Empowering African refugees: Triumph through connected learning

A Tel Aviv development center provides vocational skills and support to young job seekers.

 FILMON TEMESGEN in the computer lab at ARDC’s offices in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: ARIEL SHEINBERG)
FILMON TEMESGEN in the computer lab at ARDC’s offices in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ARIEL SHEINBERG)

When Filmon Temesgen was 17 in 2010, he fled his native Eritrea on foot, leaving behind loved ones and schooling in hopes of a “normal life” elsewhere. He left at 17 due to the country’s policy of mandatory military conscription at age 18.

Now 29 years old and based in Netanya, he is working toward his GED and learning coding languages HTML and CSS at  the Tel Aviv-based NGO African Refugee Development Center (ARDC).

ARDC equips some 500 refugees a year like Temesgen with vocational skills like web design, coding, and language, as well as academic credentials, all through an emerging educational method that combines virtual and in-person elements of scholarship: connected learning.

The advantages of connected learning 

“Connected learning leverages any number of resources that help bolster, amplify, and support online learning,” said Nicholas Sabato, co-leader of the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium (CLCC), a coalition of groups with interest in extending access to education for refugees.

In the wake of the pandemic, “we had to get creative about using technology as a support mechanism,” Sabato said. Connected learning differs from methods of solely virtual learning that were used in schools across the world while COVID was at its height. A connected learning environment combines virtual and interpersonal elements to bring “some of the educational activity to life,” he said.

 SOME OF THE thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are living in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
SOME OF THE thousands of asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, who are living in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

ARDC exemplifies this. Completing both in-person and online classes, students come into the Tel Aviv office two to three times a week, said ARDC CEO Or Mor-Yossef. The office is equipped with a classroom, a conference room, a computer lab with dozens of desktops, and whiteboards everywhere.

Typically, in-person classes are small or split into groups of 10 or fewer people. Virtual class is usually held on Zoom. But Mor-Yossef and the ARDC staff are piloting a new program of independent virtual study that would allow students more schedule flexibility.

Online learning benefits for full-time workers 

This is vital for Temesgen, who works full time alongside his education classes. Working eight-to-12-hour shifts a day as a cook in Netanya, he wakes up early to go to the restaurant, subsequently leaving at 10 a.m. to go to the ARDC office in Tel Aviv. He stays there until 2 p.m., is back at work by 2:30, and works through the evening.

“I don’t go to relax or [have a] good time because I work full time. And then you need to study and then you need to sleep or take a rest. There is no time to go to celebrate or to do something,” Temesgen remarked, adding that it can get stressful, but he knows he can’t give up.

“The organization… is very helpful and supportive,” he added. “They give full time to support us.”

Temesgen shared that an ARDC staff member escorts him to GED exams, a required procedure due to the status of Temesgen’s visa. Documented with a temporary residence permit, also known as a blue paper or a 2(a)(5) visa, Temesgen said the visa is “limiting.”

Difficulties in achieving state-sanctioned recognition as a refugee

There are currently about 25,000 adult asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, according to the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. But it is almost impossible for refugees to achieve state-sanctioned recognition, with the government recognizing less than 1% of asylum seekers as refugees.

Since almost all refugees in Israel seek asylum but never receive it, they occupy a space in limbo between permanent residents and visitors. This plays a palpable role when Israel-based refugees attempt to attend school or get a job.

“Someone with this kind of temporary visa pays taxes… but they don’t have access to social services, to unemployment benefits. They can’t get a driver’s license,” said Mor-Yossef. “Even when they want to study in university, sometimes they need to pay more. They need to pay the same cost as a foreign student, which is one and a half times higher than an Israeli student.”

Any arrival at the Israeli border who announces intention to apply for refugee status will be automatically deported, according to the immigration law firm Decker, Pex, Levi, and Rosenberg. Refugees legally enter the country as tourists.

There is no mechanism in place for refugees to seek asylum in advance to arriving at the border, making the journey to Israel a gamble for an already vulnerable and stateless population.

Seeking asylum in Israel 

Over Temesgen’s two-year solo journey leaving Eritrea and winding up in Israel, he stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, attempted to settle in Sudan, and crossed the Sinai Desert through Egypt.

“Everyone can take your money, take everything you have,” Temesgen said of his time in Sudan, where dictatorship obstructed his attempts to settle. There is no protection, he added, especially for refugees, who typically lack documentation and have no state to turn back to.

An influx of African asylum seekers arrived at Israel’s border with Egypt starting in the second half of the 2000s. A group of them founded the organization as a humanitarian response to the needs of the community, “providing very basic needs from shelter, to food, to psychosocial support,” said Mor-Yossef.

How ARDC is meeting the changing needs of the African refugee community 

But as the African refugee community took root and developed in Israel over the last decade, the needs of the community changed.

“Our mandate as an organization has changed to focus on promoting educational opportunities and employment opportunities with the aim of promoting social and economic inclusion, and, and economic mobility, and just helping people fulfill their themselves,” said Mor-Yossef.

The organization offers a variety of courses, ranging from web design, to code and data analysis, to English and Hebrew, aiding students in reaching the requirements for hire in Israel. ARDC also provides students with career counseling to help them forge a path.

ARDC also helps connect students to university scholarship opportunities. The courses offered at ARDC do cost money, although they are highly subsidized.