Esther Gabriel, left, and her teammates at the Israeli competition in February.
Esther Gabriel, left, and her teammates at the Israeli competition in February.andnbsp;Photo by Courtesy

The girls’ athletic team of Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, which is supposed to represent Israel in the World Championships in China in two months, may be forced to stay home because the state refuses to give one of the members a visa.

The team consists of six girls from migrant families living in Israel. Three of the girls have foreign passports from Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast and had no difficulty receiving a visa to China. Two girls from Darfur in Sudan, who have temporary resident’s status, were also granted a visa. But the sixth team member, Esther Gabriel from Sudan, was denied a visa by the Population and Immigration Authority.

“Your request for a visa was…denied due to the circumstances of your stay in Israel,” wrote Riki Saadia Peretz, coordinator of the passport registration department in the population bureau in Tel Aviv.

Gabriel, an 11th grade student, has been living in Israel for the past five years with her mother, older sister and two younger brothers. About three years ago, when the South Sudanese refugees were about to be deported from Israel, Gabriel’s mother applied for asylum due to the persecution she was subjected to in her homeland. She was summoned for an interview and is still waiting for an answer. Since then the state has renewed the family’s temporary visas from time to time.

Gabriel specializes in hurdling and long jumping but competes in other races as well. This week she won a bronze medal in the Israeli championship in youth heptathlon (up to the age of 17). Her team was chosen to represent Israel after winning the national schools competiton.

In the past two years she and her colleagues in Hasimtathletics, the South Tel Aviv Athletes club, have scored numerous achievements.

The club was set up two years ago by Yehoraz NGO, founded by Professor Assa Kasher, at the initiative of Rotem Ginosar, a civics teacher at Bialik-Rogozin, to enable needy youth to take part in professional sports. Many of the club’s members are Bialik-Rogozin students, who are not Israeli citizens.

Gabriel is troubled by the thought that her visa problem will prevent the whole team from competing in China. “I’m upset that I can’t go,” she told Haaretz yesterday. “The team is family, and family is everything, isn’t it?”

Taking part in the world championship is extremely important to her. “I hope they don’t get stuck because of me,” she says.

Bialik-Rogozin principal Eli Nehama was surprised Gabriel did not get a visa. “We first asked the Population Authority’s legal advisor Daniel Salomon to examine the participants’ eligibility for a travel permit and received a positive answer,” he said.

Yesterday he wrote to the authority, with a copy to Interior Minister Gilad Erdan: “The Bialik-Rogozin campus has become a symbol of Israel’s nicer side in the world, as a state that shows compassion toward children dealing with extreme situations of survival and flight from danger zones. I am confident that a reexamination and seeing the bigger picture will lead to a decision to approve [Gabriel’s] departure as a member of the delegation.”

Hasimtathletics project manager Shirit Kasher said she would welcome a change in the decision but refrained from criticizing the authority. “I see no reason to refuse [a visa], certainly not to this girl specifically. I really hope they change their mind,” she said.

Three years ago the Bialik-Rogozin girls’ basketball team wanted to register for the Israel Basketball Association’s youth league, but the regulations did not permit it. After the story was published in Haaretz the association changed its regulations and the girls were allowed to play professionally.

The Israel Athletics Association did not prevent the school’s athletic team from taking part in the games, even though its regulations stipulate that only Israeli citizens can take part in the Israel championship. The Bialik-Rogozin girls came first in the competition but an Israeli who came second stood beside them on the podium. In September the association changed the regulations.

The Population Authority said in response that Gabriel was not prohibited from joining the team, but was refused a travel certificate. “She must apply to the enforcement and aliens’ administration, as many other asylum seekers do and her request will be dealt with accordingly.”