Rami Gudovitch zips around from yard to classroom to dining room to the school entrance, not resting for a moment. He has come to visit “his” kids and it’s hard to say who is more excited, he or they. The other adults are interested to see that this time, he’s brought along his wife and two-year-old son, but the schoolchildren only have eyes for Rami.
He hugs them, asks how they are, remembers every name, inquires about this one’s sister and that one’s mother, knows who is excelling in school and who has made great progress, takes pictures and has his picture taken as he showers the children with encouragement and love that is completely reciprocated.
In the past weeks, much has been written in this newspaper about the hardships that asylum seekers who are deported from Israel face upon arrival in Uganda, without proper documents or security, vulnerable to arrest at any time.
But the Trinity Boarding School, located in Bukoto township in the country’s capital Kampala, where Gudovitch is visiting, is the complete opposite.
By chance, my scheduled visit fell during the week that Gudovitch was here. The school buildings are simple but very well-kept and gleam with cleanliness. The children wear school uniforms. There are no air conditioners and the classrooms are crowded, but the kids are disciplined. They raise their hands and are polite. There are definitely things to envy.
These are the children of South Sudanese asylum seekers. They were deported there from Israel with their families in 2012, when their country gained independence – only to quickly descend into civil war. The South Sudanese kids at the school, “Rami’s kids,” are part of the Come True project, which was created by the Become organization.
Gudovitch, who for years volunteered with the children of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, and attorney Lea Miller-Forshtat, whose son’s classmate and best friend, a Sudanese boy named Wai, was deported with his family, kept in touch with the families and tried to help them. South Sudan may have obtained independence, but even before it fell into chaos, the conditions in many areas, including education, were terrible.
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The initiative they began was initially meant to give the children deported from Israel the chance for a good education, which they had in Israel but could not get in their young country. The Ugandan capital was chosen as the base for project Come True. The original idea was to obtain funding so that the kids could attend the boarding school and return to their parents in South Sudan during school vacations.
But it soon became apparent that the latter would not be possible. At the end of 2013, when the first school year ended and 40 of the children were back in South Sudan during the school break, civil war broke out. The situation in Juba, the capital city, and throughout the country went from difficult to untenable. Now, says Miller-Forshtat, “We no longer transport children from Uganda to South Sudan, only in the other direction.”
Missing Israeli food
Today, thanks to Come True, 170 children of various ages are in six schools in Uganda and Kenya (the majority are at Trinity in Kampala). Estimates vary as to the total number of children who have been deported from Israel, but Gudovitch says that about half are now being educated through the project. He adds that if funding were available, he could immediately bring in another 23 children.
With the exception of the Jacob, a Darfuri refugee also deported from Israel who works as the project manager, all the people involved Come True are volunteers. But the school is private, with high-level studies, and the teachers earn a salary. The organization essentially looks after these children 365 days a year, taking care of everything from food and lodging to education and medical care.
It costs approximately a hundred dollars per month per child, or $1,200 a year. All the money comes from donations, many of them from Israel. Donors can also “adopt” a child and provide him or her with ongoing support.
During one recess break, I sat beside the school basketball court and spoke with five older students: Deng, Patrice, Jade, Joyce and Daniel. The first four are 16 and 17 years old, and Daniel is a little younger. All are in their final year of school, and all speak Hebrew, some without an accent. The five were deported six years ago, when they were between the ages of 9 and 11; prior to that, they had lived in Israel for years. For some, their earliest memories are of life in Arad, Be’er Sheva, Eilat or Tel Aviv.
All have warm memories of Israel and don’t understand why their lives had to be turned upside down and why their families had to be broken up. They talk about the terrible situation in South Sudan, and they miss their parents. Some haven’t seen their parents for three years – and not all have a father and a mother. Some of their parents are in South Sudan, others in refugee camps in northern Uganda or Kenya. Some have parents in Egypt or other places.
These girls and boys know that they are a lot better off than their friends in South Sudan – “Children our age and younger are basically fighting in the streets,” says Deng – but they also have strong recollections of Israel: their friends, school, the life they had there. Joyce, smiling, says she still misses Israeli food.
Jade is generally shy and doesn’t talk unless she’s asked a question, but she speaks with longing about everything Israeli. Patrice remembers all the places her family lived: Arad, Eilat, Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem. Joyce says she came to Israel “as a little girl, when I was just three. It was my home.”
17-year-old Deng is the most vocal in the group, and speaks in fluent Hebrew. He and his family lived in Arad and Be’er Sheva for many years. He says that in Juba, they had nothing, and there was no school for him to attend. He knows he’s lucky to be part of the Come True project, but he still doesn’t understand why he was deported from Israel, which was his home, when the situation in his country is so dangerous.
“I’m South Sudanese, I don’t disown my country. I’m also a little Israeli,” he says. “What would I like to happen? To get the most knowledge and education from Israel that I can, to get a higher education and one day come back to South Sudan when it is a free country and a place where it is possible to live with my family and to make it a better place, using the education I obtained in Israel and other places.” And yes, this 17-year-old visionary leader also misses his mother and father.
Remembering just about every name
Gudovitch remembers just about every name, every face and every problem. Nearly all of the children here are excellent students who also perform very well on nationwide tests. Gudovitch points out one boy, Moswato, who used to have serious attention deficit and concentration issues but is now one of the school’s top students.
As if the war in their country and the separation from their families wasn’t enough, the children often encounter hostility, both from the local community and at school – from other children and sometimes from staff as well. They are, after all, foreigners – and not just any foreigners. They are easily identified as refugees from South Sudan, a group that is the object of great hostility in Uganda, so much so that some Ugandan parents have removed their children from the school so they wouldn’t have South Sudanese classmates. The children act in large part like Israeli kids, with all the bravado and Western-style independence that this entails.
“Their freer behavior and desire to express themselves are misunderstood in the conservative Ugandan education system,” Gudovitch says.
These two elements – the hostility to strangers and intolerance of Western behavior – have been the main challenge facing the project since its inception. The positive side of it, says Gudovitch, “is that this challenge requires us to develop new ways to promote the children’s integration into this foreign environment. And these ways, I believe, can be valuable to any educator or social activist anywhere in the world who is trying to help integrate refugee children into their new environment.”
While Uganda is taking in refugees and doing things for them that no other African country, or any country for that matter, is doing it doesn’t mean that there is no violence or xenophobia. The country’s unemployment rate is very high, something which newcomers are often blamed for. Not long ago, a South Sudanese infant was murdered in a xenophobic attack by the family’s neighbors.
At recess, the big kids stand around chatting and the younger ones play. They could have been doing the same at their former schools back in Israel, if the country had had more patience to see what would develop in South Sudan. On the other hand, they could have been living in the midst of war, facing hunger and without any access to a formal education – such is life in Juba.
Theoretically, children must be at least seven years old to be accepted by the project, but in reality, says Gudovitch, ”we keep ‘messing up’ and taking in even younger kids from situations of acute danger, especially if they arrived with their siblings and we can’t bring ourselves to separate them.” Recently, a child under five was accepted so he wouldn’t be separated from his three siblings.
On school breaks, the organizations rents space from another boarding school and organizes a camp with volunteer counselors. There’s no way of knowing what each day will bring, but it’s pretty clear that peace, or even any sort of stability, is not going to come to South Sudan anytime soon. Dozens more children, former Israelis, are knocking at the door.
Besides helping children who were deported from Israel, Gudovitch says Come True also aspires “to promote innovative modes of cooperation between communities, ways to cope, socially and educationally, with the wave of refugees and migrants flooding the world. The fact that we’re really working in the field, in cooperation with the refugee community, gives our activity unique value. We’re not working ‘for them,’ but rather in complete cooperation, with the refugee children and their parents, with the Ugandan educators, with the local community. All of us are full partners in this activity and striving to better understand one another and go from there.”