Survival tools

Beit Ha'am's new ulpan class is trying to give African refugees the means to escape low-paid jobs.

ulpan 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ulpan 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Why aren't you eating, guys? Are you on a diet?" Ketty Ben-Yaish asks her class on the final day of their Hebrew course. Maybe their hesitation is due to the fact that the students are more concerned with remembering new verbs and vocabulary, or perhaps their palates are not yet accustomed to the finer points of Israeli cuisine - sticky chocolate cake and Bamba. But even if the synthetic snacks at the class party don't get the students inspired, it's smiles all around for Ben-Yaish as she hands out certificates for passing the two-month course. "Well done and good luck!" she says. The Gerard Behar Center on Rehov Bezalel has long been home to a Hebrew ulpan, Beit Ha'am, which caters to students ranging from new Jewish immigrants and priests to Arabs from east Jerusalem. But its latest class, consisting of African refugees, stands out for both the students' personal circumstances and their hunger for knowledge. For the Africans, many of whom fled the bloody conflict in Sudan, learning is not just about education, it is an issue of survival. They, and the Israeli volunteers who work with them, see education as a vital tool for gaining independence in their new country. One of a handful of new educational initiatives for African refugees in Jerusalem, the ulpan aims to help them with the slow process of progressing from washing dishes to becoming more integrated into their new society. "People here don't speak Arabic," says Osman Mohamed, 29, from war-torn Darfur, where the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since 2003. "I want to learn lots of Hebrew, to speak and to write." Mohamed arrived in Israel seven months ago after crossing through Libya and Egypt. He now lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Katamon, which he shares with five other refugees. He hopes that learning Israel's first language will help him advance from his current occupation of cleaning hotel rooms for NIS 10 per room. He complains of low wages and hostility from other workers. In Jerusalem previously reported on the plight of Sudanese refugees living in the city ("Opening a new chapter," May 15, 2008), a phenomenon which many Jerusalemites remain unaware of. The first Sudanese arrived in Jerusalem 18 months ago after stepping off a bus from Tel Aviv to attend a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's Office. They currently number around 70, mostly men in their 20s. Two hundred Eritreans also live in the city. In the absence of a clear government policy or official assistance for African refugees, a small network of local volunteers and charitable associations has formed to fill the void, initially to help with basic needs, such as housing and employment. During meetings with local volunteers last summer, the refugees raised education as their No. 1 issue. Sara Stern and Tali Ehrental took it upon themselves to try to organize language and computer classes and, after being turned down by several of the city's ulpanim, they eventually found a willing partner at Beit Ha'am's Department for Adult Education and its manager, Amnon Aharoni. The Assaf Association, which provides aid to African refugees across Israel, also assists by channeling donations for the classes. "Hebrew is an essential tool for getting around and working. They are living here now, even if they don't know what their future is," says Stern, who has been working with African refugees in Jerusalem for some 18 months. "It allows them to live independently, to get around and feel like they have more control over their lives. It gives them a sense of hope, that they are advancing." Abdallah Ahmad Mosa, a farmer from Darfur, agrees. "Hebrew is so important for us. We're living in the country now, so we need to speak the language. If you want to ask about the bus or for directions, you need Hebrew." The third course began last week, with 45 students learning both Hebrew and English with the help of three certified teachers, in addition to 15 volunteers. Stern and Ehrental are trying to raise funds in order to enable these students to participate and to subsidize the costs because lack of work means that many of the students cannot afford the modest fee of NIS 290. A separate class run by student volunteers takes place at the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram. On the opposite side of Jerusalem the natural light is fading fast, but Tegay Abraham Nagash's face remains illuminated by the bright LCD display from his laptop computer. Sitting on a concrete bench outside the Ir Ganim Community Center in his smart black trousers and shirt, Nagash could easily be mistaken for a businessman rather than a refugee. His leather shoes are almost as shiny as his laptop which, despite being six months old, looks like it is fresh from the shopping mall. "I live alone, I have no television. With all the new technology across the world, you need a computer to learn and to communicate," he explains. Nagash was an electrician in his native Eritrea but now works 14-hour shifts cleaning offices, colleges and sports halls in Jerusalem. "The electricity system is not the same in Israel. I want to learn how it functions and to work in electricity. Maybe it will be hard, but with the help of God I can do it." The NIS 3,500 laptop is a source of obvious pride and a symbol of someone who is determined to make the best of his situation in Israel. But Nagash remains the only African refugee to own a computer; the rest rely on the services of Machshava Tova, which began running weekly computer classes for refugees earlier this year after being approached by Stern and Ehrental. "If you work for 10 hours a day, the course is a light for you. It's a way out of the vicious cycle," explains Daniel Weil, CEO of Machshava Tova, a not-for-profit that works with disadvantaged communities to reduce the technological gaps in Israeli society. "Here they get much more than just computers; it's a social experience and a place to belong. We know each one by name, where they come from and what their needs are," adds the organization's manager, Pnina Samucha. Inside the community center, the faces of Nagash and his friends are glued to the wall-mounted plasma screens. The silver keyboards are printed with the alphabets of three languages: Hebrew and English in yellow, and fluorescent pink Russian script. "It takes me a long time to find the right letters," says 19-year-old Angosem Hagos in rapid-fire Hebrew. Their instructor, Ali, speaks to them in what appears to be their shared mother tongue of Arabic. However, many of his words are lost on the students whose Sudanese Arabic differs from Ali's dialect. Luckily, Israeli volunteers are on hand to help in Hebrew and English as they type an essay about Sudan. "The Internet is very important. I want to read the news and know what is happening," says Ahmad Mosa. "I love Jerusalem. In Tel Aviv I didn't study. Now I have found someone to help me, and I don't want to leave." He still isn't sure what path he wants to take with his new-found skills, but he is determined to persevere with his studies. "The key first of all is learning. After that, I'll decide what to do." For more information about the education program for African refugees and asylum seekers, e-mail or