It is hard to imagine the challenge facing a school that serves over 800 children from forty-eight countries, children who’ve known wars and strife, who saw their parents killed in front of their eyes, or children who had walked the desert, or who come to school hungry and whose parents live under the radar screen of the authorities as foreign workers fearful of being caught and deported.
Yet Bialik-Rogozin school Tel-Aviv, Israel not only educates them, but gives them love, compassion, and hope. In the open and accepting environment created by an outstanding principal Karen Tal and a team of exceptional teachers, students support one another, play together and chat in the new common language, Hebrew. Racial and color divides drop completely in a place where each child is “different” yet none is made to feel anything less than unique. Each child learns to put his or her hauntingly traumatic past behind, adjust to the present, and look to the future. Unlike other public schools in the city that close at 1 or 2 PM, Bialik-Rogozin is open late, until these children’s parents are back from work. Furthermore, as in the case of Johannes, a war refugee who speaks only Tigrit, freedom acquires a new meaning when the boy is taken to the doctor where he is fitted with glasses, and his teacher gives him bicycles so he can ride around the neighborhood and connect with his new world. At a home visit, when the teacher learns of the father’s visa problems, the school takes on the task of navigating the bureaucratic maze for the family. It is heart-warming to see that merely a few months after Johannes’s arrival, he is an eager and engaged student who now translates and helps a new Tigrit-speaking child find his way around the school.
And Esther, whose mother was killed in South Africa (yet who still believes that she will return,) is surprised when her new white-skinned friends admire her tightly braided hair, hug her, and seek her friendship. Soon, the articulate girl, now clothed and fed by the school, is helped to accept the finality of her mother’s death, flourishes and becomes a leader.
Nothing testifies to the success of the school as when the charming and determined Mohammed, who arrived from Darfur at age sixteen, not only catches up on a lifetime of lack of schooling, but upon graduation plans to return to his village and open a school there.
The film avoids as the underlining political questions about a vulnerable country opening its borders to refugees or a public school that supports illegal immigrants by integrating their children into the new culture. Instead, the film teaches the most humane lesson as it demonstrates how far compassion, goodwill, and enormous patience can help change the life of children from utter despair to a world of possibilities offered by a sense of self, security and education.
It is easy to draw from the cliché of superlatives when describing an environment in which ethnic definitions and cultural differences—that all too often breed hatred—simply melt and fall away. Even the word “tolerance” is too trivial for the place that Lin Arison, the philanthropist who financed the documentary, calls “a miracle.” The tight throat and tear-filled eyes of the audience provide a better sense of the emotional power of the film.
And if “Strangers No More” fails to show Israel’s detractors her true face, then they ought to turn their critical eyes toward themselves.
The 40-minute documentary is short listed for the Academy Award (semi-final 8 for final 4, to be announced on January 24th,) and will be aired on HBO.