November 17, 2018

Oscar winner ‘Strangers’ promises no Hollywood ending

One day after an Oscar went to the 40-minute documentary “Strangers No More,” about the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv and its undocumented students from 48 countries across the Third World — a 12-year-old girl named Esther who stars in the movie is facing probable deportation from Israel, along with an estimated 120 of the 800 pupils in the school.

Esther Aikpaehae fled her native South Africa with her father, Immanuel Aikpaehae, after her mother was killed. They arrived in Israel four years ago — thus missing the five-year amnesty set by Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai last July as a condition for foreign workers to receive landed immigrant status in this country. Her circumstances typify what has befallen many children here — escaping genocide, starvation and war, as documented in “Strangers No More,” only to remain vulnerable because of their unsure future. The film, an HBO Documentary Films Presentation produced and directed by Americans Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon of Simon & Goodman Picture Co., has also won three Emmy awards, in addition to garnering the award for best short documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood on Feb. 27.

“With tremendous effort and dedication, the school provides the support these children need to recover from their past,” Goodman and Simon wrote on the movie’s official Web site. “Together, the bond between teacher and student, and amongst the students themselves, enables them to create new lives in this exceptional community.”

While only a minority of students at the Bialik-Rogozin School on Ha’aliya Street near Tel Aviv’s cavernous Central Bus Station are in Israel illegally, they’re all united by their common language, Hebrew. The film focuses on the educators at the school, in particular principal Keren Tal and teacher Smadar Moeres, as well as three students: Johannes from Ethiopia, Esther from South Africa and Muhammad Adam from Darfur. The documentary follows the three students through the course of an academic year, detailing the hardships they faced before arriving in Israel and the ways the Bialik-Rogozin School — where “no child is a stranger” — has offered refuge in the country they now call home.

“Many things make this school special,” principal Tal, who accompanied the two directors to the Academy Awards ceremony, says in the film. “This is the only school of its kind in Israel: a public school whose students come from 48 different countries — Christians, Muslims and Jews together. In our school, we welcome every student, regardless of where they came from, regardless of their background. Children are children, and in education there is no such thing as ‘strangers.’ ”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who visited the school recently, issued a statement praising the Bialik-Rogozin School and “Strangers No More.” “In a world of cynicism, alienation and hatred, this movie proves in the most direct and convincing way that there is the chance for a better world. Whoever finished watching the movie with dry eyes has some sort of problem with their tear ducts.”

Huldai called the film “the ultimate calling card for Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Israel to present to the world. After reports have been issued ad nauseam about Israel, the occupying, brutal country that tramples human rights, it’s necessary that the world learns of this side of Israel, the beautiful Israel.”

Yet the school is in the media spotlight for another reason, too, as the issue of the illegal immigration status of the children of foreign workers and asylum-seekers, and their possible deportation, has become front-page news.

Esther’s father says the attention has put them on a roller coaster of emotions: “We were hoping very much the film would win, but we didn’t think it would attract so much attention. It is hard to fluctuate between such great happiness to such great sorrow when the deportation is still pending.”

NGOs and aid organizations, including Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) are advocating for children currently being held for unknown periods of time and under unknown circumstances at a new detention center in Ben-Gurion Airport operated by the Interior Ministry’s Oz Unit. As many as 120 foreign students at the Bialik-Rogozin School are among the 400 youths slated for deportation. It is not known whether the school’s children might be moved to the new center.

Although the Interior Ministry is obligated to publish its policies, it has refused thus far to answer questions concerning the future operation of the new detention center at the airport, and the deportation procedures in general, and those pertaining to children in particular. The only concrete information received at present is photo shots of swings and slides set up in the airport’s detention center.

“Will children be separated from parents? Will a time limit be set for keeping a child in detention? What type of personnel will be tasked with carrying out arrests and supervising daily life at the detention center? What type of training would those who come in contact with children receive? Which procedures would be allowed pertaining to the use of force and handcuffing? And will there be no alternative provided for children but to be placed behind bars?” asks ACRI spokesperson Ronit Sela.

At the school, the hope is that the film will help convince the government not to deport the children; indeed, according to reports, congratulations were received at the school from Education Minister Gideon Saar and President Shimon Peres.

“Strangers No More” is scheduled to be shown on HBO soon.