Oscar win highlights plight of Africans in Israel

TEL AVIV, Israel — Students at the Bialik-Rogozin school in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood have survived genocide, war and famine. But they were all smiles on Monday after learning that a documentary about their plight had won an Academy Award.

“Strangers No More” puts a human face on Israel’s absorption of African migrants — an issue that has divided the country as the government plans to deport hundreds of children, including students at the school.

When news of the Oscar for best short documentary arrived early Monday, the school jumped into action, festooning the building with balloons and banners and hosting a visit by the mayor.

Both students and faculty said they hoped the sudden attention would persuade the government to cancel its deportation plan.

“Hopefully, thanks to the Oscar, people will see that these are children with dreams like all other children,” said vice principal Mirit Shapiro.

Israel has been grappling with how to handle an influx of migrants since they began arriving in 2005.

Tens of thousands of Africans, most from Sudan and Eritrea, have since infiltrated across Israel’s long desert border with Egypt.

Since then, Israel has become a magnet for asylum seekers and migrants desperate for jobs in the industrialized world. Many found their way to the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, home to Bialik-Rogozin. The area has so many migrants that Israelis have named it “little Africa.”

The government has scrambled to stop the flood of migrants by erecting a fence along the 130-mile (220-kilometer) Egyptian border and a massive detention center in the remote southern desert.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration, now says it is poised to begin implementing a Cabinet decision to deport thousands of those deemed to be in the country illegally, including hundreds of children.

Some deportations of adults have already taken place, and tens of thousands of Asian workers who entered the country legally but have overstayed their visas are also marked for expulsion.

The plight of the children has especially resonated among Israelis, since the kids speak Hebrew, consider themselves Israeli and many have known no other life.

For migrant advocates, the Oscar could not have come at a more opportune moment.

“If they are good enough to represent Israel at the Oscars, they are good enough to remain part of the country,” said Yonathan Shaham of the “Israeli Children” foundation.

The movie follows the story of three children at the school: Mohammed Adam, a refugee who escaped the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region; Johannes Mulugeta, whose first day at school is captured in the film; and Esther Aikpehae, a girl who fled South Africa with her father after her mother was killed in unclear circumstances.

Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s 40-minute documentary details their struggle to acclimate to life in Israel, slowly unveils their stories of hardship and interviews the dedicated teachers guiding them.

The school had a United Nations feel to it on Monday, with children dashing through the hallways and a square interior courtyard featuring the 48 flags of all the students’ countries of origin.

Aikpehae, a precocious 12-year-old girl with piercing eyes and long black hair, speaks fluent Hebrew and excels in the sixth grade. But because she has been in the country less than five years, she is among those eligible for deportation. She said her only hope was to stay in her beloved school.

“It’s not like every other school,” she said in English. “There is Muslims, there is Jews and there are Christians and we all live in peace.”

The movie already appears to be making an impact, with some of Israel’s most powerful figures rallying in support of the school.

Education Minister Gideon Saar sent his congratulations, saying the school represented “education at its finest.”

And President Shimon Peres called the school to send his best wishes.

“You have brought us a double dose of happiness,” Peres said, noting the achievements of the school and the favorable depiction of Israel.

Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, refused to discuss the movie.

Israel grants automatic citizenship to Jews but doesn’t have a firm policy for the migrants. The government took a step toward resolving their status by issuing a set of guidelines in August that would allow certain families to remain.

The criteria grant permanent residency visas to children of migrants if they have parents who entered the country legally, attended school, spoke Hebrew and resided in Israel for at least five years. Haddad could not provide figures on how many would qualify.

Adam, the 19-year-old Darfurian refugee featured in the film, says his dream it to study law in Israel. In Sudan, he watched his father and grandmother shot to death before his eyes. After just three years in Israel, he has graduated from high school, mastered the Hebrew language and is now studying at a post-high school seminar. His status in Israel remains uncertain, but he is optimistic.

“It’s thanks to the school,” he said. “Now I want to stay and get a university degree.”

© 2011 The Associated Press.