Dream comes true for lone soldier from Peru

Staff Sgt. Fernando Rengifo, 23, and his sister, Marilyn, 18, were born in Peru to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. Their parents’ marriage failed and they divorced when the children were 10 and five. The mother took the children and disappeared. The siblings lost contact with their father, but their paternal grandmother searched for them for over a year until she found them in the city of Iquitos, deep in the Amazon jungle of Peru.

“I don’t know what caused my grandmother to work so hard to look for us. My father had already lost hope, but she didn’t give up,” says Rengifo, now a lone soldier serving as an electrician in the IDF Artillery Brigade, stationed at the Tel Nof base.

“My sister and I were returned to our father, who in the meantime had married again. My mother also found a new partner and had three more daughters, my sisters that I’ve never seen. Nine years have gone by since I was separated from my mother and made aliyah to Israel. I was 14 and Marilyn was nine.”

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The father and his two Peruvian-born children moved to Israel, settled in Beersheba, but the children found it difficult to get along with their stepmother.

“I felt like I didn’t have a home, and my life was difficult,” Rengifo explains.

When he was 16, he left home for the Neve Hadassah boarding school near Netanya, and his relationship with his father dwindled.

“I would only come home to visit my sister, be with her and support her,” Rengifo says.

When he was drafted, Rengifo was given lone soldier status. He wanted to enlist in a combat unit, but was not allowed.

“I chose to go to an army-sponsored conversion [to Judaism] course and continue on with full military service. My relationship with my father continued to worsen, and it had been a year since I’d seen him. When Marilyn was in the 10th grade, she also transferred to Neve Hadassah and now that she’s in the army she’s also doing the conversion course,” Rengifo says.

“We both took exactly the same path. It’s important to us to continue our lives in Israel as Jews. I personally connected to Judaism and I enjoy being one.”

The Peru native certainly couldn’t have imagined that toward the end of his service — he is due to be released in a few weeks — a dream of his would come true. The siblings’ touching story reached the Society for the Welfare of Soldiers, which not only took care to rent them apartments in Rehovot, but also decided to buy Rengifo a round-trip ticket to visit Peru and see his mother for the first time in nine years, as well as the three sisters he has never met.

On Tuesday, Rengifo took off for Madrid, from where he flew to Lima, and on to Iquitos.

“It’s incredibly exciting and I’m incredibly thankful to the Society for the Welfare of Soldiers for what they did for me,” he said before leaving Israel. “A month ago, my mother was hurt in a car accident when she fell out of a taxi and she doesn’t know I’m coming. It will be a surprise for her and very exciting for me.”

The Society for the Welfare of Soldiers said in a statement that “the ‘Missing Home’ project of the society and the Keren Lev Association funds flights home for some 1,300 lone soldiers each year … so they can meet their families abroad. The Friends of the IDF in the U.S. and Panama paid for [Rengifo’s] flight and is the main donor to the project, to the tune of about 4.7 million shekels ($1.2 million) annually, along with other donors from Canada, Singapore, and the El Al Frequent Fliers Club.”