Special Education (Extract)

The Rogosin-Bialik School provides children of illegal migrant workers with an education - and more

23maria (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Tipping back and forward in his seat, dressed in baggy, low-slung jeans revealing his fake Dolce&Gabbana boxers and a logo knock-off T-shirt, Robert, 16, looks like most any Israeli teenager. The earphones from his MP-3 dangle from his pocket, but Robert is paying careful attention as the teacher draws sinus and co-sinus formulas on the board. Bright and quick, the class wise guy, he answers questions correctly while joking with the teacher. But then, a moment later, Robert's attention drifts, and he is quiet, busy with his own thoughts. Teacher Gilah Ben-Arzi doesn't disturb him and the other kids respect his space. Like them, Robert has more important things on his mind than trigonometry. Born in Moldova, Robert came to Israel eight years ago. He and his mother, a domestic, are here illegally. At any minute, if found by the immigration police, both of them could be deported back to Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. Robert is in 10th grade at the Rogosin-Bialik School in Tel Aviv, arguably the school with the most troubled student population in Israel: Of the 725 pupils, from first to 12th grade, 33 percent are children of foreign workers, most of them illegal; 20 percent are new immigrants, mostly from the FSU; 7 percent are Israeli Arabs and 40 percent are veteran Israeli Jews, almost all of them poor. Fully 60 percent of the children come from single-parent households. Together, they come from 20 countries, including the Philippines, Columbia, Nigeria, Ghana, Moldova, Mauritius, Romania and Turkmenistan, and four continents and speak 27 different languages. And unwittingly, they represent the continued problems of illegal migrant workers and the sordid underside of Israeli society - together with the sincere attempts by the school principal and staff, as well as the government and the city, aided by volunteers and even by the Israeli army, to provide these children with an education and a place to grow up safely. Built in 1968, the Rogosin-Bialik school is a cold, gray concrete structure with sparse windows, surrounded by a fence with a stern-faced guard who checks anyone who tries to walk in. The neighborhood has always been seedy, but over the years, this area in southern Tel Aviv, near the central bus station, has been taken over by drug dealers, runaways, sex slaves and prostitutes, and tens of thousands of illegal migrant workers, for whom even the paltry wages they make dishwashing, housecleaning, removing garbage and the other menial jobs that Israelis don't want to do are almost unimaginably higher than they could even dream of back home. According to Kav L'Oved, a non-profit advocacy group for workers' rights, there are more than 100,000 illegal workers living in this area. Many have been here for years, married, and given birth to children; others have brought their children with them. Some of these children, like Robert, have spent most of their lives here. Like most Israelis of their age, the students at Rogosin-Bialik rapid-type text-messages into their cellphones almost incessantly. But unlike most local teachers, these don't reprimand or threaten to confiscate the phone. These kids could be trying to make sure their parents haven't been arrested, while they were studying Jewish history or taking a test in world literature. The 1949 U.N. "Declaration of the Rights of the Child," which Israel signed and then ratified in 1991, mandates that all children have the right to education, regardless of their parents' legal status. As the numbers of immigrant workers and their children in Israel grew, and as public pressure to abide by the Declaration mounted, in 1999, the Tel Aviv municipality established, "Mesilah," a non-profit organization charged with locating these children and bringing them into schools. Most are brought to the Rogosin-Bialik school. Speaking anonymously, officials acknowledge that Rogosin-Bialik was chosen not only because of its location, close to the children's homes, but also because even the veteran Israeli parents, belonging to the lowest socioeconomic strata, were not expected to object to the children whose parents are illegal foreigners - and they didn't. As for the teachers, led by Keren Tal, 43, who has been principal for three years, the 80 full- and part-time educators view the school as a professional challenge. Even during the two-month long militant teachers' strike, which ended in late December, the staff at Rogosin-Bialik struck for only one week. "These kids are so special - you want to give them the world," says teacher Ben-Arzi, who is in charge of the students whose parents are illegal migrant workers. Israel established its Immigration Police just over five years ago. Human rights workers accuse the police of violent and overly aggressive methods, including midnight raids and forcibly tearing children from their parents' arms. They also criticized the police for not going after the "real criminals" - the agencies that bring them here and keep them, illegally, under appalling conditions. More recently, police and Interior Ministry officials have promised to develop a more humane policy, refocusing the Immigration Police's priorities away from punitive tactics towards more helpful and positive responses, including even the establishment of a database of translators to help navigate Israel's bureaucracy. But Israel's policies towards migrant workers remains ambivalent and inconsistent. Government and human rights workers agree that Israel has yet to come to terms with the reality of global migration and Israel's position as a destination country for migrant workers. And thus, many of these children continue to live in uncertainty and fear. "You go to school and are afraid that the cops will have taken your mother when you come back," says Evelyn, a 13-year-old girl from Columbia, who has been living here illegally with her mother and sister since she was 8 years old. She speaks both Hebrew and English well, her accent a mixture of Hispanic and American. Ben-Arzi nods understandingly. "The uncertainty is very hard for the children and that's why their academic achievements are sometimes very poor," she says, then adds that she chose to be in charge of these students because she "wanted to show them that there are at least a few good people in Israel." According to an agreement with police officials, the immigration police do not enter the school and do not approach the students while they are walking to and from school. But the agreement does not apply to the parents - or to the children all the other times. A recent government decision allows children of foreign workers to receive an Israeli ID card and resident permit if they were born in Israel or have lived here for six years, as long as their parents entered Israel legally. That doesn't help many of the students, either. Principal Tal notes that, thanks to the government decision, a recent graduate of the school has enlisted in the Air Force. "Before this change, she would have had to leave Israel," says Tal. "But at the same time, I have a few hundred children who are in Israel illegally and whose lives are very difficult emotionally." Lydia, 13, was born in Israel to parents who came here illegally from Ghana. Sitting at a lunchroom table, together with Robert and Evelyn, her friends, and accompanied by Ben-Arzi, she hugs her schoolbag tightly, as if afraid that someone would take it away from her. Dressed simply, her hair is carefully braided and her voice is frail. This is the only country she has ever known, but the immigration police recently informed her mother that the family must leave Israel within a month. Asked what they want to be when they grow up, Robert and Evelyn both answer that they want to be lawyers. Lydia says her biggest wish is to get an Israeli ID. Yet immigration status is only one of the issues the school has to deal with. Poverty and hunger are just as pressing. While Israel does have a hot school lunch law on the books, its implementation has been postponed. For more than a year, the Rogosin-Bialik School has been providing daily hot lunches for all of its students. Funded largely by Sacta-Rashi, a French family foundation, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, this is, for some of the children, the only full daily meal they eat. The children pay 1 shekel (just over $0.25) for the meal; to cut costs, the teachers give up one of their breaks, serve the meals, eat with the students and tidy up afterwards. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.