Strangers no more

In my quest for good news, four months went by and I could not find much. But I confess I had a spark of joy when the little movie “Strangers no more” won an Oscar for best short documentary of 2011.

The movie focuses on a the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, a place which currently welcomes 800 children from forty-eight different countries. They are the either children of migrant workers who arrives in Israel seeking economic opportunities, or refugees from war, famine and genocide. The school motto is: “Here, no child is a stranger”: in a place where everyone is a stranger, no one is. The film follows in particular the story of three children: Mohammed, a sixteen-year-old refugee from Darfur, witnessed the killing of his grandmother and father before escaping alone through Egypt to Israel; Johannes, a war refugee who spent most of his life in refugee camps across the Middle East, and Esther, who fled South Africa after the murder of her mother. The students play together and chat in the new common language, Hebrew.

While the courageous teachers work together to relieve the trauma of these children with tremendous effort and dedication, the Israeli government has planned to expel some of the immigrants as part of an action taken to fight illegal immigration. The planned deportation is so on its way that a temporary center for detention is being built next to the airport for hosting the families in transition. The title of the movie, “strangers no more” could become ironically the flag of the current policy in migration affairs. The government is busy erecting a fence along the 220km long Egyptian border, as well as a massive detention center in the southern Negev. Actually, some of the people employed to build it, are – ironically – foreign workers.

Despite the recognition, currently, the movie is not showing anywhere in Israel. It seems that the subject of foreign workers, although widely covered in the press, is not something Israelis like to talk about. When I raised the issue of the movie success in casual talks, I spotted bland enthusiasm, partly because this is not an Israeli production, but an American one (directors are Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon). Israel grants automatic citizenship to many returning Jews from all over the world, but the policy towards migrants is still fluttering. Apparently, some of the families will be allowed to remain, but only those who match strict criteria established for this purpose.

Foreigners in Israel? Yes, people may be surprised to hear that for many non-Jewish immigrants, Israel is actually a very desirable place to be. The salaries, although lower than the national standards, are still attractive. New immigration trends are being created: you will see that Philippinos are for the elders, Ethiopians for cleaning the street, Indian for the babies, Chinese for construction. And the cleaners? Jews of Mizrahi origins.

When it is about opening your house to someone, a half-foreign is still better than a foreigner.

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