Inside the Struggle to Help African Asylum Seekers in Israel Obtain Higher Education

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Asylum seekers taking notes during a lesson at The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv, September 2019.
Asylum seekers taking notes during a lesson at The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv, September 2019.Credit: Madeleine Brezger
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

Some 33,000 asylum seekers from African countries reside in Israel, shows data gathered by the Population and Immigration Authority in December 2018. Ninety-two percent of them, the figures indicate, come from Eritrea and Sudan.

From the first wave of migrants' arrival in 2006 until the present day, African refugees have been forced to struggle against Israel’s anti-immigration policy, which has inspired several attempts to deport them to their countries of origin and incarcerate them in detention facilities.

Lacking legal status in Israel, most of them focus on daily efforts to survive and have set aside their aspiration to pursue higher education. The Israeli government doesn’t provide educational opportunities for adult asylum seekers, leaving it to two key organizations to take up the mantle.

As World Literacy Day is celebrated across the globe, Haaretz spoke to these nonprofits and the migrants who fill up their classrooms to understand how schooling is acquired under difficult conditions and the constant fear of deportation.

‘We want education’

One of the key challenges in teaching asylum seekers is their lack of familiarity with basic skill sets that the average person usually acquires in Western educational systems, explains Sara Stern, founder of The Schoolhouse, a school for adult asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.

Zohar Friedman, the director of The Schoolhouse, in conversation with one of the students, September 2019.Credit: Shannon Christine

“Filling charts, being able to fill a form, write on the line or to understand what the subject line is in an email, very basic things. These are patterns of thinking that we all learned in school,” but which most migrants lack, Stern says.

She opened The Schoolhouse, based at the Minshar School of Art in south Tel Aviv, in 2012 after volunteering with the first wave of asylum seekers who escaped to Israel. “I kept on hearing from all of them: ‘We want education,’” she says. “Sometimes I felt like I was the only one hearing it, because there are so many basic survival elements that seemed to override it.”

Since then, The Schoolhouse has expanded and offers students computer literacy classes, Hebrew classes, six levels of English classes and a class to study for a GED diploma — a high school equivalency standard used in the United States. The pedagogical staff places a strong emphasis on functional, everyday literacy skills, adapting the lessons to the needs of all students — including the 25 percent who have never been to school before, or have five years or less of formal schooling.

A teacher instructs students during a GED class at The Schoolhouse in Tel Aviv, September 2019.Credit: Madeleine Brezger

Abdasslam (asylum seekers’ names have been changed to protect their identity), who came to Israel from Darfur, Sudan, in 2011, is one of the students without an educational background. He joined the GED class in December 2018. He heard about the school while he was at the Holot detention facility, and decided to enroll. “Studying in the GED class is hard because I didn’t go to high school in Sudan,” Abdasslam, 27, admits, “but I try hard. I enjoy the help of our teachers, who inspire us.”

After he gets his GED diploma, Abdasslam says he would like to try to go on to law school: “My dream is to become a lawyer. I want to help other people struggling in Sudan.

“My ultimate goal,” he says, “is to go back home. But the change I want to see there hasn’t happened yet. My nation has not yet recovered.”

Deportation purges and the opening of detention centers like Holot and Saharonim have made it difficult to continue the study routine, but Stern says that even during more taxing periods, the students still show up to class in the evenings after long workdays.

A real success story

Daniel, the first asylum seeker in Israel to get his GED diploma, September 2019.Credit: Jonathan Small

So far, only one African asylum seeker has obtained a GED certificate after studying in Israel. Daniel, 24, came to Israel from Eritrea in 2011. He says he decided to escape from his homeland to avoid the mandatory, lifelong military service. He fled to Ethiopia, from there moved onto Sudan and eventually found himself in the Sinai Desert.

Recounting his memories of suffering in the weeks he spent there, Daniel says: “It’s a very difficult situation in Sinai. Even if you are young, it’s a terrible situation. You survive, you get food rations once a day. You can get caught, you can get tortured. It’s scary. It stays with you. It could destroy you. But I was young so I had this positivity, I tried to think positively.”

This life-affirming outlook helped Daniel keep his head high later, when he managed to cross the border from Egypt into Israel but was detained and sent to Holot in 2015. It was there, during his year-long incarceration, that he started thinking about his next move, and decided that he wanted to pursue a formal education.

Daniel joined the GED program at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv in 2017, and passed his exams two years later. The center, which was established in 2004 as a grassroots organization and has since aided 14,000 refugees, was founded together by Israelis and asylum seekers.

Leah Hecht, the education program manager at ARDC, says that Daniel’s feat “has inspired many more people from the community to approach us and enroll in our GED courses. One success story has a huge impact in the community.”

Asylum seekers studying coding at ARDC.Credit: Courtesy of ARDC

Today, he is in the process of applying for a bachelor’s degree in business entrepreneurship. “My dream is to help myself be on my own. I don’t want to be dependent on others,” he says. Daniel still longs for Eritrea, where he left behind his parents and siblings: “It’s inevitable for me to think and dream about Eritrea. I miss my country, but I am also angry at what is happening there.”

While Daniel’s is an encouraging story of triumph, Hecht warns that the path to academic fulfillment for others like him is full of hurdles posed by the “changing, harsh policies” of the Israeli government. One such restrictive move is the Deposit Law, which came into force in 2017 and obligates employers of asylum seekers to deduct 20 percent of their salaries and deposit the money in an account they will have access to only after they leave Israel.

Hecht says that “it definitely makes the atmosphere for learning much more challenging, because it can break hope in people.”

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