Fugee Fridays is a volunteer humanitarian initiative, founded in 2008 in response to the acute distress of the growing community of African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv. Our purpose is to help address this community’s immediate needs while nurturing their independence, raising awareness of their plight, fostering positive cultural exchange between Israelis and Africans living in Israel and empowering both the refugee community and our volunteers. We organize a number of projects for the benefit of the African community, including food collection from the Carmel Market, language classes, children’s activities and a growing list of community development projects. Everything we do is guided by our belief in simple, elegant problem-solving which connects urgent needs with available and sustainable solutions. We hope that, by setting a personal example, we can inspire others to create similar social action projects that benefit their communities.

Monday, December 1, 2008

From War-Torn Sudan to a Tiny Classroom in South Tel Aviv

The Educational Challenges Facing Newly Arrived Refugees
by David Oppenheim

When African refugees began piling into Israel in greater numbers during late 2007, it was a story I followed with only a passing interest.

At a Shabbat dinner party, I came across a Tel Aviv University grad student who mentioned she was collecting clothes for the refugees and their children. I began to inquire more about the situation, and offered my help. She put me in touch with a friend of hers connected with the ARDC, the African Refugee Development Center, and I agreed to come teach English once a week at their shelter.

I traveled to Shapira, one of south Tel Aviv’s most dejected neighborhoods, where I was shocked upon arriving at the “shelter” – a three-bedroom apartment housing over 20 inhabitants. One of the bedrooms, a small, unairconditioned space with a table and chairs, was allotted as a “classroom” for the kids.

Here, a group of 10-15 kids of varying ages, backgrounds and education levels were given an irregular schedule of classes by volunteers, some qualified and others (like me) unqualified to teach. Nevertheless, the kids craved any opportunity to learn whatever their teachers could teach them. Contrary to my expectations, both the students and the parents displayed a remarkably high value for education.

To add to the difficulties, all the kids and none of the teachers spoke Arabic. Using a few students who had been in Israel for a few months as translators, a classroom environment was created using a mix of Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Studying in the shelter also posed challenges. Eight year old kids cannot effectively focus with crying babies heard through the wall, and knowing that their mother is just around the corner. In the following weeks, students brought their notebooks and pens and followed me to a nearby park where they instinctively kicked aside used needles (a trademark of the neighborhood) to sit on the hot cement and listen attentively to their teacher.

I believe that there are several relevant points that the Israeli public needs to understand about these African refugees living in their midst.

The kids and their families have left war-torn Sudan and persecution of the sort Jews faced in Nazi Germany to make it to Israel. Many of them have lost relatives en route. These children have post-traumatic stress of the kind that requires attention by appropriate professionals is common.

These kids are now living in economically depressed communities in South Tel Aviv. As they grow up, they are exposed to the influence of the drug dealers and pimps working in their neighborhood. I particularly fear for the fate of the young girls to whom I taught the alphabet.

In September, the kids were absorbed into a few schools in the area. These schools are ill-equipped to deal with the concentration of students likely to have residual problems from the trauma they have experienced.

Additionally, the students have not been in an educational environment for years. They will not be academically on par with native Israeli students their age. The refugee pupils need to be spread out amongst Israeli schools to improve their access to needed resources and encourage integration, rather than ghettoization.

The ARDC is not an established organization with appropriate budgets. It is an unorganized team of volunteers with only a few full time staff members. The intentions of everyone involved are sincere, but real resources urgently need to be made available to help these families in need.

In a nation like Israel, which is founded on the ashes of the Holocaust, more needs to be done to help with the refugees who now live among us. These families have been through a recent trauma which can be compared to that of Holocaust survivors, and are living inside Israel’s borders today. Israelis and Jews have a unique responsibility to do more in caring for the African refugee population in Israel.

click here to view this post on haaretz.com

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