Although Nigerian-born Toto Tamuz, an up and coming Beitar Jerusalem soccer player, grew up in Israel, the authorities refuse to grant him Israeli citizenship.
Last week, Israeli soccer players boarded a bus to Ben Gurion Airport, on their way to a preparation game against Cyprus in Larnaca. However, Toto Tamuz, 18, a star of the national team, stayed home.
Even though he went to school in Israel, played on the national children’s and youth teams, and speaks fluent Hebrew, Toto is not an Israeli citizen. In fact, the young soccer player, who refused several tempting offers from European teams in order to stay here, is actually a man without a country. Even his name “Toto Tamuz” is not officially registered anywhere.
He arrived in Israel when he was two and a half years old, together with his biological parents Doreen and Clement Temile. Clement, a legendary Nigerian soccer player, later joined Beitar Netanya.
At age three, young Toto moved in with his father’s teammate, Yitzchak Gueta in Petach Tikva. Eventually, the Temiles left Israel, and their then-eight year old son went to live with Orit Tamuz. Although he refers to her as his mother, she was unable to legally adopt him.
Orit, 43, a marketing executive, never married. “Toto is one of my strongest reasons for getting up in the morning with a smile,” she says.
About a year ago, following a public battle, Toto was granted temporary residence papers. On December 27, when his permit was set to expire, officials offered to extend his temporary resident status until 2009.
Explaining that he now refuses to settle for anything less than full citizenship, Toto declined the offer. Instead, he and Orit have filed a petition with the High Court.
Toto dreams of serving in the IDF and representing Israel abroad. “I feel part of the State, like any Israeli,” he insists. “The State is taking this away from me.”
A warm home
He is no longer in contact with his biological parents, who are now separated. They felt that he should not have moved in with Orit, whom he met at an after-school soccer club.
“My father, who was Gueta’s friend, preferred that I remain with him, but I felt more at home with Orit,” Toto reports. “She provided me with all the warmth that I didn’t get from my biological parents. With her, I felt like I belonged. So I decided that I’m staying with her, and nothing else mattered.”
Not everyone understood the relationship between the Nigerian child and the Israeli woman. “Why did you take a picture with the janitor?” a young acquaintance asked Orit about a picture of herself together with her dark-skinned son.
Nevertheless, the connection between the pair seems almost symbiotic. “After all these years,” Orit muses, “I feel like I gave birth to him. It’s not that I waived my right to get married, but it’s all a matter of priorities. For me, Toto always comes first. He’s my family, and this love is very filling.”
What type of mother are you?
“Very involved; a nag; a Jewish mother. If I could, I would smother him in warmth the entire day. I need to learn to let go, because now he’s a teenager. When I’m next to him, he’ll always say the opposite of me. He does things on purpose, just for the sake of doing them.”
Over the years, Toto’s biological parents attempted to get back in touch with their son. Around six months ago, his mother Doreen arrived in Israel, insisting that she missed her son. Toto rebuffed her overtures.
“My mother left the country when I was approximately ten years old,”? he states. “At first, I would get together with her here and there, but not very often.
“My parents separated, and neither of them kept in touch with me. My father met someone else in Israel and lived with her. Only when I was 15, after years of no contact, my father somehow reached me by telephone and spoke to me a bit. He asked how I was doing.”
Are you now back in touch?
“It was already a little too late, after I hadn’t spoken to them in around ten years. After all, my father didn’t leave the country in the most pleasant way, and there was a whole to-do, part of which was connected to my moving in with Orit.”
Are you mad at him or do you miss him?
“Neither. I’m not angry or disappointed. When my parents came to Israel, they left my brother in Nigeria. Imagine if my parents had brought him to Israel and left me there. Then Orit would’ve maybe adopted him, and I would’ve lived in Nigeria, and no one here would know that I exist.”
Are you talking about Orit or your soccer skills?
“Both. It’s only because of her that I’m into soccer. I couldn’t have come as far as I have without her pushing. She never gave up on me.”?
The big leagues
By the time Toto was 17, he was already playing for Hapoel Petach Tikva, where he finished the season with eleven goals. He was traded to Beitar Jerusalem at the start of the current season.
Unsurprisingly, Toto’s meteoric rise produced a good deal of resentful innuendo and rumors about Orit’s motivations. Since Toto and Orit selected to ignore the gossip, many people assume that Toto is an inarticulate marionette.
However, when he chooses to open the floodgates, one realizes that nothing is further from the truth. Toto comes across as mature, perceptive, and intelligent.
“I have no other way to handle the mudslinging than by ignoring it,”? he observes. “If anything, there are other people who, specifically from the time that I became a success, suddenly remembered me after not speaking to me. Everyone wants to be part of my success, but my mother was always there for me.”
In order to officially adopt Toto, Orit needed his biological parents’ permission. The process was far from smooth.
“I turned to all sorts of government officials who didn’t know what to do with me,” Orit discloses. “They said to me: ‘You’re white, and he’s black. So why bother?’ I was so angry, I banged the table.”
When asked if he wants Orit to adopt him, Toto responds emphatically. “I always felt like her son. I called her ‘Mom’. I even call her parents ‘Grandpa and Grandma.'”
Toto was raised as a Jew. Together with Orit, he makes kiddush every Friday night and attends synagogue on the holidays. Orit’s extended family considers him one of their own.
Living with fear
As an illegal resident, Toto grew up looking over his shoulder. “Once, when I was 13, on my way home from school, I saw some policemen from the immigration police hitting a pair of foreign workers and putting them into a patrol car,”? he relates. “Of course, I was frightened, because I also didn’t have full permission to be in the country.”
You were afraid of being caught?
“I was scared that it could happen to me. The thing that calmed me down was that I knew that if they would catch me, I knew what to say. My Hebrew is excellent, and I saw that the captured foreign workers didn’t speak Hebrew. Orit had told me to say that I am part of an Israeli family and to refer them to her, and she would take care of everything.”
The Interior Ministry response
Interior Ministry spokesperson Sabine Hadad blames Toto and his family. “It should be noted that the Interior Ministry did all that it could, within the limits of the law, to help Mr. Toto Tamuz and to ease his way,” she claims.
“For example, when a technical obstacle prevented him from playing for Israel’s national team, the ministry came to his assistance and solved the matter.
“We were only asked to clarify Mr. Tamuz’s status when he was ten years old and not before, despite the fact that Mr. Tamuz lived in Israel from the age of three – illegally, most of the time.
“Some time ago, the family was notified that they must arrange for the extension of Mr. Tamuz’s status and renew the laissez-passer that he holds, but they have not yet done so.”