Why do these South Sudanese kids in Uganda speak Hebrew?
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In Kampala, the capital of Uganda, nearly 200 South Sudanese children speak a language that is rarely heard there: Hebrew. That’s because they spent much of their childhoods in Israel, before their families were deported back to the newly-independent South Sudan in 2012. They’re now in Uganda because Israelis who knew these kids before they were deported have raised funds to send them to boarding schools there, away from the conflict in their homeland.
The project, which is called “Come True”, is run by the Israeli nonprofit Become. It currently covers school fees and living costs for 178 South Sudanese children who attend seven different boarding schools in Uganda. The project’s co-director, Rami Gudovitch, explains how it all got started.
“In South Sudan, there was no school; they were going hungry and getting sick with malaria”
In 2007, after I finished a doctorate in philosophy in the United States, my wife and I returned to Israel. We moved to a neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, where there were many migrant workers – mostly from Asia, but also some from West Africa, and East African refugees were just starting to arrive from Eritrea and Sudan.
My wife started teaching art at a primary school that many of the newly-arrived asylum-seekers’ children attended. During the summer holidays, we noticed that the kids didn’t have anything to do and were hanging out on the street corners, in areas where it was maybe not a good idea to do that. We were worried they might encounter risky situations. So we started an informal program in a park in the neighbourhood, where volunteers played with the kids and read them books.
Children playing in Tel Aviv's Levinsky park in 2011. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
Soon, more parents heard about us and sent their children, too. There were about 70, 80 kids, and we moved our activities into the park’s volunteer-run library. Parents who had just arrived in Israel started to tell us stories about why they fled their countries, about the torture some of them went through in camps in the Sinai desert. They also asked us advice about how things worked here in Israel, and so we became a sort of unofficial volunteer organization helping refugee families.
These families were among the estimated 60,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers that crossed the border from Egypt into Israel in the 2000s and early 2010s, before Israeli authorities erected a wall. Because Israel is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it could not deport these asylum seekers back to their countries, but it did not grant them official refugee status either, except to a miniscule fraction.
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Gudovitch says that when South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, he realized “it was no reason to celebrate”:
Within a few months, Israel declared that they would deport asylum seekers from South Sudan, as if it was suddenly a safe place for them to return to. I organized a struggle against their deportation, but it didn’t succeed. In 2012, they started being deported, even families with children born in Israel. About 1,000 were deported in total, and about half were children. All the kids we were in touch with by phone told us the same thing – there was simply nothing for them in South Sudan, a country most of them had never known. There was no school, and they were going hungry and getting sick with malaria. So, with the project's codirector Lea Forshtat, we started raising funds on Facebook to send 25 of these kids to a boarding school in neighbouring Uganda. We did everything in coordination with the children's parents.
Two South Sudanese students at boarding school. In Israel, these children had studied in Hebrew; they had to learn English when they arrived in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
The first few years of the project were challenging. Civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, and Gudovitch’s group helped more children flee the country. After that, the students stopped going back for visits to South Sudan. A few parents who were able to move to Uganda started serving as representatives for all those still in South Sudan, and the project hired a full-time manager in Uganda, a man who was also deported from Israel.
>>READ MORE ON THE OBSERVERS (article from 2014): Children face illness and death in South Sudan’s refugee camps
Gudovitch says it was not easy, at first, for the students to adjust schooling in Uganda, after coming from a vastly different school system in Israel.
“I never want to forget Hebrew - it’s the only evidence we have that we came from Israel”
Marlyn, a student who was deported from Israel when she was 11 and is now 18, was among the first to be sent to boarding school in Uganda through the Come True program:
I was happy to come to Uganda because I couldn’t study in South Sudan. When I arrived, I only spoke my local language and Hebrew, not English, which is the language that classes are taught in here in Uganda. So they put us in lower classes, with much younger kids. But after a while, I was able to jump some classes. Now I have three years left to go before I graduate.
School is so different here – in Israel, if you didn’t understand something that the teachers did, you could ask questions. The kids who came from Israel were used to speaking their minds. Here, though, they don’t like that, and they punish you if you don’t pass your exams. They also don't want us to talk in class, or to speak Hebrew or our languages. I still speak Hebrew with my friends, though – I never want to forget it. It’s the only evidence we have that we came from Israel. If we didn’t speak Hebrew, nobody would believe us! So I like to read the Hebrew books that Rami brings us when he visits. My younger siblings, who are also here in Uganda, they have forgotten Hebrew, because they were so young when they left.
It was hard to make Ugandan friends at first, because they thought we were so different. But I have many friends now, and I like school.
Marlyn in class in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
Gudovitch says that there are still dozens of children on the waiting list, who are hoping to leave South Sudan and get an education in Uganda. However, it’s hard to find the necessary funds:
Thousands of Israelis have helped us with small donations, but the costs are high: about 1,500 dollars a year per child. We cover school fees, medical fees, everything. We provide housing and activities during school breaks. We’re constantly asking for donations on Facebook, but it seems that its new algorithms make it harder to get our message in front of as many people than it was before. And it’s not easy to sustain momentum over time.
Nyasegin, a South Sudanese student at Janan Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
Some of the students in the program are now over 18, but still in school, since it can take a long time to graduate from secondary school in Uganda. Gudovitch worries that, like for all South Sudanese refugees, it won’t be easy for them to get jobs in Uganda. However, they’ll have the benefit of being graduates, and some of them, like Marlyn, hope to pursue higher education abroad:
My favorite subject is art, and I hope to study it at university – maybe in America or Europe. I’d also like to go back to Israel and visits the friends I made there, and see my favorite teachers, who I still talk to sometimes on Facebook. And one day, I’d like to go back to South Sudan and help make it a better place.
A South Sudanese student at a boarding school in Kampala, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.
Article written by Gaelle Faure.