The Victories And Challenges Of Asylum-Seeking Athletes
By Violeta Santos-Moura
Esteer Gabriel and Rahel Gebretsadik have been best friends since they first met in Tel Aviv. The two 18-year-olds share much in common: They ran away from persecution in their home countries — Esteer from South Sudan, Rahel from Eritrea — and now, both run with a local athletic team in Israel.
For the past five years, they’ve been racing to become exceptional athletes, and to secure a dignified and safe place of their own in Israel, where they’re seeking asylum.
Theirs is a story of challenges — as fugitives, as asylum seekers, and as athletes. It is, moreover, a story that has helped to shed light on an oft-overlooked global human rights crisis.
Esteer, along with her mother and two younger brothers, fled their home in what is now South Sudan’s capital of Juba after her father was targeted and killed during the brutal and bloody civil war that ravaged the area, which would later gain its independence in 2011 to become South Sudan.
After surviving the bloodshed and a perilous journey through Sudan, Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula, the family made its way to Israel, where they found relative solace.
Rahel, meanwhile, fled Eritrea with her family when she was 13 due to religious persecution, as the religion they practice, Protestantism, is illegal under that country’s regime. Her father managed to flee with two of Rahel’s brothers ahead of the rest of the family, as he was about to be imprisoned. Rahel, her mother, and her other siblings eventually escaped through northerner countries in eastern Africa and finally arrived in Israel in 2012 after crossing the Sinai desert on foot. Rahel carried her younger sister on her back during the dangerous journey across thousands of kilometers.
After their respective journeys, both girls found an unlikely safe haven: the “Alley Athletes” team, a Tel Aviv nonprofit professional track and field club. Founded in 2012 by Shirith Kasher, a lawyer, and Rotem Genossar, a civics teacher at the Bialik-Rogozin School of South Tel Aviv, the club aims to assist youth from underprivileged backgrounds in “becoming better students, social leaders, and great athletes.” For its 70 athletes from 15 countries, the team has become a crucial support system.
A large number of the team’s athletes are students at the Bialik-Rogozin school of South Tel Aviv, which is attended by children of diverse origins, and entirely from families with a low socio-economic profile: low-income, third-generation Israeli-born youth, children of migrant workers, African asylum seekers, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and new immigrants, mainly from the Former Soviet Union. All of them communicate and express themselves in perfect Hebrew, though most speak several languages, such as Arabic, English, Tigrinya (Eritrea), Amharic (Ethiopia), Fur (Darfur, Sudan), and English, among many others.
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Many of Alley Athletes’ teammates have endured struggles similar to Rahel and Esteer. Amar, one of the team’s members, says he was “terrified” of being drafted into the compulsory and indefinite army service in Eritrea. He fled Eritrea alone, when he was 14 years old, leaving his family behind. During his years-long journey to Israel, he learned five languages while living and working for periods of time in countries such as Sudan and Egypt. Many others have fled war, conflict, persecution, and genocide, and endured discrimination and loss in their home countries, with family members killed, tortured, and imprisoned.
For unaccompanied minors such as Amar, now 20, who made the perilous journey to Israel solo, the team is now the only family they know.
For their part, Rachel and Esteer joined the team after meeting Rotem Genossar five years ago when they arrived at the Bialik-Rogozin School to learn Hebrew. They were then invited by Genossar to join a previous project of his: a girl’s basketball team.
Later, Genossar invited both girls to join the team that would soon become an essential part of their lives.
Esteer and Rahel are just two of many refugees struggling to find a new home in Israel.
All asylum seekers in Israel fall under collective protection that they are entitled to under international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention, which prevents them from being deported. But still, they face many challenges in the country. Currently, Israel houses some 45,000 asylum seekers — but in recent years, it has recognized fewer than 1% of asylum claims, lower than anywhere else in the Western world. It has so far granted official refugee status to just a handful of Eritreans and a single Sudanese asylum seeker, the leader of a protest movement who successfully rallied Israeli activist support.
This vast majority of asylum seekers who aren’t granted official refugee status are barred from access to formal work permits, health care, or welfare services. As the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ASSAF) puts it, they “lack access to basic services in order to survive, advance, and integrate.”
Neither Esteer nor Rahel has been granted refugee status by the Israeli government, meaning that they too lack access to these basic services. After the government decided that Esteer’s family could face concrete risk in South Sudan, it ensured that she can’t be pressured to leave through so-called “voluntary” deportation, which involves an offer of $3,500 to relocate to a third country. But this kind of promised protection is rare; Rahel, like most African asylum seekers, could face pressure to leave through this “voluntary” deportation.
Without the designation of official refugee status, the vast majority of asylum seekers also live under the constant fear of detention, which Israeli activists say is a method to break their spirits and pressure them into “voluntary” deportation. Some have been sentenced, without trial, to as much as a year in the HOLOT detention facility for African asylum seekers, which is located in the desert in the south of the country.
In the face of these issues, the team has been an overwhelming success — winning records and fulfilling its aim to serve underprivileged youth. Yet it remains in dire need of funding for running shoes, sports clothes, traveling expenses, and medical supervision of the athletes. The team is managed by the NGO Yehoraz, is funded by private donors, and receives sponsorships by the Tel Aviv Municipality, local Israeli companies, and a sports gear brand. But the funding is not enough, and the club is struggling — especially to bring the athletes to international competitions.
But financial concerns aren’t the only issue curbing competitive dreams.
It’s safe to say that both Rahel and Esteer have thrived with Alley Athletes. The team website refers to Rahel as the “top junior middle distance runner in Israel,” and the local press has called her “Israel’s fastest girl” and a “superstar.” Esteer, meanwhile, is Israel’s 2016 junior champion in the triple jump and long jump, and ranked third in the heptathlon. This year, she will train under an Israeli Olympic trainer and two former Olympic athletes. As a result of their outstanding performances, both teens were made monitors of the younger athletes by the team’s managers and coaches.
But despite the recognition they receive from their coaches and teammates, Rahel and Esteer will face a new challenge when they reach their 19th birthdays.
Following a protracted battle led by Alley Athletes team managers, resident athletes under age 18 are allowed to have their victories registered as such by competition officials, regardless of their citizenship status. But non-citizen athletes over the age of 18, while still allowed to compete in Israel, must cede their titles and trophies to athletes who hold Israeli citizenship, and who finish behind them.
Asylum seekers — despite sometimes living in Israel for most of their lives — also remain barred from representing Israel in international competitions, making Olympic dreams for even some of the best athletes a chimera. However, the recent precedent set with the Refugee Olympic Team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games has brought hopes that these athletes, too, may one day be allowed to make it to the Olympics.
One of the team’s most recent achievements was becoming part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which subsequently made it possible for the Alley Athletes project to be a recipient of funding provided by the UNHCR and the IOC for programs assisting refugees around the world.
The Alley Athletes founders tell me that they hope victories like these will translate into a better standing in Israel’s society for young migrants, asylum seekers, and Israelis from underprivileged backgrounds. They hope that in some cases, this can even be translated into citizenship for refugees, increasing their chances for qualified higher education and career options both in Israel and abroad.
In fact, team manager Genossar and others from the club have filed an application for citizenship on Rahel’s behalf, on the grounds of “future contribution to the State of Israel in sports,” to make it possible for her to represent Israel in international competitions. They hope that the provision that grants Israel’s Interior Minister with the power to concede citizenship to asylum seekers for past or possible future special contributions to the state of Israel could benefit Rahel. However, consecutive right-wing governments, and the fact that this is an arbitrary proceeding that depends on the personal will of the Minister, make the chances of this happening very low.
If Rahel is granted Israeli citizenship, she has a chance to qualify for the national team and to represent Israel in the 2020 Olympics. Without citizenship, the Refugee Olympic Team may be a second chance for her and many other youth in similar situations not just in Israel, but throughout the many countries that have more or less reluctantly hosted refugees.
In the meantime, Rahel and Esteer, as well as their teammates, coaches, and managers, have become minor local celebrities in Israel, with appearances in TV and articles written in the national press about their challenges and their victories. The team also inspired a documentary titled Freedom Runners, by Israeli Director David Wachsmann, that will be shown at the Woodstock Documentary Film Festival this October for the first time abroad.
The attention and spotlight are about more than sports: These teens have helped to spur what Israeli refugee rights activists say is a necessary discussion about the state of human rights in Israel.
All the while, the girls have kept their focus on a simple goal: being the best they can be. As Rahel put it in an interview in Hebrew to the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the second most read in the country:
“אני לא מבינה למה אנחנו — כספורטאים — שווים פחות מאלה שאנחנו מתמודדים נגדם. הרי לא הגעתי בכוונה מאריתריאה כדי לקחת מדליות של בחורה ישראלית. פשוט רציתי לנצח בצורה ספורטיבית ועשיתי את זה”.
“I don’t understand why we — as athletes — are worth less than those we compete against. I didn’t come intentionally from Eritrea to take an Israeli girl’s medals. I just wanted to win in a sports fashion (or manner) and I did.”