Shadow over Utopia

An Oscar-nominated film documenting Tel Aviv’s multicultural Bialik- Rogozin School portrays Israel in the best possible light. Ironically, 120 of the pupils there are slated for deportation

Bialik Rogozin school 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bialik Rogozin school 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
These are days of “huge tension,” says Karen Tal, principal of South Tel Aviv’s uniquely diverse Bialik-Rogozin School.
“From one side there’s the Oscars, from the other side we’re waiting to hear if our pupils are going to be deported or not,” says the immensely energetic Tal in her office. In the courtyard is a giant mural featuring the flags of the student body’s 48 countries of origin.
At Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, a 40-minute American film about Bialik-Rogozin, Strangers No More, will be up against four other nominees in the category of Best Documentary – Short Subject. Focusing on the sagas of three foreign, non- Jewish pupils – Esther from South Africa, Mohamed from Darfur and Johannes from Eritrea – the film shows how the school has taken kids from all backgrounds, with the most tragic histories, and given them a new life in a humane environment where race, religion and nationality don’t matter.
The film, produced and directed by New York-based Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, shows the best possible side of Israel. At a screening last month at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque, former UN ambassador Danny Gillerman said, “I wish I’d had this video [at the UN]. There can be no better hasbara than this movie to show what type of country we are, what type of country we can be.”
At the screening, though, former prime minister Ehud Olmert added a reminder that not all is well at Bialik- Rogozin. “We must not allow these children to be deported.”
Of the 831 pupils at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade school, 120 are candidates for deportation with their families according to regulations set down by the government last July, says Tal. All are children of foreign workers who’ve been here for years, but who do not now have legal permits to be in the country. Israel has never deported children of foreign workers before, but under the new law, some 400 kids nationwide – including the 120 at Bialik-Rogozin – will be flown back with their parents to where they came from.
That decision, driven by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, caused outrage at home and throughout the Jewish world. Elie Wiesel said it was “hard to believe that such a thing is happening in Israel. Where is the Jewish heart, the Jewish spirit, the Jewish compassion?” The ADL’s Abraham Foxman said the 400 “should be ‘grandfathered in’ and permitted to stay on humanitarian grounds.”
Thousands protested in Tel Aviv’s Meir Park and sent the issue flying around Facebook. The umbrella organization for Holocaust survivors wrote to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu they were particularly distressed by the decision after having “witnessed the selection and separation of children from their parents.”
Finally, Sara Netanyahu dissented from her husband by addressing a letter to Yishai. “I am asking you, from the bottom of my heart,” she wrote, “to use the authority granted you by the government decision and allow the vast majority of the remaining 400 children to stay in Israel.”
And now there is Strangers No More, which, even if it doesn’t win the Oscar, is being screened in more than 50 US and Canadian cities this month. In light of all the sympathy for these 400 children and the certain hasbara disaster it would be to expel them, I asked the Interior Ministry this week if it was going ahead with its plans.
My request for an interview was denied. In a two-sentence written reply, the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority noted that the “first phase” of the government’s decision was carried out last August, when foreign workers with children were summoned to the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv to apply for legal residency. The concludingsentence read: “These days we are preparing to carry out the second phase, during which the decision will be enforced vis-àvis the families.”
For those familiar with the breadth and depth of opposition to the planned deportations, and to Israel’s sensitivity over its image in the world, it’s hard to believe that this country would actually put children who’ve lived here for years – in some cases, born here – on planes back to the countries they left.
But for the families affected, the threat is altogether real and it hangs over their lives.
“I WAS born here. My mother came here 24 years ago. We speak the language, we know the culture, we have Israeli friends – and suddenly to just throw us out of the country? It doesn’t make sense.”
Sinam Ozmen, a slight, pretty ninthgrader at Bialik-Rogozin, is sitting in her family’s cramped but well-organized living room in the rough Shapira neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. With her is brother Burak, a Turkish-born eighth-grader at the school; their mother Elif, a house cleaner, stepfather Ismail, a construction worker; and infant stepbrother Eran.
Since the mother came here as a single woman in 1987, the family has gone back and forth between here and Turkey – paying many thousands of dollars to Beduin smugglers taking them through Sinai to the border.
“At night it was really scary,” recalls Sinam, who made the trek, the family’s last one, in 2007.
“It was hell. But there were some kushim with us, and they were very good to the kids. We all helped each other,” says the mother, using a term for “blacks” that can be insulting.
“Don’t say kushim, say sh’horim,” Burak corrects her, using the literal, neutral term he learned in school.
Like some 1,200 other “illegal” foreign worker households with children, the family lined up at the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv last August and applied for legal residency.
“They questioned each of us separately,” says Elif, the mother. “We didn’t get an answer.”
According to the new law, even though both parents are working, the kids are in school, the family’s roots in the country go back to 1987 and Sinam was born in Tel Aviv’s Kirya hospital, the family is supposed to be put on a plane back to Turkey.
They don’t meet the government’s criteria for legal residency because they didn’t enter the country legally, and as of last August, they had not lived here for the last five straight years.
Administrators at Bialik-Rogozin referred them to the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, which got them a lawyer; if their application is turned down, they will appeal.
“One night the immigration police came.
They looked in the kids’ bedroom, saw that they were sleeping and said, ‘We’re going,’ recalls Elif. “I see them all the time when I leave the apartment. One of them tells me, ‘Boker tov, Turkiya’ [Good morning, lady from Turkey].”
Like other foreign families applying for legal residency, Sinam, Burak, Elif and Ismail have only good things to say to the media about the country – except, of course, the immigration policy toward foreign workers.
“At school I like computers and history best – just not sports,” says Sinam.
“I like everything,” says Burak.
“After I finish the army, I want to study computers,” says Sinam.
They seem fairly confident that they’ll be allowed to stay, but, like all foreigners in their situation, they’re wary. They did not want their photos taken for this article.
A COUPLE of blocks from Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, “Rosa,” a Filipina house cleaner, lives with her daughter, “Lior,” a kindergartner at Bialik-Rogozin, in a tiny apartment they share with Lior’s father and other Filipinos. Barbie dolls and pictures of Jesus are prominent in the front room.
Rosa left five children with her sister-inlaw in the Philippines to come here, legally, in 2000. “I needed to make money for their food, shelter, education,” she says, noting that she succeeded, sending money back to her children, now grown and on their own, every month.
By virtue of giving birth to Lior five years ago, she lost her work permit, moved out of her Rehovot employer’s house and came to Tel Aviv, where she’s been dodging immigration police.
“About six months after I got here, they came in during the middle of the night and broke down a wall to try to arrest the Filipinos living on the other side,” she says. “They told me to pack our things because they were coming back in two hours to put us on a plane to the Philippines.
I was already packed because this was when rockets were being fired at Israel [during the Second Lebanon War], and I was always ready to go stay in the bomb shelter in the bus station. But they never came back.”
Last August she went with Lior and the girl’s father to the Interior Ministry to apply for legal residency. They were told that because Lior would be going into kindergarten, they fell short of the criteria for legal residency, which required children to be entering first through 12th grade in the current school year.
“She’s one year short,” says Rosa with a plaintive smile.
“They told us we had to go back to the Philippines by the end of August,” she recalls. That was the ministry’s order – that all those families who didn’t meet the criteria had to leave the country by the end of the month; afterward, it promised, immigration police would scour the country to enforce the law.
“After the holiday, we hid,” she says, referring to Rosh Hashana. A movement sprang up to hide the families from immigration police, with hundreds of Israelis offering their homes to those on the run.
Former education minister Yossi Sarid wrote defiantly in Haaretz: “Let the representatives of the law look for them in the attic, in the basement, in the closets, under the beds; let the authorities tear them from your arms.”
Bialik-Rogozin administrators urgedschool parents to come with their kids to the school, Rosa recalls. “They told us not to worry, that they wouldn’t let a single child be taken away.”
She and Lior, however, hid out for a week in the home of a friend of the family she’s been cleaning for the last three years. “My employers brought us food, whatever we needed. They love my daughter very much, and they treat us like family.”
The school referred her, too, to the Hot Line for Migrant Workers, which provided her with a lawyer. Her appeal was scheduled to be heard the day before our interview, but the Interior Ministry cancelled it, she says.
Lior is an extremely shy girl, burrowing her face in her mother’s arms whenever I very, very gently tried to ask her a question.
In Hebrew, Rosa coaxed her out of her shyness.
I ask: What do you like best about school – playing games, reading stories, your teachers, your friends? In a tiny little shy voice, Lior, with ribbons in her hair and smiling with extreme embarrassment, replies in Hebrew, “My friends.” I thought: I’d like to see somebody try to deport this child.
I ask Rosa if she thinks she and her daughter will be able to stay here or be forced to go home. “My employer,” she says, “tells me to keep saying, ‘In God we trust.’” BIALIK-ROGOZIN is a legendary success story, and a magnet for Tel Aviv Foundation philanthropists. With a mix of veteran Israeli Jews, new immigrants, Israeli Arabs, African refugees and the children of foreign workers (the largest group, with nearly half the student body), the matriculation rate has risen steadily to 70 percent, above the national average. Sixty-eight percent enter the IDF or national service after graduation.
“We emphasize the importance of serving in the army,” says Tal.
The school doesn’t promote multiculturalism, but rather an Israelism that crosses cultures.
And this, she says, is what makes the government’s threat to expel 120 of her pupils intolerable.
“As a state school, we are required to socialize our pupils for Israel, to inculcate Israeli culture in them, to instill in them an Israeli identity. But now Israel is telling them: ‘We don’t want you here,’” she says. “For me as an educator, this is an impossible conflict.”
So she and her staff have joined forces with NGOs such as Israeli Children, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Hot Line for Migrant Workers to defend the pupils against the proposed deportations.
“We’ve decided to fight this democratically,” she says.
Cooperating with the making of Strangers No More was part of the fight. The film does not raise the issue of the threatened expulsions; codirector Kirk Simon explained that “because our film was going to take over a year to produce, we thought that dramatizing an issue that might be resolved, or change, or evolve, could hurt its long-term viewership potential.”
But he said he was totally against deporting any of the pupils, adding that while he was “proud to present to the US a portrait of an Israel that is rarely shown in the media here, the other side of it is that by shedding light on the school, it should make deportation a little harder.”
Two of the three “stars” of the film, Mohamed from Sudan’s Darfur region and Johannes from Eritrea, are not under threat of deportation; the new law does not apply to the children of the 30,000-plus refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, whose deportation is forbidden by international law because they would face severe punishment upon return to their dictatorial home countries. Instead, it applies to the children of the 101,500 foreign workers whom the Central Bureau of Statistics said were here illegally as of the start of 2010. In this population are some 1,200 minors, of whom the government estimates 800 meet the criteria for legal residency and 400 don’t.
One of those 400, Esther Aikpehae from South Africa is the third child “star” of thefilm. She lives with her father, Emanuel, in a typically tiny, cluttered apartment on Rehov Naveh Sha’anan, a main artery and nonstop street bazaar for the international community living around Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station.
When Emanuel tells me he’s 40, I tell him he looks young enough to be his daughter’s older brother. Esther pipes up: “When I tell people I’m 12, they say I look like I’m seven.”
Wearing a cap over the luxuriant cornrows seen in the film, she’s bopping around the apartment, eating dinner out of a container of meat and noodles. Her father sits in a chair and answers my questions, but when he’s not talking, he’s got a distant look on his face.
They left Johannesburg in 2007. “A friend told me that after all we’d been through, Israel would be a good place for us,” Emanuel says. Had the friend been here? “No, he’d just read about it.”
Emanuel’s wife, Susan, had been shot and killed a few months earlier. He assumes the killer was his ex-partner in a little real estate business they had, and that the man killed his wife over some money Emanuel owed him from a deal that had gone bad. The man was arrested but released for lack of evidence.
“People told me he was going to kill me or my daughter next,” he says, so he took Esther and moved far from the neighborhood, and they were soon on a plane, coming in on a tourist visa.
Through an African church near the bus station, they immediately found a temporary place to stay and Emanuel got a temporary house cleaner’s job, but soon they were living from place to place, essentially vagabonds. Their luck changed about three years ago when Emanuel struck up a conversation on Naveh Sha’anan with the landlord of the building he lives in.
“We had no place to sleep that night, and he said, ‘Bo, bo, bo,’ [‘Come on, come on, come on’] and gave us a room for the night. Then he arranged for us to have an apartment upstairs for a year, and now we’re living here,” he says, adding that he’s got steady work as a house cleaner.
Starting at Bialik-Rogozin, Esther had to stay back a year to learn the language.
“The first year was hard,” says Emanuel, “but she’s a bright girl, she studied hard and now she’s doing very well.”
I ask what she wants to be when she grows up. “A businesswoman,” she says.
“Before that, a baby-sitter.”
They, too, applied for legal residency at the Interior Ministry last year, didn’t get an answer, got a lawyer through the Hot Line and are waiting for the government’s next move. Emanuel and Esther don’t meet the criteria for legal residency because they haven’t lived here for the last five years.
“She’s made a life here, she’s more Israeli than she is South African,” he says.
“Her mother – my wife – was killed there.
I came here to protect my daughter and myself. I don’t think it’s legal to deport people to a place where their lives are in danger.”
I ask what ambitions he has for himself and Esther. “We just want to live in Israel,” he says. “I didn’t come here because it’s the Holy Land or anything. I came here because it’s safe.”
Esther belongs to the Scouts and attends after-school enrichment classes. On Saturday mornings, she goes to the Christian Redeemer Church with her father. At school, she has “a friend from Israel, one from the Philippines, one from Chile, one from Ghana,” and they talk to each other in a mix of English and Hebrew. Her teacher’s name is Ilie. “She teaches us to respect people. She doesn’t really teach us – she’s more like our mother.”
About the Oscars, she says: “I’m praying we win. Everybody has to know about our school.”
I ask Emanuel what he thinks the chances are that they’ll be allowed to go on living here, despite the new law.
“I’d say about 70 percent,” he says.
Esther looks me straight in the eye. “A hundred percent,” she says.