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Jewish Journal

‘Esther the Great’ leaves Israel

by Larry Derfner

October 5, 2011 | 6:31 pm

Esther Aekpehae. Photo by Nir Elias/Reuters

Esther Aekpehae. Photo by Nir Elias/Reuters

The long-running campaign in Israel to stop deportation of illegal foreign workers, a campaign that has zeroed in on the expulsion of children, is losing its adorable poster girl. After living in Tel Aviv with her father for nearly five years, and after being one of the stars of this year’s Oscar-winning documentary about the Tel Aviv multicultural school she attends, Esther Aekpehae, 13, and her dad were leaving for Nigeria on Oct. 4.

They were about a year too late to meet the Interior Ministry’s residency requirement for foreign workers wishing to remain in the country legally. And three months ago, Immanuel Aekpehae lost his job to a cheaper competitor. Without a work visa, he said, it will be hard to find another job, and while the immigration police haven’t hassled him yet, he figures it’s a matter of time before they arrest and deport him.

So, though they weren’t being deported, hard times and insecurity about the future led Immanuel to the Ministry of the Interior, which gave him and his daughter what it gives to all “illegals” being deported — a free plane ticket to their destination.  

On Oct. 3, in the family’s cramped studio apartment in a South Tel Aviv slum crowded with foreign workers and African refugees, Immanuel was on the phone with Channel 2 News. “They’re going to take us to the airport and accompany us to Nigeria. They want to do a documentary on us,” he said.

That morning, Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot had run a page-and-a-half spread on Esther’s imminent departure. “The movie is over,” the headline read. Asked how many other news organizations had called him for interviews, Immanuel responded,  “Whew, too many to count.”

After Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon’s “Strangers No More” won the Oscar for best short documentary in February, the news quickly followed that the film’s diminutive, pretty and self-described “dramatic” little girl with the corn-row hair was liable to be deported, and Esther became the face and voice of illegal foreign workers in this country.

“Esther ha’gdolah,” she was called by a leading Israeli activist for the cause. “Esther the Great.”

She spoke at Tel Aviv rallies to stop the deportations, and on TV news shows. Newspaper photographers were drawn to her; a full-page photo of her from a Yediot Aharonot story after the Oscar ceremony hangs on the wall of the family’s tenement apartment, near the electric piano, TV and the two mattresses on the floor.

It wasn’t just her pretty, animated face that made Esther such a compelling spokeswoman; she came across as very Israeli, looking straight into the camera, speaking good Hebrew and assertively making her case and that of other foreign workers’ children.  

“I’m an Israeli in every way,” she said earlier this year on TV. “There’s no way they’re going to deport me, and if they do, I’ll come back.” She wasn’t shy about reproaching the “heavy” in the deportation affair, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, for the “bad decisions” he was making.  

Following a cabinet decision in summer 2010, some 400 children of illegal foreign workers became vulnerable to deportation with their families. Since then, there have been no expulsions of school-age kids and their parents, but preschoolers and their parents have been steadily deported, either after coming in voluntarily or getting arrested. “Our immigration police have a work program to follow, and they’re following it,” Interior Ministry spokesman Roei Lachmanovich said.

The Aekpehaes are South Africans, and they arrived in Israel on a tourist visa from Johannesburg in early 2007. Immanuel brought his daughter to the Bialik-Rogosin School when they were hungry and living from place to place in South Tel Aviv. “She was a sad little girl when we first saw her. It was clear something bad had happened to her,” a teacher says in the documentary.

Esther’s mother had been shot to death in Johannesburg. Immanuel assumes the killer was an ex-partner to whom he owed money over a real estate deal that went bad. The man was arrested but released, and neighbors told Immanuel that the man intended to kill him and Esther, too. So like more than 300,000 other Asians, Africans and East Europeans in the last two decades, they came to Israel.

With the help of a generous landlord, liberal NGOs, the South Tel Aviv churches and “African grapevine,” and, above all, the staff at Bialik-Rogosin School, they made a life for themselves. Immanuel, 41, worked long hours at menial jobs. Esther joined Scouts, made friends, did very well in school, and the Oscar turned her into a local heroine.  

They were about a year too late to meet the“The people in Israel have been wonderful to us, so many of them accepted me and my daughter like family,” he said. It’s too dangerous to go back to South Africa, he said, so they’re going to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where his mother and other relatives live. Recently remarried, Immanuel ’s wife will be waiting for them.

On Oct. 3, Esther’s last day in school, some teachers and administrators took her and her pals out for ice cream. “I’m a little bit excited about going away to meet my family,” she said in a telephone interview, “but really sad because I’m leaving my friends behind.” They promised each other to keep in touch.   

She also has mixed feelings about her time as a celebrity. “It was fun,” she said, “but sometimes people were waking me and my dad up in the middle of the night to talk to me.”

Esther’s parting words on the saga: “I know many, many kids who don’t have the right papers, and I think the Minister of Deportation or something, Eli Yishai, should give citizenship to all the children in Israel.”

Will she ever come back? Adorable and dramatic as always, she said: “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be able to visit. No one knows the future. Such is life.”

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