As a group of second graders ran shouting and cheering into the classroom in Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad's Mul Gilad school, Nikolazh Mamashvili stood quietly outside, waiting until everyone had gone in before sitting down.
Nikolazh's first day in an Israeli school was the latest excitement in a tumultuous month for the Mamashvili family - Vazha, 39, Irina, 29, Nikolazh, 8 and David, 3. It started with their flight from the Russian shells near their home in Georgia and continued with immigrating to Israel and settling in Kibbutz Massada in the Jordan Valley.
Daniel Gregeriev, who recently immigrated from Russia, sits at the adjacent desk. Down the hall, in the fourth-grade classroom, Daria Cherovnik wept with excitement in her mother's arms.
These three are among the 15 new immigrants at this Jordan Valley school. They began their first school day with a Hebrew lesson by homeroom teacher Lea Shimoni, in which they colored in the letters spelling their names, writing Hebrew for the first time. Their parents, no less excited, stand beside them.
"Before the big immigration wave from the Soviet Union I was told in secret to prepare for the newcomers," says Shimoni, who has been teaching for 40 years, 18 of them with new immigrants. She also helps them integrate in kibbutz life after school.
"There's nothing like getting up at 2 A.M. to greet a family that has just arrived from Novosibirsk," she says.
Shimoni considers teaching Hebrew as "Zionism. That word is the be all and end all. There is nothing like making these pupils climb the ladder. That is a moving experience for every teacher, especially for those working with new immigrants."
She says the immigrants' "school ethics are very different: they have respect for the teacher, but they quickly adapt to local customs. Still, the message at home is that studies are very important, so immigrant children reach high achievements very quickly."
On Tuesday, Vazha and Irina, together with a large group of immigrants that has recently found a home in Jordan Valley kibbutzim, will be starting their Hebrew studies in the ulpan Hebrew language course. But Monday their attention was focused on Nikolazh's first day in school. "We are as excited as he is, perhaps more so," says Vazha.
"Here in Israel everything seems more open," observes Irina after one hour at school. "In Georgia, school is a lot more formal and there is more pressure from parents and teachers. For example, there they don't call the teacher by her first name. Discipline is much stronger. I think the atmosphere here is better for the child."
"We have a lot of experience in absorbing immigrants," says Principal Gadi Nahum. "In recent years they dwindled but now the numbers are rising to what they were in 1991-1992."
The school works with the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the kibbutz to help the children integrate and feel at home. "We learn everything about them, find out what troubles them," he says.
"Arriving here is a shock and it's important to make them feel they're not alone. Aside from enrolling more students, the school also benefits in terms of a more international student body. The children get to meet friends from other places."
The new immigrants are part of the Bayit Rishon Bamoledet program to absorb immigrant families at kibbutzim, says Shai Shoshani, head of the regional council's absorption department. "In the past five years we've absorbed some 110 new immigrant families. Recently the region has experienced an immigration boom. For us in the periphery it's very significant," he says.
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