Israel Forces 12-year-old to Choose: Leave Your Family – or Leave Your Country

The Israeli boy’s Ethiopian father, who has sole custody, has been denied permanent residency, and his son has been offered to stay in the country alone

Yoel Tegen with his father, who is scheduled to be deported by the end of the month.
Ilan Assayag

The Population and Immigration Authority has ordered an Israeli boy’s Ethiopian father to be deported by the end of the month. The boy, 12-year-old Yoel Tegen, cannot be forced to leave Israel because he is a citizen. He said he doesn’t want to live in Israel without his father, who is his guardian, nor does he want to live in Ethiopia. His mother, who does not have custody, lives in the United States.

In his decision, the head of the Population and Immigration Authority, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, wrote that Tegen can “get used to life” in Ethiopia.

Mor-Yosef issued the decision in late January, but Tegen’s father only received a letter informing him of it on Sunday and now has just 12 days to leave the country.

“I’m only asking that my father stay here as usual,” Yoel, a seventh grader at the Ahad Ha’am School in Petah Tikva, told Haaretz. “Not only am I asking, I’m begging … I don’t understand what my father did wrong to be deported. He’s a regular person. He didn’t do anything. All I want to do is go to school and stay like normal, with my good friends.”

Yoel Tegen
Ilan Assayag

“It’s hard for me because this is my country and I don’t feel like leaving,” he said. “I’m told: ‘Either leave your father or leave your country. I don’t want to do either.’”

Yoel’s father immigrated to Israel 17 years ago and married a Jewish woman about four years later. After marrying, he began the process to become an Israeli citizen, which was stopped when the couple divorced. Since that time the father has been living in Israel as a legal temporary resident. About a year ago he filed a request for permanent residency on humanitarian grounds. This request has now been rejected.

Attorney Renana Gan, who represents the family on behalf of the Concord Center for Integration of International Law in Israel and the College of Management in Tel Aviv, said she would appeal the decision.

About four years ago, Yoel’s mother took Yoel and her daughter from her second marriage to the United States to visit her brother. She had the consent of each of the children’s fathers to take them on the trip. However, shortly thereafter it emerged that the mother did not intend to return to Israel. The fathers appealed to the Justice Ministry and through it, to the authorities in the United States. At a hearing in Denver, Colorado, a judge ordered the children returned to Israel immediately. The Rishon Letzion Family Court subsequently awarded full custody to Yoel’s father.

In his decision, Mor-Yosef wrote that the fact that Yoel had spent two years in the United States would help him get used to life in another country. “The minor … is young, he spent quite a long time abroad with his mother, was exposed to a culture and a foreign language, and can get used to live in the country of origin of the applicant or another country,” he wrote.

Mor-Yosef also noted that the rest of Yoel’s family lives in Ethiopia. However, he did not take into consideration in his decision that Yoel is close to his Israeli half-sister from his mother’s second marriage, as well as to his two half-brothers from his father’s second marriage.

The father said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “says he’ll bring in more Ethiopians because he wants our vote, but my son is Ethiopian-Israeli and they’re deporting his father instead of letting me raise him? ... I’ve been in Israel for 17 years. My boy is an Israeli citizen, Jewish in every sense of the word, but because he’s Ethiopian they say there’s no problem for him to live in Ethiopia – [a country] he doesn’t know. This shows the racism toward us.”

Yoel’s father was referring to attempts by Likud to garner votes among Ethiopian Israelis; two weeks ago Netanyahu approved a plan to bring some 400 members of the Falashmura community from Ethiopia to Israel, and the 20th place on the Likud Knesset slate has been earmarked for Ethiopian Israeli lawmaker Gadi Yevarkan.

Yoel received the letter announcing the expulsion decision by courier on Sunday evening. He said he handed it to his father without reading it and before he went to sleep, his father told him they had 12 days to leave the country. Since then, Yoel says, he is having trouble sleeping and cries frequently.

“It’s unfortunate that the Population and Immigration Authority has ignored the principle in Israeli law regarding the good of a minor who is an Israeli citizen in every way, and deports him to a foreign country,” Gan said. “In fact, the state is forcing him to give up his Judaism and his citizenship, as well as the only language and culture he has known all his life.”

“We’ve been close friends 15 years now,” said David Ratner, a friend of Yoel’s father. “This is a great guy, very caring, who gives his all for Yoel and for his family and friends in general. How can he and his son be punished this way? What’s his big crime? That he chose to live with his son and take care of him? What does the population authority expect – for him to leave and abandon his son here? It’s not enough that his mother’s not with Yoel, now they want him to be without his father?”

“I’m sorry that such a young boy has to experience these threats and anxieties because of the desire to deport his father,” said Pnina Tamano-Shata of Kahol Lavan. “I have urgently approached Director General Mor-Yosef and made clear that this is an Israeli Jewish boy and this scandalous decision to deport his father, who is the only stable figure in his life, must be stopped.”

The Population and Immigration Authority responded that after Yoel’s father and mother divorced, the father “remained here without legal basis and married an Eritrean citizen with whom he had a child. The request for status was recently discussed by the inter-ministerial committee [on granting status on humanitarian grounds] and after examining all the circumstances, including the fact that a whole family unit has been established here that is not entitled to status in Israel, and in light of the fact that the father has full custody over the boy and the Israeli mother does not live here, and most of the family is abroad, it was decided that there is no place to grant status to the father and that the entire family will leave Israel. It is only natural that the son’s applicant will leave with him and that does not compromise his status as an Israeli.”