Reaching Israel's Refugees, One English Class at a Time

With a roving program of language classes called The Schoolhouse, Sara Stern is giving Israel's asylum seekers the ultimate gift: The ability to read and write English.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

It’s a windy, rainy night in Tel Aviv and half a dozen Sudanese asylum seekers in wool hats and winter coats are huddled together around a table, reading out loud a New York Times article about gun control in the U.S. Yael Rahani, their Ukrainian-born English teacher, in tight jeans and shiny silver nail polish, is correcting their pronunciation in heavily accented English of her own while scattering encouragement in all directions.

In the corner, observing the scene from the sidelines, doing some administrative work, and nodding friendly encouragement from time to time, is a young-looking, pretty 36-year-old named Sara Stern, founder of this curious ad hoc little schoolhouse.

There was precious little in Stern’s upbringing that screamed “go forth and help refugees!” Born in New York City into a modern religious Zionist family, Stern’s parents – her father is a pediatrician and her mother is a teacher – moved their seven kids to Israel when she was 12. “Very” right-wing, as she describes it, the family settled in Efrat, a large West Bank settlement some eight miles south of Jerusalem.

It’s true, Stern will admit, trying to skim over her personal background and focus the interview on the importance of education for refugees - not everyone back in Efrat really “gets” what she is doing with the dark-skinned, Muslim, Arabic speakers she works with daily.

“Why? Don’t we have enough of our own to help?” is a common refrain she says she gets from her home community. According to Stern, people in Efrat tend to view asylum seekers – mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, close to 60,000 of whom have entered Israel illegally in recent years – more as a demographic and economic problem for the Jewish state than as individuals needing help.

The raised eyebrows don’t faze her much. Stern’s path, since leaving home, finishing national service, during which she worked with children with cancer, and graduating from Bar-Ilan University with a B.A. in special education, has been nothing if not an independent one. It comes complete with months spent in Senegal, a stint living in an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, and a marriage to a Yemenite musician who specialized in West African music.

But still, while her curiosity has taken her far from home and left her with political leanings veering left of most of her family and old friends, Stern’s passion for doing something for the asylum seekers in Israel, she says, has little to do with politics and everything to do with the heart.

“Humanitarian views in this country have become tied to leftist views. But for me, it really does not have to do with left or right. I still stand by the right of Jews, who were persecuted for so many years, to live and rule themselves in a homeland that has borders and which can protect them,” she says. The fact that the asylum seekers are not Jewish is an “issue,” she allows. “But – and maybe I am naive – I don’t see how this perspective collides with helping the people who are here,” she says.

“These people crossed the desert to come here, and are knocking on our door, with nothing in hand, to ask for asylum. This touches me, and I feel it's my obligation to help out."

Stern knows what it is like to be a newcomer.

“I know what it feels like to be a stranger coming to a new country, who wants to fit in,” says Stern. She had it easy, as she knows. She had gone to Jewish school in New York where she had studied Hebrew, and had arrived in Israel at a young age, with her whole family as support, to a warm welcome from the government. She also received immediate citizenship. “And nonetheless, it was difficult,” she says. “Imagine how impossibly hard it must be for these people.”

Stern’s involvement with asylum seekers began back in 2007. She was living in Jerusalem at the time, and after hearing on the radio about the influx of Africans streaming across the Egyptian border, she reached out to do some volunteer work. She started with collecting clothes, and then turned to assisting with housing, documentation and other bureaucracy. Finally, she began teaching English – something the asylum seekers themselves repeatedly told her they were interested in, she says.

“There is such an array of people here – from those who are not even literate in their own languages to those who have fled their countries in the middle of university. But I found that many of them, in common, were searching for a way to advance themselves.” Stern found that English, in particular, was much in demand, as it’s a skill that remains relevant and helpful, whether the refugees stay in Israel, go back to their own countries, or end up in a different country all together.

Later, working for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Stern did research on adult education for the asylum seekers in Israel, and language classes in particular. What she found was that, with the exception of some classes and training at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv and a few volunteer-based programs, there was woefully little out there specifically for the community.

And so The Schoolhouse was born. When Stern began her project, a little over a year ago, she had one class on offer: basic English. Today, the program has about 70 students per semester, and offers three levels of English, as well as an academic guidance course helping students navigate the educational landscape in Israel.

The school is a roving one. Classes take place on different nights of the week in three different locations, thanks to NGOs who donate their offices as evening classrooms, and it has become something of a small community. Students, who typically hear about the program through word of mouth or Facebook come back semester after semester and bring friends, and teachers and volunteers put in extra hours, organizing holiday parties or free lectures.

Students pay 280 NIS per semester to attend twice-weekly evening classes. The tuition goes toward hiring professional English teachers – something, Stern explains, that allows the program to demand a level of commitment from the teachers which would be harder to achieve with volunteers.

Also, asking the refugees, who are not making much money, and who typically are also trying to save up and send funds home, to pay for classes means that those students who do sign up are dedicated.

“When I arrived in Israel I did not speak any English at all,” says Harun Khamis, from the Darfur region of Sudan, who has been in Israel for 10 months and will start Level Two English at the Schoolhouse this coming semester. Khamis, 25, who works at a fruit and vegetable stall near the central bus station, never finished high school in his hometown of Geneina, but he is a fast learner.

“I don’t know where I am headed,” he says. "But if I can read and write in English I might have a better chance in doing something in this world.”

Sara Stern teaching refugees English.Credit: Moti Milrod
A Sara Stern, a Jewish Israeli teaches english to African refugees.Credit: Moti Milrod

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