Oscar and Esther have to leave now

Children of foreign workers face deportation along with their parents.

esther 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
esther 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Several hundred of Tel Aviv's hip set gathered recently in the south of the city for a "deportation party" organized by the African Refugee Development Center in Israel to raise awareness of the deportation of children of migrant workers, scheduled to take place sometime after March 31 this year. According to the rules set by the Interior Ministry, children of foreign workers under age 6 - regardless of whether or not they were born in Israel, and regardless of whether their parents are here legally or not - are in Israel illegally and must be sent back to the country of their parent's origin. According to Alusine Swaray, President of the African Refugee Development Union (ARDU), which lobbies on behalf of African foreign workers in Israel, there are approximately 1,200 children of African foreign workers in the Tel Aviv area, of whom three-quarters were born in Israel. Their parents came to Israel largely to escape persecution in their home countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo. Some of them are here illegally, some are here legally on temporary visas. Those whose children are under the age of six are illegal aliens, and under Israeli law, must be deported. Oscar Olivier, whose three-year-old daughter Esther speaks fluent Hebrew, goes to a municipal school in Tel Aviv, has already learned "some basics of Judaism" there and celebrates the Jewish holidays with the other kids in the school. She is an Israeli child in every sense of the word, her father, who is from Congo, says. Esther was born at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv in August of 2003 and registered there. Then, two years later, she was registered at a municipal school for toddlers. Israeli law provides free education for children, including those of foreign workers. Oscar has been living in Israel for the past 13 years, after escaping persecution in his native country. In Israel, he met and married a South African woman brought here by the family she was working for in South Africa. He is here on a temporary worker's visa, which he has to renew every six months. His daughter however, is considered an illegal alien. "We will get the deadline very soon, and then I don't know what we will do. I have no plan B," he says. "If they tell us to go by a certain date and if we haven't managed to lobby to allow Esther to stay here by then, then I will have to come up with something, I guess." Oscar's wife is allowed to stay in Israel on a temporary visa, but not entitled to work. Oscar applied for a visa for Esther at the Interior Ministry two years after she was born. He cleans apartments. "They told me my daughter was too young to stay, that because she was only three years old she was not qualified to have the visa," Oscar says, adding that the Interior Ministry told Oscar that if he, the father, was not legally in Israel, he must leave. But Oscar is here legally, if temporarily. He describes the situation of his being "legal" while his daughter - born here and registered in a government kindergarten - is "illegal" as illogical and strange. The ministry also said he had supply a good reason why they should allow Esther to stay. "I told them that my home country is a place of war, that it's not safe to take my child there. I am a friend of Israel and I believe that my child deserves a visa to stay in Israel. 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 says. Oscar's case is being examined. Sabene Haddad of the Interior Ministry admits that his case is exceptional, that a father can be legally in a country while his young daughter is considered illegal. According to Haddad, 820 stop-deportation appeals have been filed with the ministry, which encompass 2,350 people, of whom 900 are children of foreign workers. This number includes one-parent families with multiple children. In fact, most of the families who made the requests are of the one-parent type, Haddad says. As of this writing, the State of Israel has granted leniency in 334 cases. The special committee set up to deal with appeals, which is separate from the Committee on the Children of Foreign Workers - which deals with regular cases - used to meet once a week and dealt with 20 cases in each sitting. Recently the committee has been meeting twice a week and dealing with 50 cases in each session to try and speed up the process. According to Haddad, the committee should complete examining all the cases by mid-February. "Policy is being formed now and the committee is meeting regularly," she says. According to Israeli law, a person who has been told to leave the country because of legal status has 14 days within which to appeal, and if that is rejected, 45 days to leave the country.The special committee which deals with exceptional cases is comprised of representatives from the Population Registry, National Insurance Institute, Social Affairs Ministry, and legal experts. Decisions are made per family, and there are no formal criteria for granting visas and allowing foreign workers to stay. "We try to be as humanitarian as possible," Haddad says. Yariv Mojar, a volunteer spokesperson for the ARDU, says there could be anywhere up to 2,000 children of foreign workers in the south Tel Aviv area. He says the rationale behind allowing those over six years to stay in Israel comes from the belief that once a child turns six it will be hard for him or her to learn a new language, so it is in the child's best interests to remain in Israel. Younger children can adapt more easily to a foreign country and language, Mojar says. He adds that the number of children in consideration here is too small to have a demographic impact on the state, and that arguments along those lines by those who raise the specter of demography, or the Jewish character of the state, to justify the deportation of foreign workers' children just don't hold water. He also accuses "certain elements" of creating a "false impression" that foreign workers take jobs away from Israelis. "Many have been deported over the years, and those who have stayed have established a life for themselves here. Anyway, many of them don't have a place to return to, for various reasons, such as that their properties have been looted," Mojal says. FOR NOW, Oscar can afford to feel, if not optimistic, then hopeful that his and the ARDU's lobbying efforts will bear fruit. He knows, however, that if and when the government decides that Esther cannot stay, he will have no choice but to go. He is not the type to languish in prison, nor is he a man of drastic action. He sends letters, faxes and e-mails to the Knesset. He knows that each country looks after its own interests first and foremost. "I'm not rich, Israel has nothing to get from me. Israel doesn't need me, I need Israel. I must keep on standing up and saying that Israel cannot send me back to Congo," he says. If the day comes and he has not managed to garner enough support, he will have "nothing special to do." He will leave Israel, but not to Congo. "I don't know where. I don't have an alternative plan. I know I must have one, but I don't. I have been in Israel for 13 years; I am a foreigner according to my papers, but in terms of the culture, I am an ordinary Israeli. I speak Hebrew fluently, and my daughter speaks Hebrew. She is treated like an Israeli child by her teachers." I ask him, perhaps naively, if he honestly believes that Israel will actually demand that he take his child back to Congo. "My child won't be the first, others have been sent back to their countries like Ghana, Nigeria and others," he notes. Oscar has another axe to grind. He has obtained a police permit to conduct a protest rally outside the Congolese embassy against the policies of the government. He doesn't presume that the rally will in any way affect the policies of Congo, but says - just as he feels about his determination to try to reverse his daughter's situation - "it's better to do something than to sit at home."