
Others say they have become an unsustainable burden — some 17,000 entered in 2011 alone — straining social services and diluting the Jewish character of this country of 7.7 million.
Worried about the mounting flow of migrants, as well as possible infiltration by militants, Israel is racing to complete a 230-kilometer (150-mile) fence along its border with Egypt. The government is also preparing to build a detention center that will hold up to 11,000 migrants, to open in coming months.
Mahroum said he and his wife Kikongo, 28, did not set their sights on Israel when they fled war and hardship in their hometown of Bahr al-Ghazal to Egypt in 1999. After Egyptian security forces killed more than 20 Sudanese while quelling a protest in Cairo in 2005, thousands of Africans in Egypt, including the Mahroums, paid Bedouin tribesmen to escort them through the mountainous Sinai desert into Israel.
Bedouins placed Mahroum with one group, Kikongo and Venus with another. Mahruom crossed safely into Israel in August 2007. Kikongo arrived two days later, telling him Egyptian forces opened fire on their group, a regular occurrence in the Sinai. A man carrying Venus was shot and wounded. Soldiers seized him and Venus, Mahroum said.
Aliza Olmert said she contacted the Mubaraks directly. Within hours, the girl was found alive in the Sinai town of el-Arish.
"I am happy that I was able to help save Venus' life," Olmert told The Associated Press in an email.
Fluent in Hebrew, Venus attends the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, a mixed-nationality school that enjoyed a flurry of attention after a documentary about it, "Strangers No More," won an Academy Award in 2011.
Mahroum and other South Sudanese say their newly formed country remains unstable and many areas are still embroiled in war. Tribal infighting kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people a year.
Their advocates say that while Israel has the right to demand they leave, they should delay their decision until the situation in South Sudan stabilizes.
Venus says she doesn't understand why her parents have told her to prepare to return to South Sudan.
"I told them I don't want to leave," she said. "I'm scared, I don't want to go back."
Additional reporting by Daniel Estrin.
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