Positive discrimination

Petach Tikva is giving marked attention to the education of Ethiopian students.

ethiopian students 88.29 (photo credit: )
ethiopian students 88.29
(photo credit: )
magine how you would feel if you were a farmer in 19th - America who had stepped into a time machine with his family and landed in the middle of Silicon Valley in present-day California. For Ethiopians from rural communities who once lived in mud houses, immigrating to the breakneck, hi-tech world of Israel might seem as frightening as time travel. Ethiopian Israelis have a hard time adjusting to the fabric of Israeli life simply because life in Israel is so vastly different from that in Ethiopia. These differences trickle down to their children, who likewise fall behind in terms of academic achievement and earning power. Unlike other new olim, "Ethiopians came from a culture that does not encourage learning," says Petah Tikva deputy mayor Jacob Ben-Simhon, a former school principal and partner in a new program called Empowerment for Ethiopian Youth. The Petah Tikva municipality noticed that out of 700 Ethiopian families in the city, only nine youths over a three-year grade span were in high school. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data collated in 2003, only 17.7% of Ethiopian students matriculated from high school at a level that qualified them for university studies, compared to 48% of the general population. According to Tel Aviv University statistics, 50% of native-born Israelis graduate high school nationwide, but only 19% of students from Ethiopian backgrounds graduate. With a lifelong career in education behind him, Ben-Simhon was not surprised to see Ethiopians falling through the cracks in the system. "If you are not raised in a Western society, then you cannot compete with others. Competition is one of the symbols of our society. And they [the Ethiopians] do not have it," he told Metro. Ben-Simhon has taken it upon himself to help Ethiopian children stay on the right track to university. Last year, he sequestered high-school aged Ethiopian youths with the mission to bring each one through the academic track to high school graduation. He takes pride in the fact that the five Petah Tikva high schools he works with are among the nation's top 10. In order for Ethiopian youths to be able to take advantage of the technological bonanza in Israel, he says that the community "must change the diskette in their heads." The comment was made in reference to his city being one of the most fertile breeding grounds for technological businesses in the country. "Intel, IBM, and Teva are all in Petah Tikva," he points out. He notes that the government does not provide sufficient funding, but he avoids placing blame on the system. "Blame doesn't help. If you do not do anything, you are like the blamers." Moroccan-born Ben-Simhon, who came to Israel in 1948, wants to help empower Ethiopians. His recent plan of adopting high schoolers was in sync with an established program that Tel Aviv University (TAU) was looking to expand. The history of the university and its social involvement can be traced back many years. Today, about 50 social projects are underway through the dean's office. About five years ago, a plan to reach Ethiopians was initiated by an Ethiopian doctoral student, Yardena Fanta, 32, who arrived in Israel 20 years ago on Operation Moses. Fanta was curious as to why the Ethiopian community has yet to develop itself in the higher social and economic strata of the country. She reasoned that Ethiopians needed more encouragement in the academic field and that hi-tech was a good entry point. She took her notes to the Unit for Social Involvement at the Ruth and Allen Ziegler Student Services Division, and a new program was born. Called Thinking Science, the mentor program took TAU graduate students and placed them in the heart of Ethiopian communities most in need, such as in Ashdod, Lod, Ramle and Rosh Ha'ayin. Working with the municipalities of these cities, and in Amharic with the parents, Fanta was able to transmit the benefits of learning science. Hundreds of young Ethiopians have passed through the academic heart of the university over the past four years. One zoology student took the youngsters collecting seashells to teach them about marine biology; a medical student operated on a heart to teach anatomy. All the while, the pupils participated in intimate tutoring sessions, met at the TAU campus and experienced special ceremonies that marked their accomplishments. The Thinking Science project has proven to be such a good learning supplement that the unit recently took the plan a step further and opened an extra-curricular learning project with a broader theme: Empowerment for Ethiopian Youth. In this new covering, Ethiopian students, the school hopes, will be given extra tutoring and exposure in areas where their studies fall behind: Hebrew, English and mathematics. Once Intel-Petah Tikva, the Petah Tikva municipality and the local branch of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption heard about the new TAU idea, a partnership was formed. For the past six weeks, the project has offered boutique tutelage and called on the expert skills and know-how of Intel engineers, while TAU students help fine tune the gaps in education that Ethiopian youths lack. The pilot project is giving some 30 Petah Tikva students the opportunity to be mentored by some of the country's finest minds - and the team of academia, business and government is learning that together, education is the responsibility of an entire community. Petah Tikva, as a city, has a strong interest in promoting hi-tech among its citizens and would like to see some of its 3,500 Ethiopian residents (out of 200,000) enter this ever-growing market. For Intel-Petah Tikva, working with Ethiopians was a natural choice. The development center had already been working with the municipality for about six years in various education enrichment programs and was eager to take on another commitment. "We aren't the type of company that just signs the check," says Naama Giladi, the head of Intel's community services, who warned potential Intel volunteers that taking on a tutor position for Ethiopian youths would not be easy. Erez Rubin, 31, a software engineer at Intel - one of four engineers to volunteer with the children - knew this would mean having to drive to the school at least once a week in the middle of hectic work deadlines. So far, he has had five meetings with three "very curious" Ethiopian girls who ask him questions ranging from personal to professional. He has noted a marked increase in the sophistication of the questions, even after a short time. Rubin helps the girls mainly with math, Hebrew and English homework. "Volunteering is demanding because my deadlines at Intel haven't changed. I treat it as a personal activity, not as an Intel task. The girls are clearly looking for guidance," he says. He chose to work with Ethiopians mainly because of their special needs. "They can get knowledge in class and have the same opportunities as other Israeli kids, but for some reason they lag behind. The reasons might be self-esteem or a lack of ambition perhaps, and also because even though they were born here, they are a bit foreign," Rubin surmises. He reiterates that he is not just teaching. "I'm trying to show these girls that they have the same opportunities as anyone else to be college students." Intel's Giladi is paid a full-time salary to manage such volunteer projects and oversees about 350 employees - roughly one-third of the division's workforce - who volunteer. "We are not just one-timers. It's important for Intel to be part of something that is meaningful," she says. TAU's social unit is clearly veered in the same direction. Sunny offices are abuzz with young women answering phones and organizing the university's volunteers' schedules. At the Empowerment for Ethiopian Youth headquarters, inside the leafy campus, works a staff of present and former TAU students fueled with the kind of energy and freshness reminiscent of their first week back at school. At 8 a.m., the offices are already in motion and key staff members who run the Ethiopian projects (there are about 20 activities taking place at any given time) are already on their toes. The setting is perfect for transmitting the empowerment message that the staff weaves throughout their Ethiopian projects. Gilly Katz, manager of Enrichment and Connections to the Business Community, says that the process is aimed to make Ethiopian youth aware that the sky's the limit. "They can dream and reach higher. Our message is not coming from a lofty academic place," she says. "Through our programs, we make mature kids aged 14 and 15 aware of group power and its difficulties. We show them that other concepts exist and that there are good and bad sides to conformity. Sometimes we show the kids films and aim discussions toward personal identification." Hana Dorsman, director of the Unit for Social Involvement, who oversees all the unit's 50 projects, mentions the long list of donors who give monetary support to the university. The list includes private foundations, government bodies and businesses. Dorsman can point to several people within her building who are dedicated to making university a smooth process for Ethiopians. Yet, she explains, the first issue (that Ben-Simhon is addressing) is getting the students into the position of considering higher education. "If you look at the statistics of Ethiopians in university, it would look like universities do not encourage them; but the opposite is true," she says. "The high schools don't encourage them enough." Dov Ohayon, district office director for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, helps Ethiopians settle in the Petah Tikva area. He says that the Ethiopian community has special needs and stresses that the situation has improved over the past two decades, but he points to the hurdles they face. "They have to learn a new language, convert (most Ethiopians coming to Israel have to pass the guidelines set by the rabbinate), learn a new profession and get a house. To do all of this is very hard in two or three years," says Ohayon. "I think the Ethiopians have understood that education is the way to join mainstream society. Many of them are ready to make efforts to go to university and earn degrees, and they know this is the best way to be absorbed. They are not rich, they don't have rich parents, and they are not part of the elite." To defray some of the disadvantages the community faces, the ministry dedicates extra funding to Ethiopians, notes Ohayon. Until the efforts of empowering the Ethiopian community are realized, the women at TAU continue to work ardently to secure funding to advance more programs. In the hopes of building a new educational paradigm, Racheli Warshavsky, director of enrichment, Bridge to the University, notices a trend. "The government, which once set the tone in education, is letting go and allowing private groups in. This is a very positive process. It is good for the community and good for the people who work in business." In the meantime, Deputy Mayor Ben-Simhon is making sure the alarm clock is set and that the Ethiopian youngsters under his care in Petah Tikva will make it to university. "If a child doesn't make it to school one morning, we will call and wake him or her up. My goal at this point is to discriminate positively toward the Ethiopian community and ensure that all the Ethiopians schoolchildren will go on to higher education - even if I have to push them."