Repatriation flights between Israel and SA finally take off
It all came together over the last week, with flights arranged in both directions
“Fifty-one Israeli citizens boarded a repatriation flight on 22 May, 24 from Johannesburg and 27 from Cape Town. This was done in co-ordination with the United States embassy repatriation flight on Ethiopian Airlines,” says Deputy Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Ayellet Black. “We are grateful for the co-operation with the US embassy, which brought so many Israeli citizens home.”
The flight flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Addis Ababa, and finally to Israel.
Israelis Shira Lagrisi, her husband Roi, and their three young daughters, packed up their lives in Cape Town in five days to take the flight. They did this because they believe it’s now easier to be in Israel than South Africa, with more freedom, schools opening, and the virus under control.
“We’ve lived in Cape Town for two years, and we were really starting to miss home. With no certainty about future flights, we decided to take this one. It was very hard to leave Cape Town, but my husband can work remotely,” she says.
The Lagrisis were notified of the flight only on the Saturday evening a week before it took off, and had to give their final answer two days later. They then had five days to pack up their lives.
“All the airports we travelled through were completely empty. It was pretty weird,” says Lagrisi. Their temperatures were checked at every stop, and they had to fill in a number of forms along the way.
Everyone they interacted with wore masks, and they and their children wore masks as much as possible. They were given food on the flight, but all the in-flight entertainment systems were turned off. “The flight was quite full, and there was sanitiser everywhere. People kept their distance. Flight attendants wore masks and gloves,” she says.
While the flight was long and expensive, it was worth it. She and her family are now on a moshav near Netanya, waiting out their two-week quarantine. They can see that Israel is “back to business”, and look forward to being part of it all.
Meanwhile, a repatriation flight will fly from Israel to South Africa on Sunday, 31 May. “There will be about 50 South Africans on board this Ethiopian Airlines cargo flight,” says Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
“Over the past week, we have worked extensively with relevant staff members from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoint), Ethiopian Airlines, the South African embassy in Tel Aviv, and the representatives of the group awaiting repatriation,” she says. “We have also assisted individuals within the group with specific issues that arose during the process.”
Two people who played an essential role behind the scenes are Kelli Sussman and Ivana Goldfein, both South Africans who got stuck in Israel with their families when the borders closed.
They found each other online, and decided to join forces to try organise a flight back. They formed a WhatsApp group for South Africans seeking to return home, and spent 24 hours a day addressing administrative and emotional needs while engaging with stakeholders and managing their own families and commitments.
After much red tape, they managed to negotiate a flight on Ethiopian Airlines for considerably less than other quotes. “Within days, the airline had everything ready to submit to the South African embassy, which it then submitted to DIRCO. It had to get a permit for the aeroplane to land, and permits for each individual. The timing is critical, especially with Shavuot. We are sitting on shpilkes (anxious), hoping it all works out.”
Although she played a key role, Sussman might not be on the flight as one of her daughters and her husband weren’t approved, while her other child was. She might not have a place to stay in Israel after 31 May.
“I’m anxious, but I’m glad I was able to help others,” she says. Goldfein has found it meaningful to see how people can work together to achieve something like this. If they both make it onto the flight, it will be the first time they meet in person.
“Organising a repatriation flight is very complicated,” says Hila Rose Fridman, consul and designated deputy ambassador of the Israeli embassy. “Repatriation flights have to be arranged directly through an embassy. The rumours that one can register on an airline aren’t true.”
The logistics for the flight from South Arica to Israel began with finding an airline willing to operate. The Israeli embassy then created a list of potential passengers, and checked all potential passengers’ travel documents.
Each of these names was sent to DIRCO for approval, which had to be done 72 hours before the flight. The names were sent back to the embassy, and then to the airline. Meanwhile, the embassy had to contact each passenger for payment. The day before the flight, the final list of passengers was sent from the embassy to the airline.
The embassy also had to officially approve each passenger. Passengers weren’t allowed to travel to the airport, and had to meet at an assembly point many hours before the flight. In this case, passengers in the Mother City met at the Cape Town Stadium, and in Johannesburg at the American consulate. They were then taken to the airport by designated buses organised by the embassy.
An embassy representative had to be present at the assembly point. This was particularly difficult for the Israeli embassy, as it has no personnel in Cape Town. Eventually, it had to get special approval for a person who works closely with the embassy to be present. “This was difficult, but we didn’t want to give up on Cape Town,” says Rose Fridman.
She says the past month has been a relentless battle, and when the flight finally took off, “I felt so relieved. A lot of people were anxious to go back, especially travellers. We knew the personal story of each passenger. When we saw each other at the assembly point, we would have hugged each other if we could. It was very emotional.”
The embassy hopes to arrange more repatriation flights as there are still Israelis in South Africa who need to return.