US-funded English program 'opens doors' for Ethiopians

10% of all Israeli high schoolers fail their English matriculation exam.

ethiopian child 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian child 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A small group of 11th graders sat together in the basement of a Lod community center Thursday, poring over photocopied pages of reading comprehension exercises. They were preparing for Monday's matriculation exam in English. "I'm actually doing well in English," said 16-year-old Ya'acov Mharhat. "But why not do better?" "It will open a lot of doors," said Mharhat, a biology major who wants to enroll in a pre-medical program. "If you don't have English, you're worth nothing." Like his fellow students, Mharhat's family emigrated from Ethiopia. Although some of them have grown up in Israel, others emigrated as recently as five years ago - therefore falling into the Education Ministry's narrowly defined category of "new immigrants." According to ministry statistics released last week, the proportion of new immigrants who were eligible to matriculate - that is, who passed every matriculation exam they took - fell from 53.2 percent to 44.5% between 2002 and 2005. The percentage of matriculating students for the Jewish population as a whole fell from 61.3% to 57.7% during that period. Together with Civics and Bible, English was one of the subjects students failed most frequently. The Lod center where the classes take place is run by Journey to Zion, a non-profit organization that supports high school students from the Ethiopian community. The English classes, however, are the brainchild of Miami-based lawyer Yigal Kahana. His long-standing relationship with leaders of the Ethiopian community, he told The Jerusalem Post, had made him realize that the formal education system was not doing enough for the community's adolescent members. Last year, he and a number of Ethiopian law students established two privately-funded English courses for high school students - in Lod and in Kiryat Malachi - that are taught twice a week by volunteers. Kahana himself teaches there during his frequent visits to Israel. He has already received requests from eight other schools and absorption centers that are interested in implementing the program. "English is necessary to be part of global society and get decent jobs," he said Thursday at the Keshet center in Lod. "But it's just part of this program." American and Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, Kahana said, face a similar problem. "It's important to counter the message that you have to run as far as possible from your roots to succeed in the world around you," he said. "So we use English as a means of introducing them to ideas - we read articles about their community, about human rights, about Ethiopian-Jewish identity." Waggow Yamlock, a 25-year-old law student from Kiryat Malachi, volunteers as an English teacher in his hometown. "It's something I do out of love," he said. "Their future is important to me. I wanted them to have what I didn't have, and help them see that there is another world out there that they can be part of." Yamlock said he often encountered Ethiopian college students who still have problems passing their English exams. As for high school students, he said, many of them weren't aware that if they settled for only three units of English they would have difficulty pursuing a higher education. His own experience as well as the experiences of his students, Yamlock said, had taught him that teachers sometimes discourage students from matriculating at a higher level, preferring that students get higher grades on a lower-level English exam and boost the school's grade average. In some cases, he said, prejudiced expectations on the part of teachers were also to blame. "When I speak English, people's eyes pop out - it's this kind of condescending Israeli attitude, as if we're simply not capable," he said. He also said that, even in economically weak towns like Kiryat Malachi, private English tutoring cost NIS 35-65 for a 45-minute lesson - a fee few parents can afford. "These kids face a lot of challenges," he said. "Some of them are already discouraged by the idea that even after they graduate college they will have difficulty finding jobs for lack of the right connections, or because people won't want to hire them. But I want them to feel like the sky's the limit." Rivka, an 11th grader from Kiryat Malachi, said the classes had given her the kind of encouragement she did not receive in school. "The teacher there just teaches and leaves," she said. "This class made me realize that, to succeed, you need someone to believe in you and give you the feeling that you can do it." "English is a language these kids simply don't experience," said Kedma Zisano, the director of Journey to Zion. "For some of them, Hebrew itself is a second language they have yet to fully master." "Our attitude is, 'Yes, I think you need to do five units of English, even if it's difficult,'" she said. The approach of the center she ran, Zisano said, was "to create in the students a sense of pride, of being successful and getting our support. They know I've been there myself, and seeing us makes them realize it's possible to get ahead. At school, they just don't get enough encouragement. The system doesn't believe in the kids - and that is perhaps the most painful thing." On Sunday, Education Ministry Director-General Shmuel Abuav announced that the ministry would begin implementing several new programs during the next school year to identify and help students who are experiencing difficulties. He also said the ministry would try to analyze the reason for the high failure rate on certain matriculation exams.