Sudanese model and actress Monica Josef escaped her war-torn home country with her parents when she was just eight months old, arriving in Israel via an arduous journey through Egypt.
But, even now, more than a decade later, she is still required to extend her temporary stay visa every four months. Each time she heads to renew her visa, the life of the 22 year old hangs in the balance: Will she return to her rented apartment in Tel Aviv later that day, or board a plane back to Sudan?
Josef is making a name for herself as a model and actress, despite her difficult childhood, with a role in a popular teen series and an appearance in a feature film, which is soon to be released.
But she never forgets how lucky she is, having started life on a path that could only lead to more hurt.
“My parents and I fled Sudan for Egypt, during the war," she says. “We lived there for seven years where they worked as cleaners or childminders, doing very physically demanding jobs that would not allow them to pay much attention to us.”
Her brother Michael, three years her junior, is autistic and Josef stayed home to care for him. Despite her situation, she did not think that her life was out of the ordinary. “It’s like a baby being born into war and only experiencing it. I didn’t think it was unusual.”
At a certain point, her mother took the kids and left for Israel without informing her husband. “It was one of the hardest things I experienced in my life because I was leaving all that I knew behind, without realizing that I wasn’t coming back. I lived in uncertainty for three days, while my mother explained nothing," she says.
But, the perilous journey had left a mark. “On the third day on the road, one of the Bedouins hired to smuggle us across the border pointed a gun at my brother, who wouldn’t stop crying because we were inside a dark, sealed container. The man told my mother to throw my brother out or else he would shoot him. My brother stopped crying, but those were the longest three minutes of my life. I realized then that we were in danger.”
The Bedouin smugglers left them close to the Egyptian-Israeli border and took all of their belongings as payment. “We were left with nothing. My mother told me I had to be strong, never look back, and run toward the barbed wire fence. When we began running, Egyptian soldiers opened fire. I heard screams and gunshots. It was scary.
"As we crossed the border, an IDF soldier approached us. I knew he was nice because he offered me a snack.”
After entering Israel, Josef and her family spent four months in custody in a facility in southern Israel and then lived for a year in the southern city of Arad, before arriving in Tel Aviv. “I went to school and my brother was placed in a special needs daycare. Two years later, welfare workers enrolled me in a boarding school.
Her mother was suffering from depression, alcoholism, manic episodes, and suicidal tendencies and would beat her daughter. "I tried to run away so I was on the street when I was nine. I slept at home, but left first thing in the morning.”
Josef says that while living in southern Tel Aviv, she was surrounded by criminals, drugs, and prostitution. “I thought I had no other future. I saw what being destitute was like. I was offered money for sex. A car would stop near me and the man would ask what my hourly rate was. Most of those men were old and white and some of them were religious," she says.
“They thought it was okay to stop a nine-year-old girl and ask her how much she charged for sex. I told myself I never wanted to be in that situation.”
At 11, Josef was enrolled in a boarding school in northern Tel Aviv, where she began socializing with others her age. “Suddenly I had things to do, I sang in a choir and was given an allowance. I saved the money, not wanting to waste it at first, but when I was given money the second time, I bought a lot of candy.”
Meanwhile, her mother had another baby boy and later gave birth to a little girl. But her depression worsened and she repeatedly tried to kill herself. Josef was forced to stay away from school to care for her young siblings.
Eventually, and after the alcohol and drug abuse continued, the babies were taken out of the mother's care and placed in a foster home. "I felt responsible for them, so I turned to welfare authorities," she says.
Finally, after more suicide attempts and further deterioration, her mother died, two and a half years ago. "I felt like a part of me died too," she says. “She was the center of my life, and I felt like I had no purpose in life when she was gone. It took me a year to come to terms with her death. I would listen to voice recordings of her to fall asleep.”
Josef says that what kept her going was her brother Michael. “When I told him mom died, he began calling me ‘mom’ and I knew I had to stay strong for him. I chose to live,” she says.
Modeling came to her after a chance encounter with Sheli Gafni, who was a well-known model and makeup artist who convinced her to give it a try. When she was 18, she signed on to join the “Yuli” model agency.
Josef says her role in the youth series Sky, was an opportunity to deal with her life story without fear or shame. She plays an alien and the entire season deals with the acceptance of others and racism, in a manner suitable to young kids.
"I know the fear of not being accepted because of skin color, or that some people won’t like me because of where I came from. Sky asks why people see stigmas and act toward others according to their skin color," she says.
“There’s a scene where my character tries to return a wristwatch to the white woman who forgot it and is instantly suspected of stealing. They deal with such topics in a comedic way, but the message that such things happen daily gets through."
Josef says racism also had an effect on her love life. “I dated someone for a long time, but he never wanted me to come along when he was meeting his group of friends. He would say that I would not have anyone there to talk to and that they had never spoken with people like me.
“He never said blacks explicitly, but said ‘someone like you.’ When we talked about me meeting his parents, he would say: ‘My parents never met someone like you, I don’t know if they’ll accept it.’ It was never said out in the open, racism is often hidden. there is a lot of ignorance in Israeli society and a reluctance to speak about people who are different," she says.
“I realized that for now, I won’t get many coveted roles to play in Israel if it doesn’t have to do with the color of my skin or my life’s story. My roles may be significant, but they will always fit into some pattern. But I look on the bright side – I have a way to tell my story.”
Despite Josef’s comfortable situation in Israel, she says she tries not to think about the possibility of her visa not being renewed, forcing her to return to Sudan.
“When I have to renew my visa, it’s all I can think about. I think about how it is possible for me to shoot an episode for a television show and attend meetings with top brands in one moment, and still face the possibility of being sent off to Sudan, in the next," she says, adding that life there would be no more than a fight for survival.
Josef says that the prominent hard-right elements in the new government make her fear for the future of those seeking refuge in Israel. “When I saw that this government was elected, I froze. All of my fears resurfaced, but I don’t talk about this much. I don’t pay attention to politics today because it has nothing positive to offer.
“There is ignorance in some of the Israeli politics and I try to block it out. I feel at home in Israel, it’s my safe space. I met my partner half a year ago, and he only sees me as Monica, and that’s all he cares about.”