For most children, going to school is as simple as going around the block. For others, it's the end of a long and dangerous journey through deserts, war zones, and hostile borders. In the volatile Middle East, some children have found happy refuge at Bialik-Rogozin, an extraordinary public school in the heart of Tel Aviv. Located in an area with many refugee and immigrant families, the school welcomes students from 48 countries - Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Many arrive fleeing violent pasts. Others have limited if any prior education. For every child who attends, Bailik-Rogozin becomes like a home, open from morning to evening to accommodate parents' long work hours.
After a brief introduction of teachers and a sampling of Bialik-Rogozin's students from Nigeria, Chile, Ukraine, Egypt, Mauritius, Sudan and elsewhere, Strangers No More focuses in on three students, seen over the course of an entire school year:
Johannes is an Eritrian refugee from Ethiopia who comes to the school at age 12 with no prior education or knowledge of Hebrew. Having spent most of his life in and out of refugee camps across the Middle East, Johannes' father is now struggling to obtain a long-term work visa in Israel, and is grateful for the chance to have Johannes attend school for the very first time. At first, Johannes is shy and seems lost due to the language barrier, and is taken under the wing of Smadar Moers, who teaches him Hebrew. After a slow start, Smadar realizes that Johannes is nearly blind in one eye and brings him to an eye clinic, where he is prescribed corrective lenses. Within three months, Johannes is thriving - translating into Hebrew for new students, riding a bike that Smadar gave him, joking with classmates, and eagerly travelling to school each day.
Esther came to Tel Aviv with her father after the tragic shooting death of her mother in South Africa. When she arrived at Bialik-Rogozin, Esther was welcomed by elementary principal Nehana Shapira with clothing, food and counsel. Grappling with the loss of her mother, she shares a close bond with her father, but has trouble expressing her grief. Her teachers have tried to relieve the trauma for Esther, who still holds on to a belief that her mother will return. Encouraged by her new support system at school, Esther began writing as an outlet for her grief. After chatting in the hall with other students, Esther reflects that there was no school like this for black students in South Africa. At Bialik-Rogozin, on the other hand, "It's like all of the world meeting together, and there's peace."
Mohammed is a 16-year-old from Darfur, who fled to Tel Aviv three years ago after seeing his father and grandmother shot to death. His sharp mind and tremendous determination enabled him to make up the years of study he never had. Mohammed finished several years of course work at Bialik-Rogozin in only one year, and will soon graduate. A few days before the ceremony, Principal Karen Tal marvels at Mohammed's progression, proudly telling him, "I think climbing Mount Everest would be easier than the journey you've made here." After graduation, Mohammed received a college scholarship; he plans on returning to his village to establish a school there, to pass on what he has learned from Bialik-Rogozin.
Though the students hail from dozens of different countries, Hebrew is the common language that brings them together. Several students describe having not been able to understand when they first arrived, but slowly, through daily Hebrew lessons, they began to be able to speak the language - opening up a whole new world to them. In addition, since many of Bialik-Rogozin's students have lived through horrific traumas, teachers at the school tend not only to their education, but support their psychic and physical needs as well.
Smadar and Karen help set Johannes' father up with a volunteer lawyer so that he can obtain a permanent visa. As for Mohammed, who is in Israel with no family, teachers act as surrogate parents, offering encouragement while making sure he gets to school every day. Speaking about what happened in their home countries may be difficult for many of Bialik-Rogozin's children, but their futures can be brighter. Notes Karen, "We cannot change the past. We can just live in the present, and be optimistic that we can influence our future."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS: In addition to their Academy AwardŽ for Strangers No More, Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman's films have garnered four previous OscarŽ nominations, several Emmy(r)s, and the DuPont-Columbia Award for Independent Programming. Their documentaries have been broadcast nationally on PBS, HBO, and MTV, and screened at festivals around the world, including the New York Film Festival, Sundance, New Directors/New Films, London, Berlin and Saint Petersburg. Among their HBO credits: Masterclass (2010), Locks of Love: The Kindest Cut (2008), Rehearsing a Dream (2006), and 27th & Prospect: One Year in the Fight Against Drugs (1997).
CREDITS: Produced & Directed by Karen Goodman & Kirk Simon; Executive Producer: Lin Arison; Co-Producer & Editor: Nancy Baker; Director of Photography: Buddy Squires; Original Music by Wendy Blackstone.