In a small and crowded auditorium at Minshar School of Art in south Tel Aviv, a public reading of a classic text took place earlier this summer. One by one, the school’s new graduates approached the microphone and read a page, sometimes stumbling over a word, sometimes pausing but persevering. The audience of students and guests, sweltering in the late June heat, whooped and clapped. The sense of joy and pride was palpable.
The classic tale was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which a gluttonous lepidopteran gorges itself on sausages and lollipops on its journey toward butterfly glory. It’s a deceptively simple story, said teacher and school director Zohar Friedman. “But if you look more deeply, you see that the experience of change is with a lot of drive, a lot of hunger, a little bit of pain, and in the end it pays off,” she explained. The metaphor could have applied to all the graduates in the room: They were students of The Schoolhouse, which offers adult education to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant communities in Israel.
Most of the 100 graduates squeezed into the auditorium—sitting, standing, or crouched in the aisles—were from Eritrea and the Darfur region of Sudan, and many of them have experienced more than a bit of pain on their journey to Israel: torture, imprisonment, loneliness, physical or mental illness, loss of hope. For many, The Schoolhouse restored some of that hope.
“The Schoolhouse has changed us from a person who was disappointed before to become a person who dreams,” said Jamal, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who crossed the border from Egypt into Israel in 2011. Jamal, who asked that his last name not be used, graduated from Group Six, “Academic English.” He said his hope is to apply to university in Israel and study to be a pediatrician. Even though he has received no response to his request for refugee status, he said, “I’m living by hope and working hard to reach my goals.”
Founded in January 2012 by CEO Sara Stern, herself an immigrant from the United States, The Schoolhouse offers four- to five-month evening courses, twice a year, in two basic subjects. The first is an English-language program rising from level one to level six, with an emphasis on skills such as public speaking, “mannerisms in Western society,” self-confidence, and critical thinking. The second program is computer skills: a beginners’ course focusing on mouse use, Microsoft Word, and Google searching; and an intermediate course that teaches more advanced tools such as InDesign and PowerPoint. Students pay a small fee for each course and some take several on different evenings of the week; Minshar rents the classrooms to the program at a subsidized rate. (An additional Schoolhouse program for detainees at Holot, the “open detention center” for asylum seekers in the Negev, was suspended due to a temporary lack of funding, but Stern recently received funding to revive those classes, which are held at the nearby Nitzana Youth Village.)
Stern, who studied special education at Bar Ilan University, first decided to volunteer to help asylum seekers in 2006, after listening to daily radio reports of Sudanese refugees crossing the border from Egypt to Israel. Between 2006 and 2012, when a fence on the Egyptian border was completed, some 41,000 African asylum seekers crossed the Sinai Peninsula to reach Israel. About 72 percent of them had fled Eritrea, a totalitarian state with forced, indefinite army conscription, no national elections, no legislature, and no independent media. Twenty percent had escaped genocide in Darfur , and about 7 percent were from other African countries.
Together with a few other volunteers, Stern started out by teaching Hebrew once a week to asylum seekers and discovered what she describes as their “thirst” for education. While organizations like Physicians for Human Rights and Kav La-Oved (Workers’ Hotline) were offering medical or employment help, there was no group focusing on education. “It was just very clear to me that there was a need to build some kind of school or center that would offer adult education,” Stern explained. For asylum seekers, “studying English or computers broadens their knowledge and skills and is a means for them to be stronger or make changes in their lives,” especially because, for many of them, “they don’t know what lies ahead in their future.”
Stern believes that Israel should grant refugee status to deserving African asylum seekers. “Israel is in a strong enough place where we can carry part of the burden,” she said, “especially taking into account our history where we also were refugees and wanted other countries to take us in.” As Jamal pointed out, Israel also has an obligation, as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to grant refuge to anyone who is unable to return to his or her country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Nevertheless, Israel has granted refugee status to just six Eritreans—0.1 percent of applicants—and one Sudanese asylum seeker, Mutasim Ali, a leader of the Sudanese asylum seekers’ community in Israel. Instead, most are granted a visa that gives them the right not to be deported. (In early June, Israel announced that it would grant “temporary residency status” to 200 Darfurians.)
Even so, government officials routinely refer to asylum seekers as “infiltrators” and in 2013 passed the fourth amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which established Holot as an “open detention center” for African asylum seekers. Under current legislation, they can be detained for up to 12 months at Holot, and are free to leave during the day as long as they return for an evening roll-call. Those who violate the terms of their detention may be jailed in Saharonim, a closed prison for refugees and migrants that Amnesty International calls “a flagrant violation of international human-rights law.” Many of The Schoolhouse’s students have been detained in the past at Holot or Saharonim.
Even so, life in Israel is better than returning to the countries that they escaped. “If you go back to Darfur you will die,” said Mohyaldeen Muhammad, a 2016 Sudanese Schoolhouse graduate who spent two years in Saharonim. He hasn’t seen his family since he left Sudan in 2012, and does not know where they are.
One student who’s more than grateful for the welcome she has received at The Schoolhouse is Tracy Abanum, who fled strife in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, the epicenter of fighting between the government and the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which is notorious for its kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. She is the rare woman student at the Schoolhouse—the overwhelming majority are men, partly, said Stern, in part because most African asylum seekers in Israel are male. (It’s estimated that 97 percent of Sudanese asylum seekers and 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers are men.) Abanum is also one of a smattering of asylum seekers from countries other than Sudan or Eritrea: The Schoolhouse counts students from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Libya among its numbers.
Abanum, a Christian who says that she lost her mother to war in Nigeria, came to Israel in 2015 and graduated from The Schoolhouse in June 2016 after studying digital media. “Israel has helped me a lot, a lot, a lot,” Abanum said. The Schoolhouse itself “gave me a way to express myself and also to meet people.” One year after graduating, she said that she has been able to use the computing skills she acquired to design and print invitation cards and edit video clips. But more than that, she has also gained confidence and friends.
“A lot of what the students receive is also self-empowerment, confidence building, character development, and life skills,” Stern explained. “Students have gone on to community involvement and leadership, more advanced education, become teachers, more.” This despite the fact that they face more than the average student difficulties: They work all day at jobs ranging from cooking to cleaning to construction; during Ramadan, many Muslim students fast every day until night falls; there are language barriers, a sense of being “stuck between two countries, between borders, slaves to bureaucracy,” said computer program coordinator Nina Wanerman, who has taught computer skills, including, one year, an all-Eritrean women’s computer class.
Even so, Wanerman said, they are “fantastic students; great guys, with so much heart and soul and dedication.” Some of them study in multiple classes; “they work all day, they do all of their homework; they ask for more homework, they ask for tests and report cards; it’s diligence like I had not seen before, and very inspiring.” Some had been sent to Holot mid-term and had continued studying even in detention. The Schoolhouse, she said, “has created a safe place for education; it’s also created a community and a family—between the staff members, between the students, and between the students and the staff members.”
Nowhere was this sense of community more evident than in the speeches that the graduating students read as darkness fell in the late June evening. Sadiq from Sudan thanked “our glorious and honorable teachers.” Others quoted Mahatma Gandhi (“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”) and Nelson Mandela (“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”). They read short essays on tea-drinking, meeting friends at the beach, eating Eritrean food, hearing the sounds of people speaking many different languages, the crowds of people at a demonstration.
Outside the auditorium, Abanum sat with her husband, Cyril, and four-month-old baby, whom she named Israel for her love of the country. “When I think of what happened to me, every day I pray for Israel because Israel has taken away tears,” Abanum said. “I say a big, big thank you to Israel. They gave me a life again, and a reason to smile.”
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Josie Glausiusz is a science journalist whose writing has appeared in Nature, Scientific American Mind, and National Geographic.Follow her on Twitter @josiegz