african refugees learn 248.88.
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Its early evening in downtown Jerusalem and several well-dressed young men and one woman take the elevator up to the fifth floor of the municipality-owned Adult Education Center located just behind the Gerard Behar Theater.
With cheery chatter, they eagerly enter the light-filled classroom and take up their seats in an orderly fashion. Maya, the ulpan teacher, greets them with a smile and once everyone is sitting comfortably, she begins her Hebrew lesson.
"Let's start with the word k-e-s-e-f," she says in a clear voice, pointing to the letters pinned up on the white board behind her. "It begins with a kof and ends with a feh."
As the three young female volunteers move around the classroom helping the students to find the letters and print them in their notebooks, Maya adds jokingly: "It means money, does anybody here have any?"
Laughter breaks out among the students and then a chorus of noes ensues. Maya smiles knowingly as she turns to explain to students in the front row how to read and write the essential Hebrew word.
While the lesson could most certainly be part of any standard language course for new immigrants or even one of the city-sponsored Hebrew classes for Arab citizens, this ulpan is, in fact, aimed at the capital's growing number of unofficial residents: asylum seekers or refugees from Africa.
Volunteers working with the community estimate that Jerusalem is now home to roughly 300 people mainly from Sudan and Eritrea - mostly individuals but some families - who claim they are unable to return for political reasons. Most of them live in cheap rented apartments in the poorest neighborhoods, finding menial jobs in hotels, yeshivot and independent households to support themselves.
Maya's class, which meets twice a week, is the lowest grade of three Hebrew classes, an English course and a basic introduction to computer technology, all run voluntarily by two Jerusalem women - Tali Ehrenthal and Sara Stern.
"The aim is for them to learn how to manage their lives day-to-day," begins Ehrenthal, 27, a social worker who works for the Jerusalem Municipality by day and by night dedicates her time to improving the situation for these displaced people. "Their lives are not easy, especially with the economic situation deteriorating and many of them losing their jobs.
"Israel's policy on refugees is that there is no policy. It's a real catch-22 but the bottom line is that they are here and they have to support themselves somehow."
Indeed, since 1951 Israel has only recognized 170 refugees in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention, although more than 17,000 people from Africa who claim they cannot return home have been living here since April 2007.
"The law says that anyone who comes here and asks for shelter must have their status checked," points out Ehrenthal. "But so far the government has not done that, leaving many people with an ambiguous status."
"Now they want to become part of society and better understand the world around them," adds Stern, 33, who recently completed her studies in special education.
Both women say that the impetus to creating what is the capital's first ulpan for African refugees came from within the community itself. Even though its members have no idea how long they will be allowed to remain here, they want to put as much effort as possible into their new lives in the holy city.
"These people work very, very hard every day in very physical jobs, some are mothers, some work double shifts, but they all come here in the evenings full of enthusiasm and totally motivated," says Stern, adding that "many of them did not know how to speak a word of Hebrew before, but they leave here after two months knowing enough to get by."
STERN'S AND Ehrenthal's work with refugees started roughly three years ago when the influx of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals infiltrating across the border with Egypt was at its peak.
Ehrenthal says she was inspired by personal stories related during a special event to mark the International Day for Refugees, and Stern cites a newspaper article about the crisis as her impetus. Both women contacted local nonprofits and individuals working with the refugees and offered to help out.
"I know that I'm a very lucky person, I have no idea what it is like to live in constant fear," says Stern philosophically. "I have a family and warm place to go in the evenings. I am in a strong place and am in a position to really help these people."
For Ehrenthal, the urge to do what she can to improve their lives comes from a more personal angle. As the descendent of Holocaust survivors, she says: "This country was founded not so long ago by refugees, who arrived here coming from a similar place. It's obvious to me that we should do whatever we can to help them."
Initially, the situation faced by the asylum seekers was hazardous and uncertain, explains Ehrenthal. "There was mass of refugees arriving across the border and the government did not know what to do with them," she says.
The army did not know how to deal with them either and many ended up being brought to nearby Beersheba, where they were simply left in one of the town's main squares. In the summer of 2007, the Beersheba Municipality together with human rights groups brought the refugees to Jerusalem for a protest and after that some of them just decided to stay here, says Ehrenthal.
"The government's policy goes in waves - at first they were arrested, then released, then arrested again," she continues, adding that her first real contact with the community was on Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, just outside the capital, where they were placed under house arrest. "They were not allowed to leave the kibbutz and we went there to see how we could help and bring them what they needed."
As the country started to ease its treatment of the Africans, the community's needs changed too, from basic necessities such as food and clothing to finding the practical tools needed to build a new life.
Just under two years ago, the two volunteers received a request from the refugees to set up an adult education center that would give them the tools to help improve their quest for work and fit in better in their new country.
"At first I thought that English would be the most suitable language for them to learn, because none of us know how long they will be able to stay here and where they will go after here," says Stern. "But they all wanted to learn Hebrew and asked us to find them a serious ulpan teacher. They were willing to pay for it too... they know that you get what you pay for."
The two women first turned to the capital's existing network of ulpanim - some private and others funded by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry - but were met with a variety of excuses such as lack of space, too high prices, or told the frameworks were for Jewish immigrants only.
"Then we asked the Jerusalem Municipality, which offered us this space for a very low fee," says Ehrenthal, gesturing to the large classroom around her.
Currently, the program caters to some 60 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, with the twice weekly classes costing roughly NIS 290 for a two-month course. In nearby Kiryat Menahem, the charity Machshavatova has been outsourced to run a basic computer course, and once a week there is also an English class.
FOR FORMER Darfurian Daniel, the continuing education courses are a lifeline to helping him stay here as the trouble in his own country continues.
"If we want to stay here, then learning Hebrew is very important," he says in a mixture of broken Hebrew and English. "There are a lot of problems in my country; I do hope to go back there one day because all my family is there, but who knows when it will get better there?"
The 30-year-old, who claims that if he returns to Darfur he will be killed, has been in Jerusalem for just over a year. He came here after hearing that there was work and is currently employed in the housekeeping department of one of the big hotels.
"I was in Egypt for a year but had to leave because it was not safe for me there," he says. "I heard there that Israel was a good place to go, that they would be able to help me... so that is why I came here."
Daniel refuses to go into any more details about what he has been through or what caused him to run away from Darfur and, like many of the others taking this Hebrew course, it is difficult to read from the outside if they are really refugees or simply migrant workers looking for a better life. This dilemma is one of the reasons for the reluctance to completely provide them with the help they might need.
"We know that some people are suspicious of their intentions," observes Stern. "Even among some of my closest friends there are those who ask me why I am bothering to help these people when there are so many people in Israel that need help... I just tell them that this is the situation, these people are here already and they need help.
"Of course we have no idea who came here because they were scared and running away or who came here because they were just looking for a better life. I don't believe that it is up to us to decide what is right and what is wrong in this situation."
"It is not our role to do decide who is a refugee, that is the role of the authorities," joins in Ehrenthal. "The government should be checking everyone's status to see if they are refugees or migrant workers."
"It's like a person in the street begging you for money," finishes Stern. "Its impossible to know if the person that person really needs the money or if when you do give it to them, they will spend the money you give them wisely. You just know that you have the means to help them and so you do."