Racing Toward a Better Future

New project is already showing results among underprivileged athletes, many of them of African origin.

Over the last several months, Chisom Duru has been dreaming about numbers. Night after night, they keep declining. A lot of sweat lies between her and the day she will succeed, if ever, in seeing those numbers when she’s awake. Duru fantasizes about the day she will challenge the 31-year old record held by the queen of Israeli athletics, Esther Roth-Shahamorov, in the 100-meter dash.

Reaching the legendary number of 11.45 seconds will require Duru to shave more than a second off her personal best. That is a huge hurdle. Her coaches at the tiny Winter athletic stadium adjacent to Ramat Gan speak of her as a diamond in the rough.

Duru, a 17-year-old Nigerian girl who came to Israel a year and a half ago, is not alone in the stadium. Over the past few months, almost daily, dozens of students from Bialik-Rogozin School, which attracts youngsters from south Tel Aviv’s foreign community, have been coming to practice. After crawling through city traffic by public transportation, the boys and girls storm the 300-meter oval track. Some of them do it enthusiastically. Others still need prodding from one of the coaches involved in the unique program initiated by the Yehoraz Foundation.

The project, launched in October, is run by Shirith Kasher, the daughter of Israel Prize winner Asa Kasher and sister of Yehoraz, who was killed in an accident in Sinai in 1991. Its goal is to give hope and backing to youth from disadvantaged groups. So far, most of the project’s star athletes are children of African migrants.

Flying through light workout

Last Monday, the atmosphere in the stadium was heightened. Forty-five lanky youths were running this way and that on orders from their coaches. With the sun beating down on the orange track, premier runner Yuval Carmi leads a cluster of determined young athletes from Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea to four 900-meter segments. The speed is dazzling, but Carmi insists it is a light workout. “Some of them are recovering from competitions,” he says.

On the edges of the field, national jumping coach Anatoly Shafran tries to instruct a group of athletes ahead of a relay race supposed to take place in a few minutes. Despite his commanding tone and presence, the young girls are having trouble concentrating on his words: Accompanying Shafran is handsome Dima Kroyter, the famous high jumper, who offers them some words of encouragement.

“You can do it,” he says to Duru in polished English. “In order to get ahead you have to focus.” Just like her, he once fought to establish his legal status in Israel.

“Everything you see here basically started from these girls,” says Shirith Kasher, a lawyer by training who works in finance and has run in a number of marathons. The idea to establish the foundation arose after she watched a race in Israel and discovered there were no female runners dominating the sport like Ethiopian males were doing.

After running into a wall of silence, she turned to Rotem Genossar, a civics teacher at the Rogozin School who led the public battle to include the daughters of foreign workers in the youth basketball league, to help get the project off the ground. Genossar offered his girl basketball players, and it was off to the races.

Key to college, citizenship?

Rahel Geretzadik, 14, is among the girls who switched from basketball to track. The gaunt teenager, who until recently was running around the dusty roads of Eritrea, managed within a short while to win a number of races and to leave an impression on the mediocre competition in Israel.

“She is fantastic,” says Shafran. “She has an amazing ability to bounce back, and in addition she pays attention and does everything asked of her.”

Geretzadik agrees. “I just want to beat the boys,” she admits. Expressions like “Olympic hope” or “the next big thing” are still light years away for her. The main thing is she is far away from the desert she crossed to reunite in Israel with her father, a former soldier who was persecuted in Eritrea because of his religion.

“There are very talented kids here,” says Shafran. “Some of them are starting to understand that sport could be their way to break through to a better future.”

One of the project’s goals is to open the gates of American colleges to the youth. Shafran does not hide his hope that perhaps through the sport, some will be able to acquire citizenship and stay in Israel.

“We only have to gain,” he says. “It’s no secret that in some branches, black athletes are better.” Kasher seems uncomfortable; from her perspective, having her project based on the children of foreign workers is a temporary arrangement.

“We understand that sports is a way out of poverty and are happy to support every runner who needs help,” she says. The project’s next targets are schools in south Tel Aviv.

The Yehoraz Foundation pays for the athletes’ periodic medical check-ups, supplies them equipment and shoes and covers travel to and registration for competitions. “The goal is to provide children the most successful surroundings so they can get ahead,” says Genossar. As for the identity of the benefactor, Kasher says that person prefers to remain anonymous.

The results speak for themselves. Just last week Geretzadik set a personal record in the 800-meters of 2:22 minutes, finishing fourth in a league competition at Hadar Yosef. Many of the veteran runners who passed the Eritrean rookie have heard about her.

Duru, the sprinter, also finished fourth that evening, just months after she started training in an organized fashion. “It’s exciting,” says Kasher. “They’ve only just begun, and we really didn’t think we’d succeed with them so quickly.” Foundation officials are now praying that Duru’s achievements will bring good news regarding her legal status in Israel.

The boys are also expected to register successes soon, though they were brought on board later.

“Their progress is meteoric,” says Carmi. His status in the world of long-distance running doesn’t stop him from admitting that in recent practices he has had a hard time keeping up with his students. Daniel Mulushet, a powerful young boy who divided most of his life between Sudan and Ethiopia, and Ramzy Abdou Gabar, a thin boy who fled Darfur, manage to push his heart rate faster.

The two explain in fluent Hebrew that they dream of winning races. “That’s what we’re here for, to be like Yuval,” one says.

When night falls, the athletes rush to leave. Some make their way by foot down the road, while others get on a bus that will let them off back in reality in a few minutes.

“I dream of being an athlete,” says Duru, a moment before she finishes packing her bags. “I just want to stay here and represent the state.” For a moment, her optimistic smile makes even the dingy southern courtyard of Tel Aviv look brighter. 

Demet Shenturk