Refugee teens in Israel win races but not awards

On a chilly night in December, up a grassy slope overlooking the all-weather track at Ironi Tet High School in southeast Tel Aviv, a few dozen teens — hailing from about 10 different countries — raced one another to the top of the hill.
January 8, 2014

On a chilly night in December, up a grassy slope overlooking the all-weather track at Ironi Tet High School in southeast Tel Aviv, a few dozen teens — hailing from about 10 different countries — raced one another to the top of the hill.

Yalla, Rahel!” one girl shouted from the sidelines, egging on the runner in first place. Rahel Gebretzadik, a petite 15-year-old wearing a wild ponytail and long sleeves under her T-shirt to cut the chill, is a star member of a local track and field club team named the South Tel Aviv Alleys. She nails this drill at practice a few times each week.

“Rahel is killing all of the boys,” said team manager and coach Rotem Genossar, out of breath as he watched her pull ahead. The teen had just beat him, too, in an uphill sprint.

“I don’t refer to her as a girl — she’s in the boy group,” he added.

Yet, although Gebretzadik is the speediest long-distance runner under age 19 in Israel, she has never been allowed to stand on a podium at a national competition.

Three years ago, when she was 12, Gebretzadik and her family fled Eritrea to escape religious persecution (they’re Protestant) and trekked across northern Africa and the Sinai Desert to Israel. The family paid Bedouins to taxi them part of the way, but for the on-foot portion of the journey, Gebretzadik carried her little sister on her back. Once inside Israel, the family spent three weeks at the massive Saharonim desert prison for “illegal infiltrators” in Israel’s desolate south before being released in Tel Aviv.

For this reason, Gebretzadik is barred from winning any of her track and field events at the national level.

The Israeli Athletic Association’s (IAA) policy is that in order to officially place in a competition, athletes must hold an Israeli ID. Non-citizens “can race, but they cannot win,” IAA General Secretary Jack Cohen said in a brief phone interview.

Now that her family has settled in South Tel Aviv alongside tens of thousands of fellow Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, Gebretzadik is one of about 50 high-schoolers running for the South Tel Aviv Alleys — approximately 70 percent of whom are not allowed to win any races because their parents came to Israel seeking either asylum or work and have no path to citizenship because they aren’t Jewish.

Gebretzadik has been denied a spot on the podium six times since May. And the team’s long-distance coach, Yuval Carmi, said six to eight of her fast-improving teammates are also about to learn how that feels: “They’ll have to face it this season because they’ll be in very good shape. She is the best, so she faced it first.”

Israel’s continued imprisonment of thousands of African men without a trial, and rejection of their families’ applications for asylum, has reached a boiling point already this year. Rallies with turnouts in the tens of thousands are currently raging across Tel Aviv. But meanwhile, kids stuck in the system are facing smaller humiliations that can feel just as huge.

Most recently, at a cross-country championship meet in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, Gebretzadik had her first-place win in the three kilometers (just under two miles) pulled out from under her.

“When they didn’t call her name, I felt uncomfortable,” said teammate Catherine Couturiaux, an 18-year-old legal immigrant from Spain. “It was an injustice, what they did.”

Rosefynn Boado, 15, a sprinter and hurdler who was born in Israel (and therefore does hold an Israeli ID) to a mother from the Philippines and a father from Ghana, agreed. “It’s not fair,” she said. “It made me really sad.” 

Adding to the embarrassment, long-distance coach Carmi said that event managers then announced to the whole crowd: “By the way, another girl, Rahel, came in first, but she doesn’t have Israeli citizenship.”

In September, Gebretzadik’s story was featured on Ynet.com, Israel’s online news source of record. The comment section became a warring ground between Israel’s right and left, transcending the topic of a teenage girl wronged to the greater refugee situation in Tel Aviv. 

“You snuck in illegally? Deport, end of story,” one commenter wrote in Hebrew. “I recommend you run all the way back to Egypt, and Eritrea,” wrote another.

Gebretzadik couldn’t help but peek at the comments. “They really got her down,” said Couturiaux. “But we told her, ‘It doesn’t matter what they say.’ ”

After practice one night in December, Gebretzadik changed into a gold tracksuit she brought with her from Eritrea and shared a hand of bananas with some other girls on the team. She blushed at questions about the hard crossing from Eritrea, and about the discrimination she now faces in Israel.

“Of course it’s discouraging,” she said. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”

Her teammates, many of whom also endured rough trips to Israel, giggled with her through the interview. “It was so hard; I cried,” said Samia Mohammad of her family’s trip, smiling wide and swooping her arm over a shorter teammate. After escaping war-torn Darfur, Sudan, she remembers “jumping over the rocks” as she hiked across the desert. (Like the vast majority of African asylum seekers in the same situation, Mohammad’s family was not granted refugee status in Israel. So if Samia or her brother Ramzi place gold, silver or bronze in any events this season, the IAA will deny their wins.) 

Team practices have become as much a social gathering and support system as a training ground. “Especially for the girls, the social reasons for running become greater than the athletic ones,” team manager Genossar said.

They’re a tight bunch, even once practice lets out. Late one December night, a group of the girls crowded onto bus No. 104 for the trip back home to South Tel Aviv, sharing ear buds and alternating fluidly between Hebrew and Arabic.

Their team name, the South Tel Aviv Alleys, shows they are “an urban team from the neighborhood — running in the streets, not in the fields,” Genossar said.

The 30-year-old Israeli coach is also a civics teacher at the Bialik-Rogozin School in South Tel Aviv, and his team draws most of its talent from the school’s student body — a melting pot of Muslims, Christians and Jews from roughly 50 countries. If the school sounds familiar, that’s because Bialik-Rogozin was the star of “Strangers No More,” a film by non-Israelis that won the Oscar for best short documentary in 2011.

In “Strangers No More,” directors Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon tracked the educational progress of a handful of refugee and migrant children at the school — some of whom had never before seen the inside of a classroom — as they learned to read and write, all the while fearing deportation.

The South Tel Aviv Alleys, too, embody the school’s remarkable yet effortless diversity. Ever since the team was founded in October 2012 and added to the nation’s official club roster in 2013, it has grown into a pretty popular place to be: “Our goal was originally 15 kids,” said Genossar. Now that they’ve surpassed 50, they’re in desperate need of additional funding to keep the team alive.

And as the Alleys have expanded their roster, their presence at IAA meets — and with it, their ban from the podium — has become glaring.

IAA spokesman Oren Bukstein explained that although it’s hard to see disappointment on any kid’s face, “We have a saying in Hebrew: First of all, look at your own kids. You cannot hurt the Israeli kids because of some compassion.”

He said that the citizenship mandate was created in part to discourage foreign athletes from competing in Israel solely for the prize money, then skipping town.

However, the team’s Israeli coaches are angry that the IAA refuses to make a distinction between professional sports tourists and kids who had no option but to come to Israel and have since made it their home.

“They’re already here — they live here, and they speak Hebrew,” Genossar said. “People who grew up here are treated as complete foreigners, as if they got off the plane to pick up the prize.”

The Alleys and their supporters are asking IAA board members to consider making non-citizens who at least have residency papers eligible to win events.

So far, the board has remained firm on the distinction. At press time, only one of the 13 board members had responded to requests for comment on their reasoning, and that one deflected the request to IAA management. But the IAA’s spokesman seemed optimistic that with some public pressure, board members could have a change of heart. “I think it depends on somebody to wake up the issue,” he said.

Gebretzadik, too, has hope. “I believe the rule will change,” she said confidently through a mouthful of banana after practice.

Proponents of overturning the Israeli ID requirement see the change not only as a means of leveling the playing field for undocumented kids like Gebretzadik but as an opportunity to take Israeli sports to the next level.

“The most important thing is that, individually, they are empowered,” Genossar said. “But they can also make a difference in Israel, because they are so talented, and [Israeli] track and field is not in the best position.

“If the IAA will treat them right,” he said, “everybody can benefit.”

To donate to the South Tel Aviv Alleys and help keep the team running, contact team founder Shirith Kasher at skasher@brack-capital.com.

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