The children of the Sudanese refugees living in Eilat were astonished to learn last week that this year, too, they will be studying outside the city, in separate classes for Sudanese children only. Their classrooms were built last year in the Ayalot vacation village near Eilat, located within the jurisdiction of the Ayalot regional council. When the parents, most of whom work in Eilat hotels, complained, they were told that this was a temporary arrangement, for one year only, which would allow the children to study Hebrew ahead of enrolling in the Israeli school system. Whereas those children who live in Ayalot will be studying in the regional school, the refugee kids from Eilat will continue to study in classes for Sudanese only.
"I don't believe that what you're saying is true," said A., a 12-year-old boy who lives in Eilat. "How can it be that my friends will go to a real school and I won't? I've already learned Hebrew and I know a little English. I want to study in a school and take exams, like the Israelis."
For several refugee children this is a situation of ongoing discrimination, since they did not study in an orderly fashion during the years when they wandered with their families from one refugee camp to another in Sudan. In Egypt they also had trouble being accepted into regular schools. Some of them studied in United Nations frameworks for Sudanese only, held during the summer months, while some did not study at all. Some of the kids aged between 12 to 15 only last year learned how to read and write in their own language (Arabic).
Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi doesn't believe this arrangement is problematic. The problem, he says, begins with the government, "which is the sovereign and must decide what to do with the infiltrators. These are not refugees from Darfur, but infiltrators from Africa. Unfortunately there is no established policy. According to Immigration Police data, there are some 2,200 infiltrators in Eilat, a city with some 50,000 inhabitants. I told myself, 'It's unacceptable not to have monitoring mechanisms: how many will be coming, where they will live, where they will work.'"
Meanwhile there are children that are not being absorbed into schools.
Yitzhak Halevi: "That's not true. I abide by the law - no child will remain without an educational framework. We have a division of labor with Ayalot, a neighboring regional council that has also become home to infiltrators. The children of kindergarten-age study here in Eilat whereas the older ones study there. We decided, together with the Education Ministry, that until their situation is clarified they will receive educational services in their own independent framework, with special teachers."
Their situation is quite obvious. They're Sudanese, they can't go back.
"I, as a mayor, want to know the exact size of this population, which, in my opinion, is here illegally. Foreign workers are brought here in an orderly and legal manner, we know how many there are and where they work, and there is a country to which they can return or be returned to. I want the existing situation to be defined, for someone to come and say, Eilat is absorbing 500 refugees at the moment. Then we'll sit down with the representatives of all the ministries and I'll be happy to provide the necessary services."
And as long as that is not done, having a separate school for the Sudanese is a solution?
"It's not a solution, it's a statement. A statement that I'm not willing to have permanent arrangements here for a population that lacks a permanent solution. The kindergartens are separate, too, they are not integrated into the municipal kindergartens. Everything is temporary and unclear. If a foreign worker loses his job, he can take his family and return to his home country. A Sudanese worker, by contrast, whom the hotel decides to lay off, becomes a resident with unclear status and I am forced to contend with yet another social welfare case.
"Eilat is a very volatile city. Twenty-one percent of the population are single-parent families, about 17 percent are defined as non-Jews, and now there are another 2,200 African infiltrators. In my capacity as mayor, I think there have to be restrictions. I don't believe we can do these things on our own. In every properly-run country penetrated by infiltrators something has to be done. And that is why, until a decision is made on their status, we declared, in conjunction with the Education Ministry, that since we don't know what will happen with them, they'll study at their own school for now."
If asked, will you open the city schools to them?
"I am law-abiding and will honor any decision on the matter. At the same time I will demand that a decision be made to solve the problem of the infiltrators. The city of Eilat is fortifying itself and the demographic consequences are lethal. There are entire compounds where people walk around at all hours of the day - it's like a refugee camp. There are neighborhoods where people don't want to live because they are afraid. There are homeless people among the refugee population, who sleep on the boardwalk. A neighbor tells me that every morning at the workers' bazaar [a place where people gather in the hopes of being offered work], they sit on the grass and defecate, if you'll excuse my language. There are African houses of worship, there are African pubs and serious incidents of violence. If we decide to absorb them, perhaps we'll also teach them manners. But for the time being I will not play into the hands of those who don't make decisions and devolve the issue on the city of Eilat."
They work in the hotels, don't they?
"The hotels take care of those whom they employ."
And yet their children will travel to study at a separate school outside the city.
"Everything I've said stems from a concern for the children. That includes the children of Eilat, who live here. I have said clearly and unequivocally: Until there is a permanent arrangement, I consider this is a temporary population. We may find ourselves tomorrow with 30 percent of all children being those of infiltrators, and I don't have the tools to handle such a reality. I am already facing a shortage of teachers. The Education Ministry has no solutions either. The reality here is one of insane irresponsibility. We have to consider the city's residents, too, who are generally satisfied with the way the city is run [as 84 percent attested to in a recent survey]. And let's not forget about the tourists either. Let them decide on the number of refugees we will absorb. As for the rest? I don't know. Let the government decide to divide them among another 30 local councils."
You don't have a problem with discrimination in education?
"As a father and an educator it's a difficult decision for me. Unfortunately, they have pushed me into this corner, forced me to make such a decision, which will upset the system."
At the expense of the children?
"It's also at the expense of our own children. I have to take care of them, too."
The law and international conventions oblige Israel to provide all the children in its jurisdiction, regardless of their legal situation, with an education equal to that of local children. Surprisingly, the Education Ministry does not consider the arrangement of the Eilat municipality problematic. "The Darfur children's right to an education is being realized by the ministry in accordance with the director general's instructions," the ministry states in a reply. It further explains that, "The frameworks and the curricula are adapted to the childrens' needs and to their unique conditions, including frequent shifts in the students population, lack of knowledge of the language and difficulty with basic educational skills such as reading and writing in any language. The ministry made sure to bring in suitable teachers, provided all the relevant resources and supervises the frameworks."
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