For the tens of thousands of refugees who have arrived in Israel from sub-Saharan Africa, not being sold into slavery or killed along the way was their priority.
But now that this community has arrived in a safer nation, Israel’s refugees aren’t ready to give up on their dreams of attaining higher education, even if it’s decades since they’ve been in a traditional learning environment.
While children of asylum seekers have the right to education just like any other child in Israel, there was a void when it came to opportunities for adult education for refugees until the founding of the Schoolhouse, an adult education center geared toward asylum seekers.
Sara Stern became interested in the refugee community in 2006, when she was living in Jerusalem and the asylum seekers began crossing the border.
“I became very curious,” she says. “[I wondered] who these people were and why they were knocking on our door and trying to come in. It really touched me.”
In 2006, there weren’t any asylum seekers living in Jerusalem, so she would travel to Tel Aviv to interact with the newly arrived community.
When the first group of asylum seekers (Sudanese, who worked in a hotel) moved to Jerusalem, Stern began volunteering to teach them Hebrew, though she’d never taught before. From their weekly Hebrew lessons, Stern says that “all these other issues started rising.”
“Every week they would tell us their problems with schools or needing to look for work or being taken advantage of by their employer... looking for furniture, legal issues, visa issues, communication with employers and landlords, so we just started forming this general volunteer network of support for the asylum seekers living in Jerusalem,” she says.
“Truthfully,” she says “they were difficulties that any new immigrant in a new country would have, but when you don’t have a network of support that most [Israeli] immigrants do have, you have no one to help you – and throughout all of these conversations, I just kept on hearing how important education was to them.”
So in 2012, she founded the Schoolhouse, which began with five students and one teacher.
Now, there are more than 100 students and nine teachers in the program. Minshar School of Art, located in south Tel Aviv, where many of the students live, provides the Schoolhouse with classrooms for a significantly reduced fee. The students range in age from 18 to 50, with the majority of them between 20 and 30. Most are men, but female students make up about 10% of the class and their numbers are rising, especially now that Stern has begun to organize a childcare program. The main subjects taught are English and computers, what Stern calls “transferable skills,” so that whether or not the students stay in Israel, they’ll be able to use what they learned at the Schoolhouse wherever they go. But they’ve also taught math and French, and have held academic guidance workshops.
“Many of them speak about wanting to strengthen themselves while they’re outside of their countries so they can go back and have something to contribute and make a change,” Stern says.
The majority of the students are from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered illegally.
Although Israel issues them protection and cannot deport them, they have to renew their papers every three months. Ever since the Holot detention facility, west of Beersheba, was established in December 2013, asylum seekers who show up to renew their visa may randomly receive a summons to Holot, which means they must report to the facility.
This means that at any point they can be “dragged out of their lives, wherever they’re living in the country,” Stern says. For refugees detained there, the Schoolhouse also runs a program outside Holot for 20 to 25 students at a time.
In the beginning, detention at Holot was indefinite, but now it’s been limited to 12 months, upon which the detainees are released (though they can’t return to live in Tel Aviv or in Eilat). Now, Stern says, “they’re providing classes, and a little bit of activity. At the beginning, there was nothing there. It was a clump of caravans in the middle of the desert.”
Stern is seeking funders for a scholarship program for students who come to the Schoolhouse that can’t pay, as well as students who want to pursue higher education, for whom the payment is a challenge. Even though the scholarship program isn’t yet set up, they never turn a prospective student away.
“If a student comes to us and can’t pay, we don’t let money come between the student and education,” she says. “We just say to him, ‘How much can you pay?’ or ‘when you can pay, start paying,’ but we don’t turn anyone away.”
Teachers at the Schoolhouse get paid and they aren’t just random English speakers that Stern finds on the street. “We have a collaboration with the Teaching English for Speakers of other Languages program at Tel Aviv University, and right now the majority of our English teaching staff are graduates of that program,” she says.
“The staff is diverse in origin and professional backgrounds, a mixture of paid staff and volunteers,” Stern says. “Many joined the Schoolhouse several years ago and continue to be involved in different capacities to advance the organization and the students.
What we have in common is the strong commitment to promoting equal opportunity and individual empowerment, and the belief in every person’s ability to make a change.”
In the future, Stern hopes to expand the Schoolhouse to more cities and advance their scholarship program.
“Possibly,” she says, “even to connect more with Israeli society... because there are other marginalized populations within Israeli society.
[The Schoolhouse] is kind of a pilot, but it can be implemented within Israeli society in general.”
She also hopes to better integrate the Eritrean and Sudanese population into Israeli society – “not to have it so segregated,” she says.
“My vision is to reach a place of more equal opportunity. That’s where it connects with Passover and the issue of liberation.”
“I used to live in south Tel Aviv,” she says “and seeing them all working in these jobs, the restaurants and the cafes and the hotels; the hope is that this education can in a way provide some kind of liberation and give them more of a choice of where they want to work, where they can work, making a change in their lives... to be more of a liberated and free person in their life and be able to make the choices that they want to make and feel more of an equality in society.”
Even though the Schoolhouse keeps focused on “transferable skills,” Stern is optimistic about the future of the community even if they decide to stay in Israel. “I see, compared to 2006, many more Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers are speaking Hebrew. They’re becoming more integrated.”
The Schoolhouse boasts some wondrous success stories as well as some tragic ones. Stern spoke of one student from Sudan, who, upon coming to Israel didn’t speak a word of English and now received a full scholarship at the IDC in Herzliya, as well as of another student who was killed after he moved back to Sudan.
But Stern is just as happy seeing character building in students as she is seeing them getting accepted to college.
“I see a lot of development of character [at the Schoolhouse]... and learning of values – confidence about who they want to be as a person,” she says.
“You can get stuck on the fact that these are refugees learning English and computers, but I think it’s much larger than that. It’s a struggle for liberty and social justice and equal opportunity.”To support Schoolhouse students and donate to the scholarship program or for more information see the website: www.schoolhouse.org.il.