Tuesday was a pretty Earth-shattering day for the male half of the South Tel Aviv Alleys, an Israeli track team made up mostly of non-citizens whose parents came to Israel seeking asylum or work. Six runners from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia — all of whom attend the melting-pot Bialik Rogozin high school in South Tel Aviv — packed the front end of Israel's national cross-country championship race, earning themselves a cheap plastic trophy and a golden ticket to world championships on March 30.
The girls' team didn't have such a packed lineup, and no real shot at the championship. But they did have 15-year-old superstar Rahel Gebretsadik — known throughout Israel as the Eritrean asylum seeker who holds the No. 1 spot in every one of her cross-country and track events.
Gebretsadik ran a tricky race on Tuesday, padding herself with other frontrunners to break the harsh winter wind, and pulling ahead just in time to fly through the big blowup "FINISH" archway, free of competition.
Israel's fastest girl appeared more nervous than usual before the race, and was glowing extra hard afterward. This may have had something to do with a special guest in the audience. Her father, Gebretsadik Mashu (Eritrean children take their fathers' first names as their last), had asked his boss at the beach hotel where he works as a janitor for a day off to watch his eldest daughter sweep nationals.
Tuesday afternoon was the first time he had ever seen her run.
"Wow, wow, wow," he kept saying, his hands clasped tightly and his eyes glued to the girl in first place. (Pictured below. Behind him is Mulushet, father to two of the team's boy champions.) "How do you make them go faster?" he later asked Alleys coach Rotem Genossar of the perils of sideline stress.
Young Gebretsadik took some time to savor her victory on Tuesday — but she, her teammates and her coaches knew not to get their hopes up about what the win would mean going forward.
As I reported in "Refugee teens in Israel win races but not awards," Gebretsadik has been denied recognition for her first-place finishes all season. Gebretsadik normally competes in individual and club-team events, which are run by the Israeli Athletic Association (IAA). And up to now, the IAA's mandate for winners has been that they hold Israeli citizenship.
"When she came home, she said, 'Why do they do this?'" said her father. "I say, 'No matter. You are a winner anyway.' But her mother is very, very sad."
On Tuesday, the reason Gebretsadik finally got to stand on the podium — finally got to lean forward and let the gold-medal ribbon slip over her head — is because these were Israel's high-school team championships, and were therefore run by the Ministry of Education. The ministry's only requisite for competitors is that they be enrolled in the schools they're representing.
So there was some hope — bear with me here! — that Gebretsadik might be able to race in the upcoming World School Championship as part of Israel's "selected team" of all its best high-school-age runners. However, due to a tragic twist of rules by the International School Sport Federation (ISF), which runs the event, Gebretsadik again does not qualify for the "selected team" based on her lack of citizenship. ISF documents provided to South Tel Aviv Alleys coaches stated: "In a school team, pupils of foreign nationality may participate on condition they are regularly attending this school. In nationally selected teams, all participants must have the nationality of the country they represent."
Long-distance coach Yuval Carmi called me yesterday to tell me the bad news. "Today we found out that Rahel will not be able to participate in the world championships," he said. "They sent Rotem the rulebook — and it says that you need to be born in Israel" to win.
In the three years since she arrived to Israel from Eritrea, Gebretsadik has become fully integrated into Israeli society. "They love their school," said her dad of Gebretsadik and her siblings. "They speak such good Hebrew. All the time they laugh at the television, and I say, 'Wow.' They caught the culture — every little thing."
But long-distance coach Carmi said Gebretsadik isn't sweating this unfortunate new turn of events. "She's never upset anymore," he said. "I think this year made her tougher. I think she expects it now."
There is one (tentative) positive to come from all this. When I spoke with IAA spokesman Oren Bukstein on Tuesday evening, he said the IAA recently changed its requirements for under-19 athletes. Whereas the IAA formerly did not recognize any win by a non-citizen, Bukstein said that from now on — like the Ministry of Education — the IAA will let any student enrolled in an Israeli school place in an event. So when team managers register their athletes with the IAA in the future, they need only present "the right documentary papers from the State of Israel about learning in Israel" and "legal papers that prove their age is the age they are saying."
(Coach Genossar told me that IAA management has not communicated this with him yet; he was skeptical that they had actually made the change. Guess we'll find out soon enough.)
Meanwhile, Gebretsadik's family is facing much more elemental barriers. As we waited for Gebretsadik's race to begin, her father told me that his work visa is set to expire on Feb. 2. He's worried sick about what will happen when he goes to renew it, seeing as so many of his peers — Eritrean and Sudanese men seeking asylum in Tel Aviv — are either being summoned to Israel's desert prison for illegal immigrants or denied a work visa.
"For me, to take the visa is to shoot me," Mashu said. Currently, he supports a wife and five children (including Rahel and an eight-month-old baby) on about $1,300 per month, $850 of which goes to rent. He can't afford to skip a beat.
Under growling skies at Tuesday's meet, Mashu told me about escaping from a prison bathroom in Eritrea while the guards waited for him outside. He said had been jailed for opposing the government. "In Eritrea, you're in prison until they take your skeleton out," Mashu said.
Mashu spent three years as a fugitive in Ethiopia before he was reunited with his family. Together they trekked across the Sinai Desert — Rahel, 12 at the time, remembered carrying her little sister on her back — until they reached the Israeli border fence and asked for asylum based on religious persecution in Eritrea. (They're protestant.) The family has been living in South Tel Aviv ever since.
Along with managing the Alleys, Genossar has taken it upon himself to help team members' parents navigate the unpredictable paperwork circus that is the Israeli Ministry of Interior. He is currently finishing a series of intensive interviews with Gebretsadik's family members about their ordeal, and will use the information to fill out official asylum requests for them to hand in at the ministry.
"It is very important that they fill the forms out correctly, because if there is even the littlest mistake, they will say you are a liar," Genossar said.
Although Israeli officials have only approved two Eritrean asylum requests of a few thousand turned in so far, this could the only hope Mashu and his family have to build a stable life here in Israel.
"For the kids, it is easier," Mashu said, because they're wrapped up with school and sports. "For me it's very hard."
The South Tel Aviv Alleys are currently in urgent need of donations. To help keep the team running, contact team founder Shirith Kasher at email@example.com.