Private donors fund new absorption initiative

Project already helping 500 French teenagers adjust to life in Israel; head of AMI-Israel "system that exists is simply not enough."

French immigrants 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
French immigrants 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Disappointed with government programs to integrate French immigrant children into Israeli society and the education system in particular, private Jewish donors from France have initiated a new scheme aimed at improving the overall absorption process, The Jerusalem Post learned Wednesday.
“The system that exists is simply not enough,” commented Avi Zana, head of AMI-Israel, an independently funded aliya organization that provides financial support and services to thousands of French immigrants.
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“There is a perception among the Israeli authorities that French immigrants are wealthy and don’t need as much support as other immigrant groups but they do and it is crucial to reach the children during their first year here,” added Alain Zeitoun, a spokesman for the Israel- French Forum (Collectif Franco- Israelien), a voluntary body established last May to help the French Israeli community reach its full potential and recognition in Israel.
According to Zana and Zeitoun, a study conducted last year by the JDC Myers- Brookdale Institute highlighted the challenges facing immigrant youth between the ages of 12 and 17 and prompted the Israeli-French Forum together with AMI, the FSJU Foundation and several other private funds to create Merkaz Lemida, an after-school education program to improve grades and absorption.
The program – which was launched over the past four months in Netanya, Hadera, Ashdod and Jerusalem – already reaches some 500 French-born children who have all been in Israel for less than a year. It focuses on strengthening language skills as well as improving communication and grades in school.
In some of the cities, it is run in conjunction with the local municipalities and in others independently, with classes being taught by French-speaking Israeli teachers.
“We want the children to do well in school and to graduate with good grades because this is a key step of successful integration in a country,” explained Zana, adding, “It’s important to feel you are at the top of the class, not the bottom.”
Merkaz Lemida teachers also act as mediators between the schools and the parents, assisting those with poor Hebrew skills to navigate the new academic system and communicate with their children’s teachers.
In addition to their studies, Merkaz Lemida also tries to ease French students into Israeli society and connect fully with their new surroundings.
“It’s much harder for children to make aliya today than in the past,” commented Zana.
“As we have seen from recent surveys, new immigrant children remain very close to their countries of origin because of Internet and television stations in their own languages. In the past, children would come and be absorbed much quicker but when you maintain a strong link to the old country, it’s much harder.
Figures published last month by the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry show that there has been a slight increase in the number of new immigrants arriving here from France, with 2040 in 2010 compared to 1894 the previous year. Zana estimates that more than half of these immigrants are children.
“The fact that 500 children are already participating in this program shows that we are answering to a real need,” he said, adding that roughly NIS 1 million had been invested in the program so far.
“Fortunately not all French students have problems and most of the olim are well absorbed in the system,” observed Zana. “But about 20 or 30 percent of the families cannot help their children with extra private lessons or the parents do not speak Hebrew well.”
“These children are falling between the cracks and we decided that this was an issue that needed to be better addressed,” Zeitoun said.
Based on Merkaz Lemida’s success thus far, both Zana and Zeitoun say that they would like to expand the program to other cities with large French immigrant communities and are hopeful that it will eventually receive support from the government too.
A request for a response from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry was not immediately returned Thursday.