Eritrean Asylum Seeker Joins Israeli First Grade Class in Tel Aviv School

Learning to write Hebrew with the first graders at Kehila - the Democratic School in south Tel Aviv is the school janitor.

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An ordinary Hebrew lesson in the first grade at Kehila - the Democratic School, in south Tel Aviv: On the board are pictures of a butterfly, Sponge Bob, a roll and more. The kids are excited about picking out the object that begin with the Hebrew letter lamed and circling the roll, lahmaniya. A huge dispute erupts over the right to erase the board, which for some reason the children love to do more than anything else. But one thing about this class is unusual: Sitting among the first-graders, in the first row, with an orange notebook, is the school janitor, Angosom Solomon, 28.

He is an asylum seeker who fled the harsh military dictatorship in Eritrea. He had been nurse a on a military base there, but after a year in the army he fled, first to Ethiopia and later to Israel. He fell into the cleaning job at the school two and a half years ago; his partner on the cleaning crew is a new immigrant from Bolivia.

The teacher, Linoy Ogen, 23, befriended Solomon while doing lesson plans after school. He asked her what she taught and when he found out it was Hebrew, he told her that it was his dream to learn the language. After a few ad hoc sessions, she realized she had no more time to spare. “We asked others what should be done, and the idea came up for him to join the class,” she said.

“I wrote a letter to the parents and I felt a need to defend the fact that I’m even suggesting this, because in other schools I worked at, parents and students were suspicious of refugees. I was afraid that some of the parents would criticize me. But their responses were amazing and when I wrote about it on my Facebook page I got a lot of likes and support, which cannot be taken for granted,” Ogen said.

The class sees Solomon as one of their own. One day he was scolded by one of the children for arriving five minutes late.

“When the kids have to shout out which letter is missing from a word, he shouts it out with the rest of the class,” Ogen adds.

Solomon’s presence in the class conveys a message to the children – janitors are not transparent. “Once I heard one student say to another, as a group of students were talking, ‘Did you know Angosom is a cleaner?’ Then one of the children noticed that the classroom was a mess and they didn’t want to leave it like that so they all cleaned up. Angosom asked me whether I had cleaned, and I told him the children had done it in his honor,” Ogen said.

“Beyond the fact that the kids learn that there are other cultures and different people, it’s important for them to know that someone cleans up after them when they drop their sandwich, it doesn’t disappear on its own,” says the school’s administrative director, Niv Marinov.

In one of the lessons, Solomon became the teacher, teaching the children Tigryna, a Semitic language spoken in Eritrea. The kids chose words like cat, sun and garbage can, and he translated them.

“The first time it was a little off-putting, Inbar Avraham, 6 and sporting a pink flower clip in her hair, said. “Linoy said we were going to have a new guest called Angosom, but later I understood that I shouldn’t be afraid of him ... After that I got used to him, I sat next to him and peeked at his notebook and I saw that he writes straighter letters than I do,” Inbar said.

Kehila has a good track record with asylum seekers. About a year ago, during a storm, parents voted to allow asylum seekers from Levinsky Park to spend the weekend at the school, until the weather improved. The vote was preceded by a discussion, with most parents supporting the idea although a few raised concerns about the potential for transmitting diseases. Marinov said the proposal passed by a landslide.

Solomon, who lives with two friends in a one-and-a-half-room apartment on Chlenov Street, is unpretentious about his reasons for wanting to learn Hebrew: “If I don’t know Hebrew, I’m ignorant. Knowing Hebrew is good for me; that way I can find my way around the city without asking directions all the time. Meanwhile, I only know half of the alphabet,” he said.

Angosom Solomon with his classmates in the Kehila Democratic School.Credit: Moti Milrod

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