Growing up in a sheltered Jewish community outside of Chicago, Itamar Steiner had never had a black friend. His first contact with children of color was in 2009 at a school in north Tel Aviv – not an area noted for its ethnic diversity. This was an irony probably lost on the 9-year-old boy who had just moved to Israel with his family.
He first saw Deng Kuer Machar Mir in recess when he noticed a few older kids pushing the 8-year-old South Sudanese boy around. When Itamar worked up the courage to intervene, Deng assumed he was one of the bullies and threw him to the ground. At home, Itamar sought advice from his father, David Steiner, a filmmaker and longtime social justice activist with a doctorate in education.
David encouraged his son to make friends with the boy and to invite him and his friend, Poogi Galuak Fogi, to their home. It didn’t take long for the three boys to become close and at Itamar's suggestion, David – an avid baseball fan – signed them up to join Itamar playing in a local baseball league twice a week. David would take the three out to dinner after practice and to the beach on weekends, and their families became close.
The Steiners moved back to the United States in the summer of 2011, but when David returned bearing gifts for his son's friends on a visit a year later, he found they were no longer at their south Tel Aviv apartments: In mid-2012, a year after South Sudan received independence, the Israeli government forcibly deported the boys and their families, together with hundreds of other asylum seekers, back to their homeland.
Searching for the boys in late 2012, David came across Become's Come True project, an initiative by Israelis that helps send some of the deported children to a boarding school in Uganda to access an education virtually unavailable in South Sudan. He learned that Poogi was one of the first children to study at the Kampala school (where Come True has now placed over 200 kids).
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Nobody knew where Deng was, but David was persistent and eventually learned that he was in Cairo, where Deng's family had fled after landing back in the South Sudanese capital of Juba (Deng and Poogi had become best friends as toddlers when they were living in the Egyptian capital). David paid for Deng to rejoin Poogi in Uganda and study there, and today David’s family supports both Deng and Poogi.
“I see it as a miracle – it’s an unbelievable story,” Deng tells Haaretz. “When I went to Cairo, I thought I would have to forget about Poogi. Then I arrived in Uganda and saw Poogi, and I couldn’t believe it.”
The life of a refugee
As refugee stories go, this is one of the happier ones. Last September, six years after they were deported, 17-year-old Poogi and Deng arrived back in Israel to study at the brand new Givat Haviva International School, about an hour north of Tel Aviv, where Haaretz caught up with them. They are two of eight South Sudanese children who have received scholarships and support through Come True to return to Israel and study.
Their Hebrew is flawless. They also speak Arabic and Dinka (the language of the eponymous ethnic group in South Sudan), as well as English, the language of their schools in both Uganda and the international school in Israel. Such multilingualism is often a gift of exile.
But they’ve also known the tragedy of being refugees. Deng’s family remains in Cairo and he hasn't seen them for five years. Nor has he met his two young sisters, born after he left there.
Both Poogi and Deng walked barefoot across the Sinai Desert to Israel when they were 5 – all they remember is how cold it was – and have known hunger, war and poverty. So you wouldn’t expect the visit of David and Itamar Steiner to Uganda in December 2016 to be one of their most traumatic memories.
Together with a small film crew, the Steiners had flown to Uganda to visit the kids and shoot footage for a new documentary on the deportations from Israel and the Come True project, for which David was trying to raise funds.
It had been five years since the boys had seen Itamar and David, and all three boys recount that it was a moving reunion. In honor of Poogi and Deng’s families they celebrated Christmas, David even dressing up as Santa Claus. For Hanukkah, David took everyone to visit the Abayudaya, the Jewish community in Eastern Uganda. David had wanted the South Sudanese families to celebrate Hanukkah “with Jewish people for the first time in five years since they were deported,” as he wrote on Facebook at the time.
But the trip ended in tragedy. Three hours into the five-hour journey from Kampala, the bus was hit by a car coming in the opposite direction and flipped over. “It was very scary. I thought, 'My dad is the only person who can figure something like this out,'” Itamar, now 18, tells Haaretz in a phone interview from his home near Chicago. Poogi was the first person to see David's body lying under the bus. He was the only victim, dead at 51.
The film will go on
Activism was a big part of David Steiner’s life. While he worked as director of education at several Jewish congregations, he studied to become a rabbi at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – which posthumously ordained him a rabbi in November 2017. He also organized a book club for the homeless in the Chicago area, supported Americans for Peace Now and raised awareness about refugees. He understood his activism as part of his Judaism, often repeating the talmudic precept “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.”
He also made films. In his award-winning 2016 documentary “Saving Barbara Sizemore,” he put cameras in the hands of African-American children on Chicago’s South Side to protest city hall’s decision to close their school. As a result of this Michael Moore-esque activism, the city folded and the school remains open.
David sought to combine some of his different causes. For example, he brought two of the middle-school children featured in "Saving Barbara Sizemore" with him to Uganda. He had become a mentor to these kids and wanted to show them another part of the world while continuing to learn about films and work with him.
Last December, two years after his father’s death, Itamar returned to Israel to see Poogi and Deng, and to continue shooting footage for the documentary his father had started and he is determined to complete.
“Everyone wants to finish the movie, but we just don’t have the money,” Itamar says. “It’s not my goal to be a filmmaker, but it is my goal to get this story out there because it’s something that’s played a big role in my life and it’s very important to me.
“I didn’t find this cause – the cause found me," he continues. “I’ve just been forced to grow with it and to keep trying to do my part.”
For David, the decision to make a film about the young South Sudanese was personal. He loved Israel, but couldn’t come to terms with its attitude toward refugees.
“The country of immigrants and refugees that I love, which I opted to become a citizen of during high school, has fallen short on its moral and legal obligations,” he wrote on his blog in January 2014. David had moved to Israel as a teenager, studying at Hakfar Hayarok agricultural boarding school – where, coincidentally, three of the South Sudanese children from the Come True project now study.
“Refugees made their exodus by foot through Egypt, like my people before them, with hopes of a sanctuary in a promised land. My country flew them back to a civil war. Not only is this unethical, it is also a violation of the Geneva Convention,” David wrote in that same blog post.
Deng and Poogi hope David's film will be completed. “For me, he was the person who showed me the right path,” says Deng. “Without David I wouldn’t have opened my heart to people. David came into my life and changed things.”
Now back in Israel, Deng has rejoined his former baseball team. It is his favorite sport – even though he had only ever seen it in films before he met David. He hopes to continue his studies in the United States, perhaps at the University of Illinois that Itamar now attends, and dreams of one day becoming prime minister of South Sudan.
Poogi’s five siblings remain in school in Uganda as part of the Come True project. He celebrated his 17th birthday right after he got back to Israel with teachers who had taught him as a boy and friends he hadn’t seen in years. He hopes to study engineering, perhaps in Europe.
Back in the United States, Itamar was just voted president of his university’s Hillel – a first for a freshman student there. He was also drafted by the Chicago Cubs, his and his father’s favorite team, as their 40th-round pick in honor of David and his work for the community.
Itamar’s takeaway from all of this echoes his father’s optimism. The experience has taught him that “the work of a couple of people can help change the lives of refugees who grew up with nothing," he says. "Just a bit of work and passion were able to get Poogi and Deng back to school and now back in Israel.”
After David died, Poogi’s mother, Tereza – who still lives in South Sudan but was visiting Uganda in December 2016 to see David and her children – organized a memorial service for him at the local church. She had been on the bus during the accident and Poogi remembers pulling her out of the wreckage unconscious. Four years earlier, she had begged the Israeli authorities to let her and her family stay in Israel longer, but was intimidated into leaving.
Through David and others in the Come True project, she has gotten to know another side of Israel. Her son is now back in the country in which he was raised. And while David is no longer with him, Poogi has an Israeli host family and many friends. Through them, these children and their families have seen that despite government policies, many people in Israel have not forgotten the message that David was fond of repeating: That we were all once refugees.