Esther: Feels at home
Photo: Yaron Brener
Students of Bialik Rogozin
Photo: Yaron Brener
Principal Karen Tal (Archives)
Photo: Sharon Bentov

Stars of Oscar-winning documentary face harsh reality

Morning after 'Strangers No More' wins Oscar, subjects of film that tells story of refugees' kids in Israel face bitter reality; they might soon be deported

The two security guards watching the entrance to the Bialik Rogozin School in southern Tel Aviv don't know what the fuss is about, and who are these people filing in. They spent Sunday night fast asleep, unaware of that it was Oscars night, and that in a few hours the students that they see every morning will turn into international stars.


"I heard about it on the news this morning," one tells the other. "I didn't even know that they made a movie here. That's nice. Congratulations to them."


The choir, which consists of a few dozen of the school's youngest students, takes its place on the auditorium stage. They have prepared a special song in honor of the Oscar win. Accompanied by the beating of small drums, they sing in the perfect Hebrew that would put many Israeli kids to shame.


Some of the students have stayed up all night, until finally, at 5:11 am, actors Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal announced that the film "Strangers No More" was the winner in the documentary short category. The flustered directors, Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon, accepted the award.


In her speech, Goodman said that spending time at the school, which is attended by the children of migrant workers and refugees that came to Israel from 48 different countries, was one of the most magical experiences of her life.


Waiting for verdict

Monday morning. The excitement at the school knows no bounds, even though most of the kids don't even know what they are so happy about. "It's a great day for us," says one kid, whose parents came from the Philippines. "The school won the Oscar, and now we will receive a lot of money and there's no way that any one of us will be deported."


Unfortunately for him and his schoolmates, though, life is not a movie, and the threat of expulsion from the country is still hanging over their heads like a guillotine. There is no promise of a happy ending; at best, there will be a sequel with additional plot twists.


"We have reached the top," explains Kindness, a 10th grader. "The school proved that nothing is final, and that we have a future in this country."


'This is our home'

The 40-minute film spans across many months, during which the creators followed the chronicles of Bialik Rogozin, a school attended by Jews, Arabs, and the children of foreigners from around the world.


The filmmakers chose to focus on the lives of a few kids, one of whom was Esther, a sixth-grader that left South Africa with her father after her mother was murdered. The film documents her teachers' attempts to explain to her that despite her hopes, she will never see her mother again.


"I've been living in Israel for four years," Esther says. "I love school and Tel Aviv, I have many friends and I am proud to be a resident of Israel. My friends are Israeli, and we feel at home. It doesn't matter where I was before, only where I am now.


"I am against the expulsion of the kids," she adds. "This is their home."


Esther might feel at home, but she is still waiting for the government to decide whether she will be deported or not. She is not alone; the futures of 120 of the school's 830 students are hanging in the balance.


"The members of the Knesset should watch the movie and cancel the decision to deport us," Esther says. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I want to dream about a future in this country, because I am Israeli in the full sense of the word."


Needless to say, Esther and her schoolmates could not travel to watch the Academy Awards ceremony in person.


"I don't have a status here, and if I leave the country I won't be able to come back," she says. "But each time that anyone abroad watches the movie, I feel like he sees my story and understands how problematic our situation is, and how we are an inseparable part of this country."


Within the school, the kids' immigration status goes largely unaddressed. "Until the decision is made, we continue as normal, and hope for the best," says Mirit Shapira, the school's deputy principal.


'Can't wait to enlist, protect my country'

Another tear-jerking story that the film shows is that of Muhammad, a refugee from Darfur who saw his family members being murdered before his eyes. He was illiterate when he arrived at the school, but managed to complete high school and a practical engineering certification within four years.


"He dreams of going to Darfur, building a school there and restoring everything that was destroyed, because if he is happy, he wants everyone to be happy," Goodman says.


Melissa Valeria, a 17-year-old 12th grader, who came to Israel with her mother from Bolivia when she was eight, says she has already been assigned the date for her IDF enlistment.


"I am finishing up the last year of high school and going to the army, and after that I think that I will go study," she says. "I want to know how to mediate between nations, diplomacy is my dream. I want to make a difference."


Her mother married an Israeli, and her little brother is in sixth grade at Bialik Rogozin.


"I studied at another school, where I was surrounded by Israelis," she says. "Then I transferred here, and it's more fun. It's the best that I could ask for. I met so many people with interesting stories, I wouldn't give it up for anything."


Melissa Valeria says she hoped that the film would take the Oscar. "A lot of people from Bolivia ask me how's life here, with all the terrorist attacks," she says. "It was important to me that the world sees that it's a completely normal country, and that we lead a normal life here."


She identifies herself as an Israeli, and says loves life in Tel Aviv, especially because it makes her feel safe. "It's a homey city, you can walk from place to place and feel secure," she explains. "I am not afraid, not even for a moment. I can't wait to enlist and protect my country."


Not wasting any time, the proud staff of Bialik Rogozin hung a sign featuring the photo of the school's principal, Karen Tal, holding up the golden statue.


"We are contenders for the municipality's award for education, and we thought that it would be the next prize that we would get," one teacher says, smiling. "Instead we got a different prize, but we would be happy to show off both."


'Making decision is urgent'

With a bandage on his nose, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai walks about Monday's celebration exceedingly proud. He congratulates the kids and tells the story of how he fought against the authorities in order to found the school, but at the same time warns that a solution to the foreign worker problem must be found.


"From the first moment it was a national problem," he claims. "It is the fruit of the labor of Israel's government, which encouraged the influx of migrant workers, and didn't do anything to deal with the tens of thousands of African refugees."


When it comes to the children of migrant workers, Huldai is full of just as much criticism.


"Each and every one of us has a clear opinion about the best way to deal with the problem of the refugees and foreign workers, but the most important and urgent thing is to make some kind of decision," he says. 


Like every party, this one has to end as well, and who is better to end it than the principal's number two.


"The Oscar was nice and heartwarming, but we must now continue with a normal day," says deputy principal Shapira. "With all due respect to the Hollywood stars, some of the kids have a test now, so we must go on with the routine."



פרסום ראשון: 03.02.11, 20:01
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