When Dr. Mariela Glandt, an endocrinologist, volunteered to treat African refugees in Tel Aviv, she had no idea she would meet a type 1 diabetic like Samuel Agant, 28, from South Sudan. Below, Dr. Glandt shares Samuel’s story of living on the streets of Tel Aviv with type 1 diabetes, without a work permit, without food, and without a constant supply of insulin.
Samuel Agant, 28, was born in a small town called Rumbek in South Sudan. For his entire life, he has struggled to survive. He has faced devastation, destruction, and displacement caused by the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Samuel’s father was killed when Samuel was only five years old. His mother, three brothers, and sister had to flee to another side of the country. At that time, Samuel was left in the care of his maternal uncle, who was later killed himself. At 15, after a childhood spent in hiding, Samuel was totally alone. He headed to Khartoum, and then, with the help of a relative, sought refugee status in Egypt. Waiting in vain for resettlement in Egypt, he spent more than five years in Cairo, taking whatever cleaning jobs he could find.
“I got sick in Egypt in 2005,” Samuel said. “One day I felt immensely thirsty and I began drinking 7-Up. I couldn’t stop drinking. I then drank seven bottles of water throughout the night, and urinated constantly. My lips and my heart felt dry. I was weak. I went to the Catholic Church. They had a doctor there and he immediately told me he thinks I have diabetes. They gave me medicine at the church. I had no idea what diabetes was, so I went to a cyber-cafe and looked it up in Google. I felt down. This was really bad. When you get diabetes at a young age it is bad. Until then I was so young and strong. I played sports. I didn’t know why this happened to me. I don’t know of anyone in my family who had diabetes. I thought that maybe it happened because I left my country.”
In Egypt, Samuel struggled to take care of his diabetes. In the aftermath of what is known as the “Mustafa Mahmoud Massacre” – the violent Egyptian police raid of a refugee protest camp – Samuel and a group of Sudanese friends fled violence once again. Samuel had heard that diabetes could be cured in Israel. He and his friends paid of Bedouin smugglers to take them across the Sinai desert to Israel. Hidden in a vehicle under piles of blankets, they reached the Israeli border in 2007.
Samuel and his friends were arrested at the Israeli border and imprisoned for nine months. Upon his arrival in Israel, Samuel had been without insulin for several days. He went into DKA and was hospitalized. Prison was tough, but ironically, also good for Samuel. In prison he received ongoing medical care, ate three meals a day, and felt strong enough to exercise. It was the first time he had felt well in years. “They didn’t put handcuffs on me like they did on my friends because they knew I was diabetic. They knew I had no interest to run or escape,” he said with a laugh.
According to Samuel, he and his friends were released from prison following UN intervention. He received insulin from the clinic of Physicians for Human Rights when it was available. He lived with friends in various places in Israel and worked when work was available and whenever he felt strong enough to do so. He has been hospitalized at least five times in Israel due to severe cases of DKA. “If I don’t find insulin for two days, I get really sick,” Samuel said.
In the past weeks, the Israeli government has deported hundreds of South Sudanese refugees back to the now independent South Sudan. Samuel, however, could not be deported due to UN intervention: Having no chance of finding an ongoing supply of insulin in South Sudan, going back means a death sentence. Thus protected by the UN, Samuel stayed in Tel Aviv while most of his friends were deported.
Paradoxically, however, while in Tel Aviv Samuel does indeed have a chance for getting insulin, he has no money, and he has no ongoing supply of food or shelter. In the past, he had his South Sudanese friends to rely on for help. As refugees, these friends stuck together. They were a family. “We collected our hands together to defend our lives,” he said. Left behind in Tel-Aviv with nothing, and having had his work permit revoked by the Israeli government, Samuel is at his lowest point yet. For the most part he manages to find about a dollar’s worth of food a day – usually an apple and a container of yogurt (two or three hundred calories feeding his 6-foot plus frame). Even if he could legally work, he is far too weak to do so. He has no permanent housing, and is currently sleeping in a room with several other men.
Samuel is a tall and impressive man. He is also extremely thin and visibly suffers from malnutrition. Fluent in English, he talks of his life with acceptance and serenity, as well as with hopefulness. “I want to study and find work,” he says. “I want to stay here and receive medicine and be treated.”
At the end of my meeting with him in Levinsky Park – the center of the refugee quarter in Tel Aviv – it was Samuel who reassuringly said: “Everything is going to be okay.” I was visibly worried. I had brought some food with me, and made sure he had enough insulin for the upcoming days. I gave him instructions about dosages and food types. Samuel said, “No one can ever know what will happen tomorrow. The poor, the rich – we are all the same. We all live our lives without knowing what can happen tomorrow. We all die in the end. It’s the same for everyone.”
“True,” I told him. “But I promise to do everything I can to try to help you. No one is going to die here any time soon.”
Dr. Glandt has volunteered to follow Samuel’s medical care. With our donations, she will see that he has access to enough food to regain his strength, and hopefully much more than that. One of the things our community does best is making sure no one feels alone. Let’s help Samuel learn that diabetes is not a death sentence, and that he is not alone.
Even tiny amounts of money are significant to Samuel. Please help! You can donate here.
Dr. Galit Ailon contributed to this article.