In front of her teammates and Israeli peers, Rahel Gebretsadik, a 15-year-old Eritrean immigrant with a petite frame, a shaggy ponytail and an infectious laugh, stood alone on a white wooden box emblazoned with the blue number one. A medal, minted with the menorah from the Arch of Titus, the emblem of the State of Israel, hung around her neck.
And yet while Ms. Gebretsadik may have finished first in Israel’s cross-country championship race for girls in that 2014 competition, and while those she competed against arranged for her to be informally honored that day, her victory was not officially acknowledged because of something beyond her control: She was an illegal immigrant.
As such, she fell victim to a regulation of the Israeli Athletics Association that allowed all students to compete but only citizens to be cited as winners.
During that time, Ms. Gebretsadik and her teammates on the Alley Athletes track and field club watched their titles handed to second-, third- and fourth-place finishers. Rotem Genossar, the club’s manager and a high school civics teacher in Tel Aviv, said that some team members became so discouraged that they wanted to quit the group.
Eventually, things changed. In September 2014, after lengthy lobbying efforts, the athletics association began acknowledging all student competitors under 18 regardless of their legal status.
As a result, Ms. Gebretsadik is now ranked first in Israel for girls under 17 and second nationally for women who compete in the 1,500-meter run.
Ramzi Abdoul-Jabar, who was born in Sudan and raised in Egypt, is ranked No. 1 for boys under 19 in five-kilometer and 10-kilometer races. Samuel Abuay, an Ethiopian Jew with Israeli citizenship, is ranked second in the same categories. The list goes on.
Alley Athletes has 70 male and female runners ages 10 to 26 from more than 15 countries, including Israel, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, Russia and Ukraine. The team includes Jewish, Muslim and Christian runners, many of them high school students. Hebrew is their shared language.
Ms. Gebretsadik and other Africans on the team are asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally with their families, crossing the country’s southern border with Egypt. They joined a community that, in the past decade, has swelled to an estimated 55,000 Africans, or as some Israeli politicians derisively call them, “infiltrators.”
Migrants have been granted a temporary protection visa in lieu of formal refugee status. Israel contends that they immigrated for economic opportunities and are not in need of asylum.
In 2013, Israel fortified the border fence, effectively halting the illegal immigration into the country. Meanwhile, the African community remains stuck in legal limbo and Israel has recently accelerated its deportation efforts.
But Ms. Gebretsadik and her teammates keep running.
“We make fun of each other,” Ms. Gebretsadik said. “People say we are infiltrators and we should be embarrassed and hurt by it, but instead we call each other that.’’
Meanwhile, Mr. Genossar said, “we are coming to competitions and all the eyes are on us because we are the best, not because the boys and girls are different.’’
After school, members of the team wait for a public bus that will take them to practice from the Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv. The wave of African immigration to Israel began in the early 2000’s when the traditional route to Europe via Libya and West Africa became too dangerous. Guides and smugglers began transporting people from their country of origin to Israel instead. An estimated 55,000 African migrants currently live in Israel.
A cluster of students from Bialik-Rogizin School in South Tel Aviv, Israel, take part in an after-school running program for underprivileged young athletes, many of whom are African migrants. They call themselves the Alley Athletes. The program strives to give hope and support to boys and girls from disadvantaged groups living in South Tel Aviv.
(Left to right) Samia Abdoul-Jabar, Sana Adam, Esteer Gabriel and Rahel Gebretzadik walk through a South Tel Aviv neighborhood to a Sudanese restaurant following a regional track and field competition. The girls team won first place.
Duray Alfaki balances on a muscle roller before practice at a track, field and soccer complex in Tel Aviv. Sponsors and private donors cover the costs of running clothes, shoes, travel expenses and provide periodic medical check-ups for the young athletes.
Yuval Carmi, the team’s distance running coach, leads an intense long-distance workout at Menachem Begin Park in South Tel Aviv. Carmi, the coaches and the adults involved in the team’s management hope the individual success of elite athletes will offer them path to citizenship and higher eduction in Israel and abroad.
Members of the team make their way back home after practice via public transit in Tel Aviv. Following years of illegal immigration, the influx of African migrants was nearly halted in 2013 when Israel completed a massive project to upgrade the border security fence. Since its completion, very few people have successfully entered Israel illegally.
Rotem Genossar, a civics teacher at Bialik-Rogozin and team manager, orders food from a Sudanese restaurant owned by the family of two brothers who are on the team.
Hansly Agabo runs laps during practice at a track, field and soccer center in Tel Aviv. Although the migration of Africans to Israel has stopped, they face the challenge of being accepted by the society at large. Many Israelis welcome them with open arms. Others, including members of the Israeli government, consider them “infiltrators.” Africans are frequently scapegoats for an increase in crime in South Tel Aviv and some Israeli media outlets have been accused of misconstruing the actual danger of the situation.
The sun sets behind Ramzi Abdoul-Jabar, Duray Alfaki and Mesert Atoberhan during a six mile training run around Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv. Almost every African member of the team and their families made the perilous journey from their country of origin, through Egypt and the Sinai Desert, to Israel.
Coach Carmi helps Rahel with math homework at an Eritrean restaurant in South Tel Aviv following a practice. Coaches Carmi and Genossar are very involved in the lives of the team members, often driving them to and from practice, helping them with homework and inviting them to dinner with their families.
Carmi drives Duray and Rahel home after practice.
Rotem Genossar teaches a civics lesson on the Israeli Parliament at his classroom in Bialik-Rogozin in South Tel Aviv. Seven out of his 13 students are on the team. Nearly every single young African who immigrated to Israel entered the country without ever having heard Hebrew. Now, after a few years of studying the language, they read, write and speak it fluently.
The team finishes a workout with sprints up and down the hill at Edith Wolfson Park in Tel Aviv.
Young runners wait for their bus following a practice at Edith Wolfson Park. Their immigrant stories have brought them together as a team and their collective struggle through arduous training has made them inseparable.
Yuval Carmi talks with Sana Adam, Rahel Gebretzadik and Samia Abdoul-Jabar as they prepare to compete in multiple events at a track and field meet at the Hadar Yosef Sports Center. Although the the team is predominately African, it is comprised of runners from all backgrounds, including Israeli.
Rahel Gebretzadik wins first place in the 100 meter dash in under 14 seconds. Rahel is considering one of the most promising young athletes in all of Israel.
Rahel Gebretzadik and her teammates receive the medal for first place in the 400 meter relay. Rahel is considered one of the most promising young athletes in all of Israel. When she first started competing and winning races in 2013, she and her teammates’ victories were not acknowledged by the officials because of their illegal immigrant status. Through pressure from the team, its coaches and the school, the Alley Athletes are now allowed to compete, win and rank among the best runners in Israel.
Rahel draws a pony tail on the male runner pictured on a trophy awarded to the girl’s team from Bialik-Rogozin.
Rahel cradles her infant sister at their home in South Tel Aviv. Rahel lives with her parents in a small two bedroom apartment with seven brothers and sisters. While still in Eritrea, Rahel’s father was persecuted by the Eritrean government for his Protestant faith and avoided a jail sentence by fleeing the country. When the government threatened her family with the consequences for their fathers departure, they too were forced to flee. In a harrowing journey that lasted nearly a month, Rahel and her family made their way out of Eritrea, across Sudan, Egypt, the Red Sea and eventually through the Sinai desert. They walked for days and were smuggled for much of the journey before finally making it to Israel, where they arrived with almost nothing.