The summer of '09

Counselors from Israel and abroad give Eritrean children in Tel Aviv an experience they won't forget.

eritrean child 88 248 (photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
eritrean child 88 248
(photo credit: Ronen Goldman)
For most of us, summer camps have made for fond memories. From looking up to counselors who seem to know everything, to bad food and late nights; whether it be through Zionist movements, Jewish youth groups, or synagogue social clubs, affiliated Jews of all different ages and backgrounds from around the world have invariably gained something from a summer camp experience. This camp experience often instills in diaspora youth, as opposed to Israelis, a sense of "culture in diaspora" that they might not get anywhere else, a sense of connection, of being part of something. As a result of these experiences, this summer, a group of youth movement program participants in Israel, youth movement graduates, Israelis and international volunteers have come together to give something back to a community clearly lacking this fierce sense of cultural identity - African refugees living in desperate circumstances in south Tel Aviv. There are 17,000 refugees in Israel, 8,000 of whom are Eritrean, and all of whom are waiting for visa approval. The Eritreans make up the biggest national community among refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, and are fleeing a situation of compulsory, indiscriminate military service for men between the ages of 14 and 45. Army conditions are terrible, with frequent reports of beatings, sexual abuse and torture. A large percentage of them arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors, having left their families to avoid conscription. If they return to Eritrea, they will be charged with absence without leave from the army, punishable by death. On-again, off-again conflict with neighboring Ethiopia as well as a shaky civil situation also add to the current climate in this Horn of Africa country. Nonetheless, there are legal issues concerning the requirements for gaining refugee status, leaving their status here questionable. In fact, refugee status is very seldom granted in Israel, though it is a party to the UN Refugee Convention. In Israel, all Eritreans get a three-month or six-month temporary residency visa, which is constantly renewed, regardless of age or gender. Limited rights are granted by the Interior Ministry to those with pending cases, such as the right to education. Among its many projects aiming to tackle these issues, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) runs a single-parent family shelter in south Tel Aviv, 90 percent of whose residents are Eritrean. All of the children living in the shelter, who have been in Israel from a few months to a few years, are enrolled in and attend the Bialik Rogozin School, and speak or are learning to speak Hebrew and English. Many were held in prisons prior to arriving in Tel Aviv, and have a range of serious behavioral issues ranging from ADHD, aggression, bullying and depression. The single parents are all mothers, with the fathers either having left them, been shot on the way to Israel, often on the Egyptian border, or stayed in Eritrea because of military service. Though these children are in school, albeit often struggling, summer inevitably hits, and the kids hit the streets. Mothers are often forced to leave their children alone if they're offered a day of work, and these five- to 12-year-olds are left at risk to a highly dangerous atmosphere of petty crime and violence. ENTER NIC Schlagman and Dana Beck, under the umbrella of the ARDC, and a project they've called "Kayitz" ("summer" in Hebrew,) based on the realization that they could use their youth movement and volunteer experience to give something to these kids both academically and socially, as well as keep them off the streets. Having spent time teaching English, helping with homework and generally trying to inject some fun into the lives of the children, these two committed activists realized that they could pass on some of their skills to those who could really benefit from it. Schlagman and Beck enlisted the help of a core team of volunteers, both Israeli and international, mostly in their early 20s, either on university holidays or not tied down to full-time jobs. Both Jews and gentiles are involved in the project, though most are Jewish youth with youth movement backgrounds. Beth Exiner, one of the 18-year-old volunteers helping out on the program, told The Jerusalem Post, "It is so exciting for us to pass on our skills to new madrichim [counselors] and to help create a space for these young people to explore their identity and feel proud of the culture they came from. It has been an amazing experience for us... to begin to build the foundations of something similar for the Eritrean community is an honor." But Jews teaching Eritrean kids about their own culture seemed odd. They enlisted some older Eritrean teenagers, refugees who had themselves arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors in recent years and who speak English and Hebrew, to help give something back by helping bolster the refugee community in Tel Aviv. These teenagers have all been involved with ARDC previously, having participated in the soccer and mentoring programs. For Schlagman, summer camp has always been about asking the question, "How do we preserve [our] culture while living in the diaspora?" "Working with this community, we realized the same principles could be applied [here]. The kids and families here are desperate to return home to their country one day, and the parents want the children to remember where they came from," he told The Jerusalem Post. So the camp was planned, aiming to keep the kids off the streets and out of trouble and at the same time provide a "multi-layer educational experience." The volunteers are looking to "create a comfortable community atmosphere," while helping the children to develop both emotionally and academically. As with Zionist youth movements, an important part of the four-week camp is to introduce these troubled youngsters to young adults who can serve as role models for them, such as the 18-year-old Eritreans helping out with the camp. "These are kids who want to make something more of their lives, to eventually move back to Africa," Schlagman said. "They look towards a more hopeful future." THE PLAN is simple, and similar to summer activities for children the world over. Four weeks, three days a week, four hours a day. The money to fund the camp came from an Israeli donor, who after reading through Schlagman and Beck's detailed proposal decided to put up the whole amount requested. The first week of camp, in mid-July, was attended by about 25 enthusiastic kids and held at a South Sudanese community center not far from the shelter where the kids live. It was essentially a "getting-to-know-you" time for the kids to familiarize themselves with the leaders and vice versa, consisting of games, reading, writing, and arts and crafts. Close to no money was spent, and the kids loved it. The children receive a nutritious lunch and snack every day, which doesn't necessarily happen when they're at home. With their mothers working and the limited facilities of the shelter, the children are all too often left to fend for themselves. The coming three weeks will be split up into three different themes, based on regions deemed critical to the refugees' education: Africa, the US, and the far-East. Africa because it's where they come from; the US because it's so crucial a part of the culture both in Africa and here in Israel, with which the kids are often fascinated; and Asia because it's so foreign to them. Specialist educators have been invited to run sessions each week, such as a drumming workshop for Africa week, a movie-making lesson for the US, and a yoga workshop in the final week. One day each week will be dedicated to a tiyul, such as a trip to Ramat Gan's Safari Park, to broaden the experience. Storytelling, mask making, and a sushi workshop will also be thrown into the mix, all using the informal education model. Instead of sitting the children in front of a teacher at desks, or giving them worksheets, the counselors plan and run dynamic, interactive and innovative programs. When the summer camp is over, Schlagman said, the hope is to launch regular youth activities for the Eritrean children, to hand the project over to the refugee community.