Wayi and Uri met in third grade at the Magen elementary school in Tel Aviv. Uri told me about the new student who had joined his class, sat next to him and played with him during recess. He said they had discovered that both loved games involving the imagination; they would make up games and play them together.
A few weeks later, he asked if he could invite his new friend, Wayi, to come over. When I asked him what kind of name “Wayi” was, he answered with the impatience typical of children when you distract them from the main issue: “I don’t know, Mom. Maybe that’s a common name among kids in Africa.” This was the first time Uri had mentioned to me that his new friend was different from us. Maybe because his new friend was actually so similar to him.
For four years, Wayi and Uri sat next to each other at school. But at the end of sixth grade, Wayi was deported to South Sudan, and his life changed completely.
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Over the following years, Uri continued on to middle school and high school, but Wayi was forced to adapt to a completely different education system. He continued his schooling in Uganda through a project I started together with Dr. Rami Gudovitch following his deportation. Five years ago, Wayi was accepted to the Eastern Mediterranean International School in Kfar Hayarok and returned to Israel to finish his education.
The friendship between Uri and Wayi managed to survive Wayi’s deportation and their different life experiences because their characters and interests are so similar, and they also have a common denominator, one they built in childhood as only children can. Their common language is the same daily language they have shared since childhood. Despite their very different life circumstances, what unites them is greater than what divides them.
Today, Wayi is studying for his bachelor’s degree at Reichman University. He lives in our house. He and Uri spent a lot of time together and enjoy many of the same activities, like watching movies and television series, cooking, hanging out with friends and hiking.
Uri did his national service at an after-school club for refugee children in a school in south Tel Aviv. There he had a chance to learn about the experiences of children who attend segregated schools.
These children have no mother tongue, and they have been forced into a segregated framework that doesn’t enable them to truly assimilate into Israeli society. They don’t acquire the basic skills needed to make substantial achievements, and they have no nearby models for success.
Wayi and Uri met thanks to an integration program run by the Tel Aviv Municipality at that time (2008 to 2012). Under this program, refugee children were bused from south Tel Aviv to schools in the city’s north. This program forced Wayi to spend two or three hours in transit every day, but it enabled him to learn in a classroom where most of the students were Israelis, acquire a high level of fluency in Hebrew, join youth group activities and experience an Israeli childhood.
Uri gained just as much from this program. He got to really know children who came from different backgrounds, developed empathy for and sensitivity to others, expanded his horizons and his knowledge and understanding of other cultures, and acquired tools that enable him to tell this story, with all the messages it implies.
It’s unlikely that such a friendship could have formed these days, or anytime in the last several years, because Tel Aviv has adopted a policy of racist segregation in the schools. Children of refugees and migrant workers study at schools designated for the “foreign community,” together with other children of refugees and migrants like themselves but without Israeli children.
The municipality justifies this with the euphemistic argument that “children who live together, study together.” Around two months ago, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by parents and human rights organizations seeking to force the city to end segregation in the schools.
Integrated schools aren’t of interest exclusively to the foreign community in Israel; they are an interest shared by every child and parent in Tel Aviv’s school system, and to a large extent by all Tel Aviv residents and all Israelis in general. This is a battle over the character of the city, and the character of our society.
Lea Forshtat, an attorney, is the cofounder and joint managing director of the Come True project, which is run by the Become organization.