Among the 1,000 students who attend two brightly painted boarding schools in Kampala, Uganda, is a group of 72 South Sudanese children who speak perfect Hebrew on the playground.
“It is unbelievable,” said Alex Gumisiriza, head of academic programs at the Trinity Schools Uganda primary and secondary schools. “For us in Uganda, we thought the Jews are the only people who can speak Hebrew, and we were told that Hebrew is the most difficult language in the world. So we were very much surprised to see African children speak Hebrew with ease.”
The phenomenon was born when hundreds of South Sudanese asylum seekers, who had previously settled in Egypt, began to flee to Israel through the Sinai Desert in 2005. (According to activists working with this community, they fled after Egyptian police killed dozens of South Sudanese nationals at a protest against the United Nations’ refugee agency in Cairo.)
As the first small group of African asylum seekers to reach Israel, the families received a warm welcome, and their children quickly integrated into the Israeli school system. Over seven years living in Israel, they adapted to the Israeli way of life.
“The kids are Israeli — in all of their being, they’re Israeli. In the way that they talk, in the way they express their opinions, in so many things,” said Israeli corporate attorney Lea Forshtat, 48, co-founder of Come True South Sudan, a program that sends the South Sudanese children to school in Uganda. She runs the program with Rami Gudovitch, 44, an adjunct philosophy professor at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center, who devotes hours each day both to checking up on the students in Uganda and assisting the African asylum-seeker community still in Israel.
Forshtat said she first became aware of this transplant population when her son, Uri, formed a close friendship with a South Sudanese boy named Wayi in his class at the Magen School in far-north Tel Aviv. “He joined my son’s class in third grade, and they almost instantly became friends,” she said. “Actually, my son didn’t even mention the fact that this child was different than him.”
From there, Forshtat said, Wayi “came over many times to our house. He’s a very intelligent, polite, nice child — very well-liked in his class.”
But when tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan proper began flooding into Israel due to hardships in their own countries, government officials decided they had to crack down on both the newly arrived and long-settled Africans. Wayi and about 500 other South Sudanese kids living in Israel, along with their parents, were forcibly deported in 2012 when Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai ruled that no danger awaited them in South Sudan.
South Sudanese students, joined by Come True South Sudan co-founder Rami Gudovitch, take a school bus back to their boarding school in Kampala, Uganda, after a short break in September.
That summer, a total of 900 asylum seekers left for the airport in a series of tearful goodbyes from Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Gudovitch posted photos online of South Sudanese children crying in their bus seats, holding up goodbye notes they had written in Hebrew for their Israeli classmates to read.
Forshtat, too, described the farewell at the bus station as “terrible.”
“It’s always sad to part with someone you love, but usually people are going because they want to go,” she said. “I’ve never escorted anyone who left against their will. This was a first for me, my child and, of course, for them.”
Within the first few months back in South Sudan, seven of the children died from malaria. Many had left South Sudan at a very early age, and had no recollection of their homeland — nor immunity to local diseases, Gudovitch explained.
And in the long term, he said, there were limited options to continue their education. According to a 2012 report on post-independence life in South Sudan by the Overseas Development Institute, “The new Constitution guarantees the right to an education, but implementation of this is a major challenge, with currently less than 2 percent of the population having even completed a primary school education.”
Seeing how dark the future looked for their South Sudanese friends, Forshtat and Gudovitch felt they must intervene.
“So we decided to send the children back to school,” Gudovitch said.
In 2013, the two Israelis created Come True South Sudan. Through the program, funded almost entirely through donations from average Israeli families, 72 of the deportees are now attending the Trinity Schools in Uganda, where annual costs for each child are about $1,375 for education and boarding.
“Of course they are missing Israel, but we are trying to give them the best education we can,” said Gumisiriza, head of academic programs at Trinity. “With education, they can do anything.”
The attorney and the professor later moved their program under the Israeli umbrella organization Become, which had already been helping young students in Kenya.
Organizers hope to keep sending more students to Trinity, and also to eventually build a school in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, “that would serve not only the deportees, but other children from the community,” Gudovitch said.
Israeli activist Rami Gudovitch, right, visits 15-year-old South Sudanese student Achol Malut, left, at her new school in Uganda. The two met while Gudovitch was volunteering for an after-school program in South Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
A recent fundraiser for Become’s initiatives in Africa was held at the indie Cinematheque Theater in Tel Aviv. The organization screened the film “A Small Act,” a true story about a Holocaust survivor who, as a schoolteacher in Sweden, donated about $15 a month to an anonymous Kenyan child who could not afford to go to high school. In her old age, the survivor found out that the child not only went on to work for the United Nations, but also started a new scholarship fund for more generations of Kenyan children in the survivor’s name.
The highlight of the event, though, was a short film clip from an upcoming documentary on the Come True South Sudan project — set to air on Israel’s Channel 2 on March 31. In one surreal scene, a group of South Sudanese children sing a round of “Eretz Israel Sheli” (“My Land of Israel”) while riding on their Ugandan school bus.
Like many in the crowd, Gudovitch, dressed in a black blazer and his signature newsboy cap, had to choke back tears when talking about the kids he helped bring to Uganda. He arrived and exited the theater surrounded by children from the remaining African refugee community in Israel, who shouted his name and tugged at his clothes to get his attention.
Neither of the founders of Come True South Sudan run with the usual Israeli activist groups — and perhaps for their different mindset, are getting more done on their own, without salary, than many nonprofits do with full staffs.
Their resolve was put to the test in December 2013, when, after one year at the Trinity boarding schools, the kids returned home to South Sudan to spend summer break with their families.
“Then the war broke — and we found ourselves engaged in a very different thing,” Gudovitch said.
In a home video Gudovitch made on one of his many trips to visit the kids at Trinity, a young South Sudanese girl (who he prefers remain nameless, due to ongoing conflict in the region) described escaping from the current civil war zone in her home country, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives so far.
“We ran to a really far place — to a forest,” the girl said in Hebrew. “And we slept on the ground with blankets. … There also wasn’t enough food [or water]. Kids would cry, and also the grown-ups would worry and cry. We cried every day. We thought that we won’t be in a good place again, and we will be in the forest forever.”
South Sudanese asylum seeker Achol Malut, 15, departs on a bus to the Tel Aviv airport in summer 2012 after her family was ordered to return to South Sudan. "When the deportation order was issued, Achol asked me to promise her that I shall not forget my promise: to make sure that she and her siblings and friends go back to school," Gudovitch said. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
Her older brother, sitting next to her, went on to describe the horrors of the newest clashes in South Sudan: “Each time you see someone dead on the street,” he said, “you think you will die, too.”
But then, his little sister said in the video, “Rami helped us to get here [to Uganda] with a plane. And now we are happy that we are in a better place.”
Said Gudovitch: “We made a grand operation to rescue them — first to trace them, then to transport them to Kampala, where I was waiting for them.”
He and Forshtat both said they are often accused of putting the needs of foreigners ahead of people in need in their own community.
“People don’t take it very well,” Forshtat said. “The most common reaction we get is: ‘The poor people of your country should come first.’ But I don’t think it’s contradictory.”
And anyway, according to the program leaders, these South Sudanese kids deported from Israel became as Israeli as most Israelis.
“They are just a bunch of very naughty Israelis, full of chutzpah,” Gudovitch said. “The first week in school was so funny, because right away, they had some problem, and they saw the big sign over the manager’s door, so they knocked on the door and complained. Their complaint was the first time ever a student dared to knock on the door of the headmaster.”
Editor's note: Certain quotes describing the current civil war in South Sudan have been omitted from this article to protect the children who were quoted.