This spring, the boys of the South Tel Aviv Alleys are going global.
Ramzi Abduljaber, Alam Godin, Fawzi Yusef and Duray Elfaki of Sudan; Meseret Autobrahan of Eritrea; and Efrem Mulushet of Ethiopia will be representing the nation of Israel at the upcoming 2014 World School Championships for cross-country, run by the International School Sport Federation (ISF).
Their triumph at nationals on Tuesday wasn't just inspiring to watch, but topical, too: All of the boys except Mulushet are children of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers living in Israel, whose community of around 55,000 is now facing mass imprisonment in the desert and a work-visa drought imposed by the Israeli government. (Mulushet's father, who came out to Tuesday's meet to root for his boys through the fence, migrated to Israel from Ethiopia and is not Jewish. So his family's future is equally uncertain right now, seeing as they don't fall under the United Nations' non-deportation law that protects Sudanese and Eritreans.)
Because of their shaky residential status, flying all six of Israel's champions to an international meet in a far-off country would have been a logistical nightmare, if not impossible. But the stars have apparently aligned in 2014 for the South Tel Aviv Alleys: Turns out the March 30 world cross-country championships will be held right here in Israel, at the very same track where hundreds of the nation's fastest teenagers gathered to race on Tuesday.
"It's like a miracle that the year they have a chance, the championships are in Israel," said Yuval Carmi, long-distance coach for the South Tel Aviv Alleys. "We knew this would be [their one chance], so we pushed them extra hard."
I first got to know this absurdly likable group of young runners while writing the story "Refugee teens in Israel win races but not awards." In the piece, I explained how 15-year-old Rahel Gebretzadik, No. 1 in Israel, was barred from winning any events at the national level, along with about 70 percent of her teammates on the Alleys — simply because they're not citizens. (All speak near-perfect Hebrew and have been attending Israeli schools for the years since their parents brought them here.)
However, there is one set of circumstances in which they are allowed to excel. Because the Ministry of Education runs the high-school team meets and championships — as opposed to more high-level club and individual competitions, run by the Israeli Athletic Association — any child enrolled in an Israeli high school can qualify.
(If you're confused, don't worry — so is everyone else.)
The majority of kids who train with the South Tel Aviv Alleys attend Bialik Rogozin, a K-12 school in the depths of South Tel Aviv's Neve Sha'anan neighborhood with a student body that pulls from almost 50 different nations. (The same school, in fact, that inspired the super cheesy yet inescapably heartwarming 2011 film "Strangers No More," which won the Oscar for best short documentary. Lucky for you, I spent an hour tracking down a free copy of it on the Internet. Enjoy.) So by running on behalf of their school, the six speediest under-19 boys on the South Tel Aviv Alleys club team finally had a shot at the podium.
They've earned it, no doubt. After a single season of training up to four days a week, the Alleys stood out like Olympians at Tuesday's meet. "Are they from abroad?" one meet-goer asked as they stepped off the bus. Others couldn't help but stare.
"I'm sure we intimidate many people here," Carmi said. "All they have to do is look at Alam's legs."
Long-distance trainer Carmi, along with team manager (and team dad) Rotem Genossar, who daylights as a civics teacher at Bialik Rogozin, have pushed the kids to peak shape. Rosefynn Boado, a 15-year-old sprinter and hurdler for the Alleys, told me at one night practice last December that although she attends high school in North Tel Aviv, she decided to join Genossar's team because his workouts were much more intensive. "The training is so good here — better than last year," Boado said.
Genossar said that as the teens have invested themselves in the sport, he has watched their performance improve at Bialik Rogozin. "I'm also a teacher, so I'm focused a lot on their grades," he said. "They're doing better and better compared to last semester." He said he's also watched team members earn the respect of their friends and a sense of power in the community.
Nationals on Tuesday were held in the picturesque Emek Hamaayanot (Valley of the Springs) up near the spot where Jordan, Syria and Israel intersect. The high-schoolers did laps around a dingy dirt trail, encircling a great field and bordering on a date farm. The sun was being moody behind the clouds, the winds were vicious and it even began to rain at one point. Efrem Mulushet's brother, Daniel (pictured above with coach Genossar), who is unfortunately one year too old to move on with his team to world championships, fell a few spots behind in the race because of an ankle injury. But even as he limped over the finish line, he looked ecstatic. They all did.
"I want to cry!" said 15-year-old Samia, younger sister of Ramzi Abduljaber (pictured below before the race began), as she watched her brother take first place by a long shot. She was a ball of giddy sarcasm. Later, at the awards ceremony, passing around her brother's tall gold trophy, Samia said coolly, "I was sure he was going to win. He's the fastest in the world."
In December, Samia described to me her family's long, hard trip "jumping over the rocks" through the Sinai Desert to Israel after escaping the war in Darfur, Sudan. "It was so hard; I cried," she said, giggling with her friends.
The bus ride home from Tuesday's meet was almost the best part: tired, sweaty, victorious. School principal Hagit Itzhaki, who had come to support the team — Bialik Rogozin's finest — beamed in the front seat as the kids made fart jokes in the back. Two short months from now, all the best young long-distance runners in the world will converge among the kibbutzim of northern Israel; and there, like me, they will have the immense privilege of getting to know the South Tel Aviv Alleys.
Below: Coach Carmi shows the results of the meet to (from right) Daniel, Efrem and their father, all from Ethiopia.
The South Tel Aviv Alleys are currently in urgent need of donations. To help keep the team running, contact team founder Shirith Kasher at firstname.lastname@example.org.