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For many children, going to school is as simple as a trip around the block. For others, it means a long and dangerous journey through deserts and war zones. In the volatile Middle East, some students have found happy refuge at Bialik-Rogozin, a public school in the heart of Tel Aviv that welcomes Jews, Christians and Muslims from 48 countries.
Many arrive fleeing violent pasts, and others have limited, if any, prior education. For every child who attends Bialik-Rogozin, the school is like a home. Here, no child is a stranger. This year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short, Strangers No More tells the inspiring story of this extraordinary school and the students who struggle to acclimate to life in a new land when it debuts Monday, Dec. 5, exclusively on HBO.
Produced & directed by Karen Goodman & Kirk Simon (HBO’s “Masterclass”), Strangers No More follows three Bialik-Rogozin students over the course of a school year as they try to fit in, and slowly open up to share their stories of hardship and tragedy. Mohammed, a 16-year-old refugee from Darfur, witnessed the killing of his grandmother and father before escaping alone through Egypt to Israel.
Though he’s never been in school before, his sharp mind and tremendous determination enable him to make up for years of missed study. Johannes arrived at Bialik-Rogozin after spending most of his life in refugee camps across the Middle East. As his father struggles to obtain a work visa, 12-year-old Johannes tries to adjust to attending school for the first time.
After a slow start, his teachers realize he is nearly blind in one eye and take him to an eye clinic. With his new glasses, Johannes is reading and writing before long, and helping other newcomers to adjust. Esther and her father fled South Africa with nothing after the murder of her mother. At Bialik-Rogozin, they are welcomed with clothing, food and counsel on how to begin a new life. Esther’s teachers try to relieve the trauma of this nine-year-old girl, who is still dealing with the loss of her mother.
Strangers No More also spotlights the school’s compassionate and dedicated faculty, including: teacher Smadar Moers, who works closely with Johannes’s family and teaches 21 hours of Hebrew classes a week to new students; elementary principal Nehana Shapira, who helped a disoriented and hungry Esther through her first days at the school; and the school’s principal, Karen Tal, who recently received The Charles Bronfman Prize for her humanitarian work at the school.
As Karen Tal notes, Bialik-Rogozin differs from other schools in that students aren’t just taught the values of human rights and tolerance – they are able to live out those values every day. Upon graduation, Mohammed provides the finest evidence of the school’s ultimate success, declaring his dream to return to Darfur and build a school for the children of the village he once fled.
In addition to their Academy Award for Strangers No More, Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman’s films have garnered four other Oscar nominations, several Emmys and the DuPont-Columbia Award for Independent Programming.
Their documentaries have screened at festivals around the world, including the New York Film Festival, Sundance, New Directors/New Films, London, Berlin and Saint Petersburg. Their other HBO credits include: “Masterclass” (2010), “Locks of Love: The Kindest Cut” (2008), “Rehearsing a Dream” (2006), “Kindergarten” (2001), “27th & Prospect: One Year in the Fight Against Drugs” (1997) and “Chimps: So Like Us” (1989).
Image Courtesy of http://www.strangersnomoremovie.com/