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(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's only a matter of nine months, but for Oscar and Bathabile [Brigitte] Olivier that short time span is the difference between continuing on with life here as they know it or losing pretty much everything they have.
Originally from the Congo and South Africa, respectively, the couple was told Thursday by the Interior Ministry that their four-year-old Israeli-born daughter Esther has 60 days to gather her belongings and leave the country, after failing to qualify for a permanent residency visa handed out this week by the ministry to some 1,200 children of foreign workers.
Technically her parents can stay, but Esther has to leave Israel, and her parents are obviously not going to let her go on her own.
"I'm a persona non grata in the Congo; going back there is not an option for me," Oscar, who has been living in Israel for the past 13 years after arriving on a tourist visa, told The Jerusalem Post. His wife has been living here for a similar amount of time, having arrived on a work visa. "I am known in Congo, I cannot go back to Congo. I was involved in student demonstrations against the government. It is not safe for me. I have family there but they are in hiding."
He also said that returning to South Africa was not really an option for the family because they had no personal connections there at all. But the biggest challenge that the Oliviers face in leaving is with little Esther, who knows nothing else but her life in Israel.
"My daughter is very Israeli," said Oscar, adding that she is fluent in Hebrew, attends a municipal pre-Kindergarten, has already learned "some basics of Judaism," and celebrates Jewish holidays with the other kids.
"We have not told her yet that we have to leave," he continued. "I just don't know how she will react. Being told we have to go is a very strange feeling. We have made many good friends here, we don't have criminal records and, I feel, have contributed to Israeli society in many ways."
However, for the State of Israel - in particular the Interior Ministry, which over the past year has deliberated a total of 827 cases similar to the Oliviers' - these facts are simply not enough.
On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry sent the fateful letter addressed to Bathabile, who had requested an appeal of an earlier decision to deport her daughter.
The letter was signed by Sharon Abulafia, the secretary of the committee for the examination of granting residency to children of foreign workers. The committee was set up by the government and is staffed by Interior Ministry officials from the population registry and officials from the National Insurance Institute.
"This particular family did not meet the [government's] criteria," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabene Haddad said. "We knew that there would be people who did not and we have given them two months to prepare themselves [to be deported]."
Haddad pointed out that out of the 827 cases, only 160 were turned down for permanent resident status and they were the ones who were "far from fitting the set criteria."
The move to tackle the issue of foreign worker children born or brought up in Israel went into high gear a year ago, when the government passed a resolution to provide those considered culturally Israeli with a permanent-resident visa.
According to the criteria, those eligible had to have lived in Israel for at least six years, speak fluent Hebrew and have arrived before they were 14 years old. Those wanting to apply for permanent residency submitted petitions by last August 31 and a specially-appointed Interior Ministry committee deliberated each case. Interior Minister Roni Bar-On even dropped the age requirement from six to four and nine months, to reflect the age children here enter the formal education system.
"It was a difficult decision but in every policy there needs to be cut-off guidelines," a spokeswoman for Bar-On, who earlier this week announced that the committee had completed its deliberations and had handed out some 1200 permanent resident visas to children deemed "culturally Israeli."
The granting of these permanent resident visas was the culmination of a long history to change their legal status, explained Yoav Loeff, spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which initiated the move in 2003 after filing a petition in the Tel Aviv District Court for Administration Affairs on behalf of four children of foreign workers who were refused official status.
"Those children had grown up here," pointed out Loeff. "Israel was the center of their lives and the government had ignored that these families existed."
While Loeff commended the steps taken over the past year by the government to find a solution to the status problem of children of foreign workers, he admitted to the Post that "there are always those who fall through the cracks."
ACRI's legal representative, Michal Pinchuk, who was responsible for filing some of the court petitions on behalf of children of foreign workers, said that ACRI did not plan on taking any more legal action specifically regarding the age criteria.
"We have submitted a petition for the criteria to include even those families whose parents entered Israeli illegally," she said. "But we are not thinking of taking action regarding the age issue. I really can't see any solution [for the Olivier family]."
As for Oscar Olivier, who even petitioned the Interior Ministry to accept him under the special status granted to refugees, it seems his options have run out.
"It is extremely hard to explain in words how we are feeling right now," said Olivier. "It is like having a cold; either you know how it feels or you don't."