Rushing to join four boys in straw hats and red shirts posing for a photograph, a little girl with a red ribbon in her hair gathered up her full skirt before bursting out into the foyer of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Saturday afternoon to the sounds of Latin music.
The small group of dancers, comprised of kindergarten and elementary school children at the Rogosin-Bialik campus in Tel Aviv, performed in honor of International Migrants Day, celebrated worldwide since its establishment by the UN in 2000.
For many of the children attending the event, however, the idea that they are part of a community of migrant workers is entirely contradictory to their perception of themselves as regular Israelis.
Yet as the proud parents surrounding the excited children were painfully aware, this may well be the last time they celebrate the annual event in Tel Aviv. Barring the success of an appeal to the Supreme Court, 360 of the 500 children currently living in Israel illegally as the children of foreign workers will be deported beginning in March.
Maria, a mother of three from Colombia who was one of the event organizers, has lived in Israel for the past 14 years. The choreographer of the children's performance, she is also one of the founders of the Escuelita, a Spanish language school and Latin-American cultural center created by illegal immigrants in Tel Aviv for their children.
"I am here in Israel to struggle for my children to have a better future - otherwise I would have already left," Maria told The Jerusalem Post. "I know that if we are forced to go back to Colombia, my husband and I won't be able to make enough money to raise our children."
Nevertheless, she said, she did not want her children to forget where she came from. "My children have two cultures," she said. "They teach me about Israeli holidays, but I won't let them forget my language and culture."
The double logic behind the founding of the Escuelita reflects the bind in which many children of illegal immigrants in Israel find themselves: on the one hand, they are raised as bilingual, or even trilingual children, who - like the children of many Jewish immigrants to Israel - feel they belong to more than one cultural world. At the same time, their precarious future in Israel has taught them that only by declaring themselves to be entirely Israeli, and by denying their connection to any other culture, do they stand a chance of remaining here.
"The children feel they need to renounce their cultural heritage in order to be perceived as Israelis because they feel that they are a threat to the Israeli cultural hegemony," said Ram Lewkowitz of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, one of the advocacy groups that organized Saturday's event.
"We try to explain to the children that even if they remain here, they have two cultures," said Jorge Ivan Henao Melo, another founder of the Escuelita. "Often, the children don't want to learn Spanish. But we are aware that if they won't be able to remain here, they need to acquire the tools to continue their lives elsewhere."
"I don't lie to my children," added Maria. "Their father was deported five years ago, and a lot of other people around them have disappeared since then. So when my son says to me 'Why do we have to leave Mommy, it's my country?' I just tell him that's the way it is."
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