A day after the Knesset passed a law to keep open the Holot “open detention facility” for African migrants, more than a dozen of the inmates boarded a bus to the Nitzana educational youth village to attend their weekly teacher training course.
Zohar Friedman, the facilitator of the fresh education initiative, notes that attendance was weaker than usual one day earlier this month, since some of the course’s regular students were attending community meetings regarding the new ruling. The decision enables the state to hold African migrants in Holot for up to 20 months. Although the center was due to be closed on December 22, the decision now prolongs their stay in the facility, where some 2,000 of the more than 50,000 African migrants living in Israel reside.
The teacher training course is implemented by The Schoolhouse, an adult education center for refugees, asylum seekers and migrant populations, based in Tel Aviv. The school’s founder and director, Sara Stern, explains that when Holot opened in December 2013 and she and her colleagues understood the implications of the detention center – located in the middle of the desert, far from any big city and civilization, and the inmates forbidden from working – it was clear to her that they had to take some kind of initiative to bring educational programming to the facility.
She is keen to stress, however, that the teacher training program came largely from the Holot inmates themselves. “They know their needs,” she states. ”Because of the situation... that they have nothing productive to do with their days, there was a group of inmates that took the initiative to teach some of the other inmates English,” Stern says. “They started teaching English to classes of 20 to 25 students; they didn’t necessarily have such a high level of English or any background in teaching, but it stemmed from their strong idealism, motivation, passion and positivism. They said, ‘We want teacher training.’”
Stern accordingly submitted a broad proposal to gain support for the project. Although some people were against backing any kind of organized support for the Holot complex, due to their opposition to its existence, they eventually found partners in the UNHCR and Nitzana.
“As we do, they very much believe in and support the importance of educational and vocational skills,” she says.
Stern passionately asserts her belief in the students and their potential to do something significant in their lives and to make a change, post-Holot.
“It’s hard to believe that these are the people that Israel is putting behind bars,” she laments. “These people are motivated, courageous, positive, creative, respectful and intelligent.
They want to give back to their communities, to make a change in their lives and those around them.”
Yair Amir, the director of the Nitzana educational complex, says that it is important for education to be provided to “anyone who wants to be educated.”
“We have a new neighbor,” he says, referring to the Holot facility, “whether we like it or not, and they need help with education.”
Nitzana currently serves as a boarding school for unaccompanied minors in the country and is geographically the closest education complex to the detention center.
“It was just natural that Nitzana become involved,” says Amir. “We are not equipped to give them food or to give them work. What we can give them is education.”
A regular volunteer in the program, Ruti Untz is particularly surprised when it comes to the concept of an open detention facility.’ “I don’t want to say ‘concentration camp,’” Untz, a retired professor, passionately parallels. “It’s a shame that we created this camp for people who did not commit any crimes,” she says about the prison.
Untz describes the situation that many of the detainees fled in Sudan as a “Holocaust situation.”
“They saw their homes burning, and they saw some of their families being killed by the soldiers of the Muslim government in Sudan,” she says.
“They ran away, some of them on foot, all the way here, and that is what we do in return?” She describes how impressed she is that many of the students who attend the teacher training course began not long ago learning the basics, “and now these guys are able to teach English to their friends.”
ADDING TO this, Friedman, who became involved in the initiative while teaching at The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv, notes that she is struck by the students’ dedication. Every week, the bus she takes on the last leg of her trip from Tel Aviv to Nitzana collects her students from Holot.
“Even when they get on the bus, they are already speaking English to one another,” she notes.
Friedman says she witnesses this same type of commitment at The Schoolhouse, where the English language, however broken it may be, flows among the students during breaks while they are making tea and coffee.
Hassan Shakur of Sudan, one of the leaders of the teacher training course in Holot, is the personification of the qualities attributed to the students by Stern and Friedman. Friedman recalls the first class she gave in Nitzana, in which Shakur made a speech to his classmates about the importance of these lessons, not just for the students as individuals but for the broader community.
Shakur says these classes are essential not only for educational progression but also as a way to survive Holot. He says that having so much spare time can be psychologically harmful, but that at this stage not everyone can be persuaded to attend the internal classes in Holot due to low spirits, coupled with the fact that the African teachers aren’t qualified. “There are people who want to study, but their mood doesn’t help them to come... their mood depends on the Holot situation – being in a prison without having committed a crime. People question why they are here and how long they still stay,” he says.
“This doesn’t help them to think about their future, but I hope we can convince them after good teacher training,” he says hopefully, noting that every week the students take the lessons they have learned with Friedman in Nitzana back to Holot, where they put them into practice.
“I’m pretty sure that after the classes we will be much better and we will gain a lot of knowledge. Then more people will come to the classes, and we will have educated people. This will enable us to have better lives,” he says.
“Education is the only great weapon we have to fight for our freedom,” says Shakur, citing Nelson Mandela.
He acknowledges that while the inmates came from cultures where their lifestyle didn’t depend on education, they must now adapt to modern life. The Eritrean and Sudanese migrants residing in Israel often express their wish to return someday to the countries they fled.
“I want to educate myself properly, go back to my people and serve my community and country,” says Shakur.
Taher Yagobu Aharun of Darfur echoes this sentiment, saying that he looks forward to returning home one day.
“But now we are in war; my parents and friends have been in refugee camps for about 15 years. So right now I can’t go back,” he explains.
He says that the teacher training course has given him self-confidence and specific skills to teach other members of the community. He dreams of going to college and becoming a human rights lawyer.
Another student, Kamal Ibrahim, says that one of the most important qualities he developed from attending the teacher training course in Nitzana was self-confidence.
“What’s my biggest dream?” Ibrahim asks himself. “To study and go to college someday. That’s my biggest dream.”
The third week into the course, Friedman says that about half of her students were already teaching English to other Holot inmates. By the end of the six-week course, she hopes this percentage will double. While the ultimate dream of both students and program facilitators is to see the doors of the Holot detention center close forever, as long as they remain open they will strive to do their part by providing educational programming for the inmates.