TEL AVIV (Reuters Life!) - Esther Aikpehae, 12, stars in an Academy Award-winning documentary. She is also facing deportation from the country which has been her home for a third of her life.
Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s “Strangers No More” won an Oscar for best short documentary on Sunday. It tells the story of Esther’s school where children of migrant workers and refugees from 48 states learn alongside native Israelis.
But the Oscar win is bitter-sweet for the school. Some 120 of its 830 pupils are facing deportation. The children’s parents are in Israel illegally and a government clampdown is looming.
Israel’s government set criteria last August to allow some 800 migrant children living across Israel to remain in the Jewish state with their families, but 400 minors do not qualify.
Esther, who comes from South Africa and is not Jewish, is one of them.
“I love Israel. I want to grow up in Israel. There’s a reason I came here and they can’t just decide one morning to deport all the children,” Esther says in fluent Hebrew.
Esther came to Israel with her father Immanuel in 2007. He says he fled after his wife was killed by people the family owed money to and claims it is too dangerous to return home.
Their home is a one-room flat in south Tel Aviv, where many migrants live in squalid conditions. Esther’s skinny ginger cat is named Shalom, Hebrew for ‘peace’. Her electric keyboard sits beside a makeshift vanity table and laptop computer.
She has been enjoying the media attention since the Academy awards and says she wants to be “an actress or a businesswoman” when she grows up, hopefully in Israel.
“I feel African-Israeli, not just Israeli. I speak the language, I’ve gotten used to it here,” Esther said.
But Esther has only been in Israel four years, one year less than the bar set by the government for those allowed to stay.
The Israeli government has been alarmed by an influx of illegal, non-Jewish migrants in recent years and is determined to crackdown on a phenomenon that it says will dilute the Jewish nature of the state.
“It’s my personal mission to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Army radio this week.
Yishai has drawn widespread criticism from some lawmakers, rights groups and part of the Israeli media, who say a country which gave refuge to persecuted Jews should show greater leniency toward migrant workers and asylum seekers.
Bialik Rogozin’s principal Karen Tal says adults should take a leaf out of her pupils’ book.
“They don’t judge people by color, race or religion. It’s a harsh, cruel reality. We gave them a home here and Israeli identity and now some will be allowed to stay while others will be banished,” Tal said.
Esther’s father has appealed the government’s decision to send them away.
“I won’t give up. My friends won’t be deported and I won’t be deported,” she said.
Editing by Paul Casciato