Athletes and asylum seekers Esteer Gabriel, from South Sudan (left), and Rahel Gebretsadik, from Eritrea (right), both 18 years old, watch their teammates compete at the National Sport Center Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel.
In order to reach Israel through the Sinai desert, many of the athletes who are asylum seekers, made their way on foot, across thousands of kilometres, facing hostile populations, got separated from their families, were kidnapped by smugglers in exchange for more money from families back home, were injured and imprisoned.
Some of the athletes have suffered other hardships after their arrival in Israel, as a result of the stigma asylum seekers suffer among a big part of the Israeli society.
When Esteer and other promising asylum seeker teammates started running and winning competitions, these wins were not officially considered as such by the sports authorities due to the athlete's illegal situation: only Israeli citizens were allowed to be registered as victors. However, after a lengthy battle by the managers of the team with officials, athletes under 18 were finally allowed to officially be registered as winners, regardless of their citizenship status. However, they are remain barred from representing Israel in international competitions.
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Through the interaction of teen athletes and asylum seekers Esteer Gabriel, from South Sudan, and Rahel Gebretsadik, from Eritrea, with their team — comprised of other teens (Israelis and otherwise)—, their stories unveil the political, social and bureaucratic hurdles that accompany their quest to find a safe and dignified place of their own in Israel.
These are just two of the millions of stories of challenges and resilience refugees live in the countries that now more or less generously or reluctantly host them.
According to its founders and management, the team is a non-profit professional track and field club aiming to "empower girls and boys by meaningful athletic activity without any prejudice and regardless the kids background". Many of the athlete girls and boys come from underprivileged communities in Tel Aviv Jaffa, both Israeli and otherwise, such as migrants and African asylum seekers. For the young asylum seekers the team is a way to fulfil their dreams: personal and collective, as part of a community struggling for a safe and dignified place within Israel's society.
However, they and the vast majority of asylum seekers lives under pressure by Israeli authorities to "voluntarily" be deported and the constant fear of detention. The Israeli government and right wing establishment argues they are economic migrants and so do not need asylum.
According to the ‘Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel - ASSAF’, "Israel groups asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan under a policy of "temporary collective protection." By utilizing this policy, the government of Israel acknowledges the danger in these two countries and does not deport asylum seekers to their countries of origin. Asylum seekers are given deferred deportation orders , which render their stay in Israel legal. This documentation, however, does not allow them access to formal work permits, health care or welfare services unless they are granted official refugee status by the Israeli government. Asylum seekers are thus stuck in a legal limbo; while being allowed to remain in the country, they lack access to basic services in order to survive, advance, and integrate".